By Jeremy Fowler | College Football Insider
DaVaris Daniels had his head down while stretching on the Soldier Field grass in the hours before Notre Dame’s game against Miami in early October. He lifted his head and found coach Brian Kelly’s foot in front of his face mask. A smiling Kelly gently pushed his foot toward his face just enough to make light contact, to get a reaction. “It was a playful thing. He was trying to get me to relax before playing at home,” said Daniels, who’s from nearby Vernon Hills, Ill.
This is one example of how a hard-edged Kelly embraced the player’s coach identity after two years of tough love, how the trust of a veteran team got him to this point. Several players have said he often tries to address the team in practice with corny one-liners from a different generation that they don’t always get. Kelly’s lighter tone is also one of several ingredients in a recipe of so-called “Fighting Irish destiny” — the spiritual leader in Manti Te’o, the overtime wins, the restored Notre Dame relevance, the close-knit offensive line, the timely turnovers on defense. Everything went Notre Dame’s way. But then there’s this: By most accounts, Alabama has more talent. Will Irish destiny beat out Crimson pedigree?
Recruiting rankings can be hit or miss, but it’s noteworthy that Alabama has held Rivals.com’s top class in four of the last five years. Notre Dame has one finish inside the top 10 during that span, a No. 2 spot in 2008. Make no mistake — Notre Dame has plenty of blue-chip talent. Te’o, defensive end Stephon Tuitt and center Braxston Cave were ranked in the top four at their positions coming out of high school, and plenty of others are highly ranked. But Alabama’s five-star resume is pretty insane. Alabama would never go to triple overtime against Pitt, Alabama supporters say. Notre Dame actually ranks first in the 2013 class, with Alabama at No. 2, which could foreshadow a rematch in coming years. But that’s for another day.
Kelly, who doesn’t believe in destiny or Irish luck, prefers the simplistic approach. If Notre Dame plays liberated football, takes a few calculated risks on offense early and gets the game to the fourth quarter, Kelly likes his chances. “This is one of those games where you have to be aggressive,” Kelly said. “And you’re going to make a mistake. I’m not talking about [making] catastrophic mistakes. As long as you know as you’re playing hard and aggressive, that’s the kind of mentality [we want].” Notre Dame is in a good spot because, after playing five games decided by seven points or fewer, it won’t be overwhelmed by the big moment. Its quarterback has been benched twice yet still improved late in the year. If Notre Dame loses, well, not many expected it to win, anyway.The way Kelly sees it, the Irish got this far with gritty play and that shouldn’t change. “You get what you deserve,” Kelly said. “To win those close games vs. losing those close games, you have to have more than just luck. You have to have will, determination. You have to have confidence.”