ACC: Brian Kelly

Florida StateRob Kinnan/USA Today SportsUnder the old BCS system, 13-0 Florida State would likely have been No. 1 heading to the postseason.
Win after win this season, Jimbo Fisher was defiant, grounding his defense of his program's résumé in facts -- not, as he'd often analogize, in figure skating.

The decision on Florida State's playoff berth was made Saturday, Fisher declared upon winning another ACC title. This was no beauty contest, there were no style points. The Seminoles were 13-0, the lone unbeaten team. They were the defending national champs, and their slide from the top of the rankings would grind to a halt, at least according to their coach.

Then came Sunday, and the Noles were ranked third, and their repeat run was extended (at least) a few more weeks by the selection committee, and none of the other chatter surrounding their legitimacy seemed to matter.

"I don't get into all that," Fisher said when asked if FSU should be No. 1. "Whether you're in and whether you're 1 or 3 or 4 or 2, whatever it may be, you're going to play a great team."

Fisher can breathe easy and say that now in the era of the College Football Playoff. That his team will travel 2,000-plus miles to the Rose Bowl for its first playoff game does not matter to him so much as the fact that his team, at the end of the day, is in the tournament.

Still, there was all that late-season politicking. From an undefeated coach from a Power-5 conference. The only undefeated coach.

And his team only checked in at No. 3.

If it takes all that for a brand-name program riding a 29-game winning streak to crack the field, how does the future bode for other perfect teams in this system? Moreover, is FSU lucky that its supposed underwhelming 13-0 mark -- as underwhelming as a 13-0 mark that featured 12 Power-5 opponents can be -- came in the first year in which four teams are playing for the title instead of two? The latter is unlikely. By most measures, FSU would have probably been No. 1 this year had the BCS formula been in play.

Should that come as a sigh of relief for other programs that have been in the Noles' shoes before? Or should those programs look at what happened this season and thank the football gods that their perfect seasons came during the time period that they did?

At the heart of the matter is the simple question of whether winning games is no longer enough to control one's championship destiny.

"Winning's too hard in college football not to be evaluated on a full body of work," Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said, adding, "When you win 12 games and you go undefeated, no matter how you do it, you cannot overlook that kind of work. So I would be hopeful in saying this because I can't speak for others, but I know how I feel. It's too hard to win in college football, and to leave somebody out that's undefeated would go against the reason why we compete for only 12 or 13 weeks a year."

Kelly speaks from the experience of coaching a 12-0 team two years ago. As the lone unbeaten team, the Irish were a given as the regular season's No. 1, regardless of the fact they entered the national title game as double-digit underdogs, a forecast that proved prescient when No. 2 Alabama routed them. Kelly's last team at his previous stop, Cincinnati, also ran the regular-season table, ranking third behind two fellow unbeatens.

Knowing what it takes to win every week -- and perhaps helping his own team, which lost in Tallahassee this season -- Kelly voted FSU No. 1 in his final coaches poll ballot. He had company: Cincinnati's Tommy Tuberville, UConn's Bob Diaco and Memphis' Justin Fuente had the Noles atop their ballots as well. All three coaches have been part of perfect campaigns before — Tuberville at Auburn, and Diaco and Fuente as assistants at Notre Dame and TCU, respectively.

That was not exactly the norm, though. LSU's Les Miles and Alabama's Nick Saban both had FSU third. Joining them were two coaches who know what it's like to be on the outside looking in despite undefeated seasons: TCU's Gary Patterson ranked FSU fourth, and Washington's Chris Petersen, formerly of Boise State, ranked the Noles third.

Looking out for your conference brethren is one thing -- though Patterson didn't even do that, voting his team third behind Alabama and Oregon -- but what explains the gap between between No. 1 and FSU? Has the new way of thinking already permeated the voters?

"In the old system, we know we needed to be undefeated," said Boise State head coach Bryan Harsin, who was an assistant on two undefeated Broncos teams that did not play for the title. "The way it is now, that’s not the case and here we are."

Harsin is referring to Boise State's spot in the VIZIO Fiesta Bowl despite two losses. But his reasoning may help explain the current way of doing business at the top of college football.

"I think as far as we’re concerned, the years of winning and what we’ve done in the past does help us in the position we’re in now," he said. "We can use an Alabama as an example. One-loss Alabama over undefeated Florida State. Florida State’s undefeated but Alabama’s ranked ahead. Why? Because it’s Alabama."

On Sunday, with his postseason fate settled, Fisher sounded at ease. He talked about everyone learning the new process at once. He reasoned that criteria would become clearer and more consistent with time.

What had to seem like a charade these last seven weeks proved strenuous. The ensuing defense routine was fatiguing. FSU was on to play Oregon, and maybe play beyond that, and that was all that seemed relevant moving forward.

"I just think winning is so hard and when you repeat things, people are going to prepare for you differently," he said. "They're going to prepare for you in the offseason, and to overcome so much adversity and the things we've overcome defending our championship and still being able to go undefeated, I think is a tremendous feat."

So, too, does the committee. At least in this case.

Kelly, Irish push through rare slump

November, 20, 2014
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SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Brian Kelly will coach his 63rd game at Notre Dame on Saturday, which is remarkable for the simple fact that the three men in his chair before him never made it this far.

Not Charlie Weis (62 games). Not Tyrone Willingham (36). Not Bob Davie (60).

No, the last time a Fighting Irish coach took the field for Game 63 of his tenure came Sept. 21, 1991, when Lou Holtz's squad rolled over Michigan State, 49-10. So much has changed since then. And yet so little has changed, too.

[+] EnlargeBrian Kelly
Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY SportsAfter some recent struggles, Brian Kelly's Irish look to finish the season strong.
 A win this weekend over Louisville would make Kelly the first Notre Dame coach to start his tenure with five straight seasons of eight-plus wins. No Irish coach has done that during any five-year stretch since 1987-93, a run that saw Holtz coach the program to its last national title.

Notre Dame will go yet another season without a title in 2014, a drought that now stretches 26 years, and a goal that probably looked like a distant dream this past weekend as the Irish fell to Northwestern for loss No. 3 on the year.

Of course, as recently as two weeks ago, before losing at Arizona State, the Irish were right in the thick of things. A month ago they looked ready to break through that title ceiling, unbeaten as they took defending champion Florida State down to the final seconds in a loss.

Reconciling the fall from grace has been a maddening task for the Irish as they enter Senior Day against the Cardinals.

"I think college football is such that it comes down to a couple of plays and a fine line," Kelly said. "And that's why it's so critical that when you turn the ball over like we do, and when we turn it over, it's critical. I mean it's catastrophic turnovers."

Of course, the frustration that comes with a three-loss season is a far cry from what those seniors experienced upon entering Notre Dame at the ground level of the Kelly era.

"I think definitely from freshman year to now, we definitely turned the program around," said offensive tackle Christian Lombard, who, like Kelly arrived to the Irish for the 2010 season. "It's a winning program now, and we expect to win every game. We expect to win every game at home, we expect to be right there with teams, it's just the way it is around here now. It's one of those institutions [like] it was back in the day, so we're all really proud of that."

Added end Justin Utupo, a fellow redshirt senior: "We're obviously the first class that was brought in and [the coaches] looked at us to help build what they were trying -- this winning culture. I was here from the start. I've seen when we were bad. I've seen when we were really good."

Holtz said Kelly has been able to implement such expectations because of his vision and because of his plan to execute that vision. It comes from the benefit of being a head coach at three other stops beforehand, a luxury Holtz was afforded as well, having been in the big seat at five different college and pro stops before taking the Notre Dame job.

Kelly's last three coordinators at Notre Dame earned head-coaching jobs elsewhere. Last year's Irish team had eight players drafted, the program's most in a single draft in 20 years. That the Irish started 6-0 without them -- and without four players lost to academic suspensions two weeks before the season -- speaks to what is in place. That three losses in their past four games has sparked a world-is-ending feeling around the fanbase speaks to the climb left to be done.

 "He's got a young football team this year," Holtz said of Kelly. "And I think next year may be his best football team."

Depending on one's preferred math, the Irish could be returning 20 starters in 2015. And that does not include the potential return of several of their currently suspended players.

That could make this final stretch all the more important for the near-term future of a program that is toeing the line between a 7-6 and a 10-3 campaign this year, a program soon-to-be filled with a new cast of characters that had little part of that 12-1 run to the national title game two years ago.

"They understand that there are some tough times," Kelly said. "But, relatively speaking, I remind them of some tough times, that we were here just a few years ago, when we were 4-5. Those are tough times. Those are difficult times. This pales in comparison. You're now in a winning environment. And you've won a lot of football games. Our seniors win on Saturday, that would be 182 in the last 20 games at home. So keep it in perspective."

Holtz, who lasted 132 games on the Notre Dame sideline, is doing just that when it comes to the man currently in charge.

"I hope Brian Kelly reaches the next 63," he said.
Louisville's first go-round in ACC play is over, but the Cardinals do get to experience one last perk of ACC life this Saturday when they travel to Notre Dame. Andrea Adelson and Matt Fortuna weigh in with their thoughts on why each team can win.

Adelson says Louisville: Louisville is a few plays away from a few more victories this season, so it's easy to see why the Cards have a chance to go into Notre Dame Stadium and win Saturday.

For starters, the Irish aren't an immovable force. Not only have they dropped two straight, they nearly lost to Navy and North Carolina. Louisville is better than both of those teams, and better than Northwestern, too, the team that just beat Notre Dame in overtime.

[+] EnlargeLouisville's DeVante Parker
Joe Robbins/Getty Images)DeVante Parker's return has given the Louisville offense an extra dimension.
But rather than simply state that Notre Dame is down, there are a few matchups that point to Louisville as well. Even though the Cards are starting freshman quarterback Reggie Bonnafon, he has plenty of game experience and will not be rattled. The best news for him? Having running back Michael Dyer and receiver DeVante Parker on his side.

Notre Dame has had some issues stopping the run this season and has allowed a 100-yard rusher in four of its last five games. Dyer ran for more than 100 yards in his first two games back from injury and gave the Florida State defense fits, scoring three touchdowns in a game the Cards lost in the fourth quarter.

Parker, meanwhile, has been virtually unstoppable in his three games since returning from a broken foot. He has been as dynamic as anticipated, with 25 catches for 490 yards -- an average of 19.6 yards per catch. Arizona State has a similar running back-receiver threat in D.J. Foster and Jaelen Strong, and the Sun Devils beat the Irish thanks to them -- and, maybe more importantly, an opportunistic, aggressive defense.

Do you know what Louisville has? An opportunistic, aggressive defense. Notre Dame quarterback Everett Golson had five turnovers in the Arizona State game. In his last seven games, he has 19 total turnovers. That's not really the way to succeed against any team, let alone one that has forced 25 turnovers on the season, ranking No. 10 in the nation.

Of those turnovers gained by Louisville, safety Gerod Holliman has 13 interceptions -- just one away from tying the NCAA single-season mark. Golson has thrown 12 interceptions, so there is a pretty good chance Holliman will tie the record Saturday. As for the Louisville defense as a whole, coordinator Todd Grantham is not shy about blitzing and getting after the quarterback.

Louisville has 33 sacks this season. Going back to that Arizona State-Notre Dame game once again, the Sun Devils racked up seven sacks. Six of them came off the blitz, along with all five turnovers.

Here is one more stat that favors the Cardinals. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Louisville is allowing the lowest opponent Total QBR (16.3) in FBS; Golson is responsible for 73 percent of Notre Dame’s yards this season, the highest percentage of any Power 5 quarterback.

The plan for Louisville to win seems simple enough: get the ball into the hands of Dyer and Parker and have the defense put heavy pressure on Golson.

Fortuna says Notre Dame: If anyone can relate to the "few plays away from a few more victories" sentiment, it is Notre Dame. The Irish were a play away from dealing Florida State its first loss in two seasons and could have closed out Northwestern on any number of different instances this past Saturday. But that is neither here nor there.

For all of Notre Dame's recent troubles, this is still a dynamic offense, one that averages better than 35 points per game. Its miscues have been self-inflicted. Yes, Golson has been responsible for seven turnovers in his last two games -- and this may sound like faint praise here -- but two of the Irish's four turnovers against Northwestern came on fumbles from the unlikeliest sources at the worst possible time. How often does a receiver (Chris Brown) fumble into the end zone with a chance to put the game away in the fourth quarter? How often does a senior captain (Cam McDaniel) fumble while trying to run out the clock?

And to take that one step further, how simple do the Irish's problems look right now if they have a functional holder in front of senior kicker Kyle Brindza, a problem that has come out of nowhere and complicated so much more for this team?

Of course, no one wants to hear excuses or what-ifs. But as Irish coach Brian Kelly said this week, Notre Dame at least knows what its problems are. It has a young defense that has been put in unfavorable positions time and time again by an offense that keeps tripping over itself. And the offense would have such an easier time keeping defenses off balance if it could establish a reliable running game, something FSU showed is entirely possible against this Louisville defense (173 yards, three TDs). It's not like the Cardinals' offense has been running defenses off the field. Yes, it looks different with the dynamic Parker split wide once again, and yes, Bonnafon may have plenty of experience, but a freshman quarterback walking into Notre Dame Stadium and pulling out a Senior Day win is no small task. The Louisville offense is still putting up less than 400 yards per game, a number that it will have a hard time topping in what should be another brutal day weather-wise in South Bend.

Joe Schmidt isn't walking through that door for Notre Dame's defense. Other injured guys might not, either. Still, we have seen this unit survive uneven performances before when its offense is clicking, most notably in a 50-43 win over UNC last month.

This game is, in many ways, a moment of truth for the Irish. Will they completely collapse after dropping two in a row and three of their last four? Or will they look like the team that was in the College Football Playoff hunt as recently as two weeks ago? The fact that they are capable of looking like the latter is what should scare Louisville -- along with the fact that Golson was in the Heisman mix during that hot start. It should be an emotionally charged afternoon for a group of seniors who helped usher in the return of this program. And Notre Dame at its best this season has looked better than Louisville at its best. The Irish just need to get out of their own way.

ACC viewer's guide: Week 8

October, 17, 2014
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Pittsburgh snapped a three-game skid Thursday by beating Virginia Tech. Here's the rest of the ACC action for Week 8.

Noon

Syracuse at Wake Forest, ESPN, #CUSEvsWAKE: AJ Long gets the start for Syracuse after Terrel Hunt and Austin Wilson both went down. The true freshman saw extended action last week against defending national champion Florida State, and he now faces a stingy Wake Forest defense that is coming off a bye. The Demon Deacons also start a true freshman under center, though John Wolford has been the guy for Wake since Day 1. Expect defense to rule the day in this contest.

12:30 p.m.

Virginia at Duke, ESPN3, #UVAvsDUKE: It is the current Coastal Division leaders against the reigning division champions. What gives? The Cavaliers are coming off a bye after looking impressive in wins over Pitt and, earlier this season, Louisville. Can the Hoos' defense deliver once again? The Blue Devils did hand Georgia Tech its first loss of the season last week, but their offense needs to play within themselves.

3:30 p.m.

[+] EnlargeWill Gardner
Jamie Rhodes/USA TODAY SportsWill Gardner is expected to get the nod at quarterback for Louisville, which hosts NC State on Saturday.
NC State at Louisville, ESPN3, #NCSUvsLOU: It's 11 straight ACC losses for the Wolfpack, who are still seeking that first league win under Dave Doeren. A team that looked so good so early this season has struggled immensely on the offensive side of the ball in the past two weeks against Clemson and Boston College. The Cardinals, meanwhile, are looking to erase the sour taste from their mouths after last week's heartbreaker against the Tigers. They will turn back to Will Gardner under center to try to get them back on track. Receiver DeVante Parker, who has yet to play this season, is questionable.

No. 24 Clemson at Boston College, ESPNU, #CLEMvsBC: Alumni Stadium holds a special place in Dabo Swinney's heart, as it was the site of his first career win as Clemson's head coach. The Eagles nearly shocked the Tigers last year back in Death Valley, and they did manage to knock off USC earlier this season, so they cannot be taken lightly. BC's run game has been simply astounding at times, with the Eagles outrushing their opposition 1,513-134 in their four wins. Clemson turns back to Cole Stoudt this week at quarterback after Deshaun Watson suffered a broken finger last week.

7 p.m.

Georgia Tech at North Carolina, ESPNU, #GTvsUNC: The Yellow Jackets lost their first game of the season last week, a delay-filled affair against Duke. But that option attack might still be tough to defend for a UNC defense that cannot seem to get out of its own way. Marquise Williams played a terrific game last week at Notre Dame, giving the Tar Heels a tremendous chance to win. But surrendering 50 points for the third time this season did the Heels no good, and, unless that changes, questions will remain about this team.

8 p.m.

No. 5 Notre Dame at No. 2 Florida State, ABC, #NDvsFSU: Everett Golson is 16-1 as a starter. Jameis Winston is 19-0. "College GameDay" is on hand for this game with huge College Football Playoff implications. Brian Kelly and Jimbo Fisher are both in their fifth season with the Fighting Irish and Seminoles, respectively, and [at least] one might have the chance to be in the national title mix for the second time in three seasons. Notre Dame lost in the title game in 2012; FSU won it all in 2013. Chaos has subsided with the Irish, who finally know the fate of the five players who were suspended back in August as part of an internal academic probe. FSU, meanwhile, has dealt with the circus that is Winston seemingly all season long, with the heat amped up this week amid news of a potential disciplinary hearing and an autograph controversy.
Jameis Winston, Everett GolsonGetty Images, USA Today SportsThe winner of Saturday's ND-FSU game will have the inside track on the College Football Playoff.
SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- They weren't supposed to be back like this. Not so soon. Not this powerful.

Notre Dame and Florida State had entered the 2011 Champs Sports Bowl as perennial underachievers, in the second years under their respective head coaches. The running joke was that the winner would automatically be a title contender the next season, for the hype around the Fighting Irish and Seminoles could hardly ever subside. Their performances that night in Orlando were reflective of each's underwhelming regular season: four total turnovers, fewer than 300 total yards apiece, a fourth-quarter Irish collapse and an 18-14 Noles victory to move them to 9-4 and push the losers to 8-5.

"I thought we had a chance to be a very good team in the future, and they played us extremely well, so we thought they would be a very good team," FSU coach Jimbo Fisher said. "That was a heck of a football game. You knew they had good players and guys that went to the draft, and you're expecting to be where they are."

In a scenario that is hardly against all odds -- though certainly a turn from each's recent history -- No. 2 FSU will host No. 5 Notre Dame on Saturday in what is likely the biggest game of both teams' seasons. The Irish recovered from that 2011 season-ending defeat to win 12 straight games in 2012 before falling in the BCS title game. The Noles did even better the following season, going 14-0 and winning it all. This weekend's winner will have the inside track to playing for the top prize for the second time in the three years since that bowl matchup.

"It hasn't been borne out this year with Rutgers and Virginia Tech," Florida Citrus Sports digital media director Matt Repchak quipped in an interview with ESPN.com last year, referring to the Irish's and Noles' successors in that bowl game. "But I'd like to think that maybe we have some kind of magic."

The truth of the matter is that both teams simply needed to get out of their own ways. Notre Dame entered the second year of the Brian Kelly era ranked No. 16 in the preseason AP poll, with BCS-bowl goals in mind. But 10 turnovers over the Irish's first two games portended an undoing that was mostly self-inflicted.

FSU, meanwhile, entered the season at No. 6 but saw a close, early-season loss to then-No. 1 Oklahoma spiral into a three-game slide. By the time they faced Notre Dame, the Noles were starting four true freshmen on the offensive line. Three of those starters -- left guard Josue Matias, right guard Tre' Jackson and right tackle Bobby Hart -- will line up with the first team Saturday. The fourth, center Austin Barron, is sidelined with an arm injury.

"The first half, you can tell, and in the second half we came out and played much better and got their feet on the ground and we were able to move the ball," Fisher said of the unit in that 2011 game. "It was a big point for them for their acceptance to college football."

Notre Dame had two first-round draft picks the following spring: receiver Michael Floyd and safety Harrison Smith. Two more potential ones -- tight end Tyler Eifert and linebacker Manti Te'o -- elected to return for their senior years, the surest validation that the program, despite consecutive 8-5 seasons, was going in the right direction under Kelly.

"When we both played, you could tell that both teams were definitely ascending, and then better things were definitely in front of us," Kelly said. "It was definitely going to be what's next for these programs moving forward in a positive way. That's kind of how I saw it after that game. I remember meeting with Te'o and talking to him about the next step, and of course we played for the national championship a year later, and Florida State won one."

Te'o, a 2013 second-round pick, ended up being the Heisman runner-up. Six days before he and the Irish took the field at Sun Life Stadium to face Alabama, FSU kicked off the 2013 calendar year in the same spot, beating Northern Illinois for an Orange Bowl win to cap a 12-2 season. The Noles then lost 11 draft picks and six assistant coaches, but they had a redshirt freshman quarterback, Jameis Winston, who would end up winning the Heisman the next season and is now 19-0 for his career as a starter.

Though his suspension for the Clemson game last month nearly cost his team dearly in the ACC (and national title) race, a strong showing from Winston against the Irish defense Saturday can get him right back into the Heisman conversation. The same goes for Notre Dame quarterback Everett Golson, who himself is 16-1, the lone defeat coming to the Crimson Tide in the title game.

Both teams have new defensive coordinators this year, the third in three years for the Noles. The Irish also said goodbye to their offensive coordinator this past season. They welcomed three new assistants between the 2011 and 2012 campaigns, too.

"I thought we had an awesome team that year, we had a lot of talent," Irish redshirt junior Joe Schmidt said of 2011. "It's extremely hard to win college football games, so that was a very talented team and so is this one, and I think guys are just trying to do everything we can to help Notre Dame win."

For both programs, it has all started at the top, with fifth-year head coaches who found their footings and have their teams on the brink of something special.

"I guess you could say we've always been a work in progress," Irish redshirt senior Christian Lombard said. "We've always come to work, and I think that's the biggest thing. We've always known that we don't have it made. So just that attitude that we've got to come to work every day has helped us, and we're making progress each year."
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SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Nearly two years ago, three days before the biggest game of his life, the BCS National Championship against Alabama, Everett Golson let the nation in on a little secret.

"Obviously basketball is my love, that's what I love," Golson said down in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, "But my primary right now is football. I'd like to say I would like to have the chance of playing basketball someday [in South Bend]. But like I said, football is my primary, and what I'm focused on right now is the national championship."

"He's pretty good at his hobby, this being his hobby," then-Notre Dame offensive coordinator Chuck Martin added. "Primary love basketball is just what he does on the side, he's actually pretty decent at."

Everett Golson
Courtesy of DeAndre' ScottEverett Golson (shooting) played point guard in high school, helping his squad at Myrtle Beach High win an AAA state title.
How decent? Golson was at the very least a Division I talent, according to those who coached him at the prep level. Notre Dame's redshirt junior quarterback is on the Heisman Trophy short list as he readies the No. 6 Irish for a date Saturday with North Carolina. A Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, native, Golson had initially pledged to the Tar Heels' basketball program in February 2010. He had spoken with legendary coach Roy Williams, and there was a strong possibility that he would have spent his winters in Chapel Hill on the hardwood, before the football team's NCAA investigation and a trip to Notre Dame eventually forced him to flip his commitment.

Hoops aspirations never materialized with the Irish, though things have worked out pretty well for the man who, with a 15-1 career record as a starter, boasts the highest win percentage of any quarterback in Irish history (.9375).

"If he was doing something else right now other than quarterbacking a top-[six] team, I probably would have been disappointed, just because the kid was so, so talented, such a good athlete at basketball. I knew he could've been a Division I kid," former Myrtle Beach High hoops coach DeAndre Scott said. "But to see him be able to do the things he's doing at football -- which at the time, I'll be honest with you, when he was a freshman or sophomore, he was a kid that really didn't like football nearly as much. But people who were around knew the things he could do on the football field were just unreal in comparison to where he was as a basketball player at that time."

Golson was, naturally, a point guard. He began with a suspect jump shot, Scott said, and the perfectionist in the player made for some early growing pains, as he would get too down on himself after misses. Still, as a freshman he rose to a starting role down the season's stretch, helping lift Myrtle Beach to a state title. He played one more season for Scott, then another for new coach Craig Martin, before his early enrollment at Notre Dame cost him his senior hoops season.

"He was a really talented kid, good athlete," Scott said. "I always thought he was more of a pass-first point guard, a guy who can really see the floor. He liked getting other guys involved, but he was such a good athlete. He could still score the basketball for you."

During the Beach Ball Classic during Golson's sophomore year, he scored 16 in an eight-point loss to a Martin Luther King (Calif.) team that was led by Kawhi Leonard, the MVP of this past June's NBA Finals. The summer before his senior year, Golson traveled around the country to various quarterback camps before returning to point guard on his AAU team, the South Carolina Ravens, all the way to the 17 and under national title game, before falling to the Arkansas Wings.

The Ravens' roster featured starters such as South Carolina tight end Jerell Adams and Clemson hoops guard Damarcus Harrison, and it had UNC forward Brice Johnson and Seton Hall forward Rashed Anthony coming off the bench.

"I probably had the best NFL team that was playing basketball," Ravens founder and coach Dion Bethea quipped.

While Golson was on a redshirt his first year at Notre Dame, the basketball bug bit, and coach Brian Kelly said that the staff had to rein that itch in.

"I think that he still has a love for the game," Kelly said Tuesday. "But I think that now has changed because of his focus on being the quarterback here. But no, in his first year here, he was a handful. He always wanted to go out and play a little basketball."

Golson has said that he would at times decompress by shooting around some with Martin, his position coach, who is now the head coach at Miami (Ohio).
His hoops exploits may be a thing of the past, but the stories still carry some weight around campus and in his locker room.

"I haven't played basketball with him yet but I've heard myths, legends," said Irish receiver Corey Robinson, the son of Basketball Hall of Famer David Robinson. "He's an incredible basketball player, from my understanding. But I've never played with him. I'm not good enough. He's on another level."
SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- On a Sunday summer afternoon in 2012, Notre Dame president Rev. John Jenkins and athletic director Jack Swarbrick hopped on a plane to Winston-Salem, North Carolina. There, they met ACC commissioner John Swofford and Wake Forest president Nathan Hatch to discuss several items, a potential Orange Bowl arrangement among them.

"That was the primary reason for the meeting, but it evolved into more discussion," Swofford told ESPN.com. "And I think it ended up -- we didn't necessarily intend it to be -- but it ended up being sort of a pivotal point in the discussions going forward."

Fast-forward to MetLife Stadium this Saturday, and the final phase of Notre Dame's integration into the ACC will be complete, as the Fighting Irish will take on Syracuse in the first game of their semi-alignment with the league, which welcomed their non-football sports last year. The athletic department's big money-maker dips its foot into the ACC by playing an average of five league games a year, as agreed upon in September of 2012.

[+] EnlargeJack Swarbrick
AP Photo/Joe RaymondNotre Dame's agreement with the ACC was the "right deal at the right time," said AD Jack Swarbrick.
It has caused old rivalries to die and planted the seeds for new ones to grow. It has seen the nation's biggest independent relinquish some sovereignty in return for further department-wide stabilization. It has rankled some (see: Krzyzewski, Mike) while reuniting Notre Dame with others (former AD Kevin White, now at Duke; alumnus Bubba Cunningham, now North Carolina's AD).

Notre Dame's men's teams debuted in the ACC last year by winning the Capital One Cup. Whether the football team can spoil the ACC's dreams of repeating as the national title winners will be clearer Oct. 18, when the Irish travel to Florida State. For starters, they will get acquainted with their new quasi-home by facing the Orange in East Rutherford, New Jersey.

"We're hitting this conference where football is really ascending," Swarbrick told ESPN.com. "The top of the conference has been great for a while, but I really see (the overall strength) getting better and better, and that's going to be great for us as we want to make sure we're making a compelling case for the strength of our schedule."

The connections between the two sides had already run deep enough -- from Hatch having been a former Notre Dame provost, to former ACC commissioner Gene Corrigan having been the Irish's AD -- and things were starting to materialize as Jenkins, Swarbrick and Swofford sat down in Hatch's home.

The ACC's courtship of Notre Dame fizzled before Swarbrick and Swofford were in their current roles, but the foundation had been laid. The two were spending plenty of time together in 2012 as the conference commissioners gathered to overhaul the BCS in favor of a playoff. And with instability reigning over the college landscape, the timing was ideal.

"We were doing this in the context of a belief that some movement by us was inevitable, that what was going on with the Big East was really going to present a challenge for our other sports," Swarbrick said. "And so you enter into this whole process from a platform of, 'We have to do something.' And in the context of that, 'What are our priorities?'"

A safe haven for other sports, which were in desperate need of one given the demise of the Big East? Check.

An academic fit, a mix of private and "public-private" schools located among the vast recruiting and alumni population along the Eastern seaboard? Check.

An entry into the playoff, with other attractive bowl options? Check.

All that was missing, it seemed, was deciding how exactly to handle the little matter of Notre Dame's football schedule.

"They were very consistent in verbalizing that the primary objective in anything they did would be maintaining their independence in football," Swofford said. "We grew to respect that, and I think they always respected where we were in terms of full membership. And I think given the times that we were in both as a conference and that Notre Dame was in, that was the total landscape. I think both parties began to sense that there was a middle ground from a football standpoint that could be beneficial to both."

Notre Dame was given access to the ACC's bowl lineup, as the Irish can now take a team's place in a non-access bowl if their record is better, equal or within one win of that team, or if they're ranked higher. Said ACC bowl lineup is now deeper and better than before, with 13 partnerships.


Notre Dame was given five ACC opponents annually, who received a strength-of-schedule boost. (And likely swelled their attendance.)

"At the end of the day it became, for us, strictly from a football standpoint, how do we maintain a schedule that gives us that independence and, second, what gives us the best, strictly from a football standpoint, the best bowl game tiein opportunities and has a geographical, I guess, not significance, but makes sense?" Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said. "When those three things were checked off it came down to the ACC."

Kelly spoke on the ACC coaches' teleconference Wednesday, something he will do each week he faces an ACC team. The league has accommodated the football program elsewhere in scheduling matters, particularly in moving the Wake Forest game to next season to avoid interference with the Irish's 2014 obligations.

The outcome, Swarbrick said, has been as good as he could have hoped for. Now comes kickoff.

"There were points along the way where we obviously worried whether it would work out, because the ground was shifting so quickly," Swarbrick said. "We didn't want to make a precipitous decision, but you didn't want to be the last one standing when the music stopped. So as much as anything, I spent a lot of time considering issues with timing, and at end of the day I think that may be the thing we did best. We got the right deal at the right time."

FSU No. 1 in coaches' poll

July, 31, 2014
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Surprise, surprise -- Florida State is the preseason No. 1 team in the Amway Coaches Poll.

The Seminoles received 56 of the 62 first-place votes as they enter 2014 looking to repeat as national champions.

Clemson and North Carolina were the only other ACC teams to be ranked, coming in at Nos. 16 and 23, respectively. For those keeping track, that means UNC is the only team from the Coastal Division to be ranked in the poll. This comes after Miami was chosen by the media in Greensboro, North Carolina, last week as the preseason Coastal favorite, in the same poll that saw Duke receive the most first-place Coastal votes. It is worth repeating again: This division race is wide open.

Notre Dame, which begins its football affiliation with the ACC this fall, checks in at No. 17 in the coaches' poll.

Miami leads the ACC contingent in the "others receiving votes" category of the coaches' poll, coming in at No. 34 overall. Right behind the Hurricanes? Duke and Louisville, at Nos. 35 and 36, respectively. Virginia Tech comes in at No. 40 while Georgia Tech is No. 48.

Half of the ACC's coaches vote in the poll: Frank Beamer, David Cutcliffe, Larry Fedora, Jimbo Fisher, Al Golden, Paul Johnson and Dabo Swinney. Notre Dame's Brian Kelly votes as well. Shockingly, all eight of those coaches saw their teams receive votes.
There will be familiar faces around weight rooms and in front of overhead projectors in football complexes this summer: coaches’ faces.

Big deal.

Except it is a big deal, at least to the coaches who can now occupy strength and conditioning sessions and hold film study with their players.

The NCAA partially adopted a rule from the hardwood in October allowing a maximum of eight hours of mandatory workouts for players for eight weeks of the summer. What football coaches really care about, however, is the ability to watch those conditioning sessions and meet with their players for up to two hours each week. Any on-the-field work with footballs is still prohibited.

[+] EnlargeKevin Wilson
AP Photo/Andy ManisIndiana coach Kevin Wilson is one of many coaches that can visit with players in the summer rather than relying on "spies" to get information on offseason workouts.
“You don’t need secret spies anymore,” Indiana coach Kevin Wilson told ESPN.com. “You can just watch your football team now. ... It’s common sense that if I’m in control and if I want to walk in the weight room and watch them lift weights then I can watch them lift weights.”

It is uncharted territories for most coaches, who are used to relying on third-party word of mouth from the program’s strength coach and upperclassmen on how summer workouts are progressing and whether freshmen are adjusting. Some coaches began mapping out how they would use their eight hours when the rule was passed, while others will take the pulse of the team and adjust accordingly. For some, they’ll protect the details of those hour splits as if it were the playbook.

“We have to carve out [player meetings] with our strength coach, time that we can take away from his hours because you’re not adding extra time,” Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said. “There is this model that I’m not interested in giving up to anybody, that we think gives us a balance.”

Notre Dame is still debating between Everett Golson and Malik Zaire as its starting quarterback, so Kelly can spend part of the summer mentally preparing both for the upcoming competition. He will institute a “spring ball installation” of the core offensive plays and defensive structure, “something we’ve never been able to do in June.” He’ll also show his quarterbacks all of their mistakes in previous settings in hopes of limiting them once the season begins.

The vast majority, if not all, are in favor of the rule, although to varying degrees. Indiana’s Wilson has walk-on players who could eventually earn a scholarship, so those players feel a need to attend summer workouts. He knows that means some will take out additional loans for summer school.

For the coaches, with summers now filled with prospect camps and recruiting visits, there are fewer hours to break away from the football facility. Wilson will take advantage of the change, but he wonders whether coaches will suffer from the burnout a 365-day coaching calendar lends itself to. The NCAA implemented a two-week summer dead period to combat the evolving recruiting calendar, but Wilson knows some coaches will stick around to watch tape with players.

“It’s a little ironic they added a rule that for two weeks a recruit can’t come in but added a rule so you can spend that time with your players,” first-year Wake Forest coach Dave Clawson told ESPN.com.

Added Wilson: “How do we find the balance? It’s nice we can work with them, but it’s finding a balance where your coaches can find sanity. It’s nice we can talk legally but … I think you can overcoach.

“It will be interesting after year one, whether coaches will say they want to do more or do less.”

No school returns fewer starters in 2014 than Utah State, so coach Matt Wells is tasked with making sure those players who will be asked to step up this fall are physically and mentally able. He is also cognizant that his staff spending too much time with the team this summer could produce undesired results.

[+] EnlargeDave Clawson
Brian Westerholt/Four Seam Images/AP ImagesThe new NCAA rules are a boon to first-year coaches such as Wake Forest's Dave Clawson, who get a chance to get acclimated with their new players.
In the early portion of the summer, Wells will meet with his team more often than he might in July. He will bring the program’s newcomers up to speed with scheme and terminology in meetings, but he also doesn’t want to overload them. With the upperclassmen, he believes it will become counterproductive to have extended and repetitive classroom sessions.

“We’re going to still lean on player-led meetings, voluntary meetings the coaches aren’t in because it builds leadership in your team and in position groups,” Wells told ESPN.com. “We’ve benefitted from that the last three summers from an increased leadership role, and I think it’s important for the players to have a break from the coaches.”

For first-year coaches such as Clawson, the new rule will narrow the learning curve this fall as his players continue to adjust to his offensive and defensive ideologies. Clawson is seemingly like most coaches, though, in that he does not favor using the full two hours for Football 101 seminars. Wake Forest’s new coach is not deviating much from the old summer status quo.

When he and his staff assessed the Demon Deacons following the spring, he felt strength and conditioning was lacking most. So when mandatory summer workouts kicked off, he decided he’d only spend 30 minutes to an hour each week meetings with players.

“It didn’t make sense to take two hours away from that,” he said.

That could change in the coming weeks, though. While some schools already have their entire incoming freshman class on campus, Clawson won’t see all of his until July. He said the previous rule preventing coaches from working with freshmen lacked common sense.

“It used to be awful, the first time a freshman’s ever on campus and you can’t be around them,” Clawson said. “When these guys first get here, you need to have some involvement. Part of recruiting is parents trusting you with their son, and first time they drop them off, to not be allowed around them was very hard.”
Another double dip? Why not ...

Week 13 schedule

Thursday, Nov. 20
  • North Carolina at Duke, ESPN, 7:30 p.m.
Saturday, Nov. 22
  • Boston College at Florida State
  • Virginia Tech at Wake Forest
  • Syracuse at Pitt
  • Georgia State at Clemson
  • Miami at Virginia
  • Louisville at Notre Dame
Our pick: North Carolina at Duke AND Louisville at Notre Dame

Why you should come along: Another Thursday night game presents another opportunity for us to take in multiple games in a weekend ... and this one should be particularly good. Two of the Coastal Division's expected title contenders square off, and plenty will be on the line. Duke has won the last two matchups against its rival down Tobacco Road, the first time the Blue Devils have posted a winning streak against North Carolina since 1987-89. Both of Duke's wins the previous two years were absolute thrillers, as it clinched bowl-eligibility with the win in 2012 and picked off the Tar Heels late on the road in last season's regular-season finale, clinching win No. 10, the division crown and stopping the Tar Heels' five-game winning streak in the process.

On Saturday, we'll visit Touchdown Jesus in South Bend, Ind., to check out Notre Dame Stadium's new FieldTurf and watch Louisville and the Irish run all over it on Senior Day. This is the ACC's fourth and final game of the season against Notre Dame, and it might be our best chance to check out the Golden Dome in the first year of this scheduling agreement, which I highly recommend you do if the chance presents itself. The Irish enter 2014 with plenty of questions on defense after suffering major personnel losses, but they welcome back quarterback Everett Golson, who went undefeated during his only regular season under center, in 2012. Golson, fresh off a suspension and an autumn spent working out with George Whitfield Jr., should have the Irish offense looking more like the one his coach, Brian Kelly, had at Cincinnati. And we all know the fireworks that a Bobby Petrino offense is capable of putting on display. These coaches missed each other by a year in the Keg of Nails rivalry in the old Big East. The late-fall weather elements could try to slow these two teams down, but I'll take my chances. (Especially if it means one last postgame meal at Parisi's, just off the south end of campus.)

Irish, ACC seek scheduling flexibility

December, 3, 2013
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Notre Dame will be a partial member of the ACC in football after this season. In Year 1, the Irish might have just a one-third partnership.

The school is trying to move one of its five scheduled ACC games for next fall to the 2015 season, Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly told ESPN.com on Tuesday. That would free up a 2014 Irish schedule that currently has 13 contracted opponents for 12 available slots. Notre Dame would still play the obligated 15 ACC games over the next three seasons, since the 2015 slate would then have six ACC opponents.

[+] EnlargeBrian Kelly
Matt Cashore/USA TODAY SportsNotre Dame coach Brian Kelly is hoping for some scheduling flexibility from the ACC.
"The ACC schedule bites a lot of that up, and then there's still some long-term commitments going back to Knute Rockne that tie our hands," Kelly said. "So when you're locked into some contracts — Navy for one, Stanford, USC, Purdue — now you're talking about six ACC games, and then another three or four. It doesn't give me much wiggle room. So as much as I'd like to say that I'm at the forefront of shaping a schedule, there's not a lot of wiggle room in these schedules right now. We're trying to do our best to balance it out, and I think 2014, you're going to see four ACC teams, and then in '15 I think we're going to get to six."

Notre Dame has yet to announce its 2014 schedule dates and times, though it had been under contract to play home games against Michigan, Purdue, Northwestern, Rice and Stanford, with road games at Navy, Arizona State and USC, in addition to a neutral-site game against Syracuse in East Rutherford, N.J., as part of New York's College Classic. (That contest had long been scheduled for Sept. 27, 2014.)

The game against the Orange was then weaved into one of the five that Notre Dame would play against ACC opponents as part of their five-games-per-year agreement, which includes home contests against Louisville, North Carolina and Wake Forest and a road game at Florida State.

Kelly said the ACC has been flexible in working with Notre Dame on its schedules. Navy, Stanford and USC are the only schools virtually assured of staying on the Irish's annual schedule moving forward, essentially giving them eight set games each year when accounting for the five ACC games.

Notre Dame's 2015 ACC games are currently home contests against Boston College and Virginia Tech and road games at Clemson, Pittsburgh and Virginia.

For 2016, the Irish are currently scheduled to host Duke, Miami and Virginia Tech, and play a road game at NC State. They are also slated for that season's version of New York's College Classic as well, also against Syracuse.

Notre Dame only announces full-season schedules with dates, though the school has been hoping to unveil its 2014-16 schedules together once they are finalized.

Close games highlight Pitt-ND series

November, 6, 2013
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SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- The package was called "Desperado," a phrase both Pittsburgh and Notre Dame fans would probably rather never hear or speak of again.

It was not discovered until the day after the Fighting Irish's triple-overtime win over the Panthers last year that cornerback Bennett Jackson and receiver Chris Brown, both No. 2 for the Irish, were on the field together when Kevin Harper's potential 33-yard game-winning field sailed wide right after a bad snap.

[+] EnlargePittsburgh vs. Notre Dame in 2012
Matt Cashore/US PresswireEverett Golson's game-winning touchdown in the third overtime last season gave the Irish a heart-stopping victory over Pitt.
For the Panthers, it was an oversight that all but cost them a program-defining win for new coach Paul Chryst. For the Irish, it was a crisis averted, one of several minor miracles in a magical season.

It was another hold-your-breath moment in a series that, for one reason or another, has never lacked for drama. A primetime atmosphere awaits Saturday night at Heinz Field when the Panthers and the Irish square off. One team is fighting to clinch bowl eligibility, the other is clinging to BCS-bowl hopes and, well, here we go again.

"It happens," Pitt linebacker Todd Thomas said of the officials' error last season. "Two No. 2s on the field, it happens. Refs make mistakes, so everybody's not perfect. So it happens. So we just put the loss behind us and just carried on to the next week. But it happens. Everybody's not perfect."

Notre Dame has beaten Pitt by three points in each of the last two years, including a 15-12 tractor-pull of a contest in 2011 that both teams are best served to forget. The Irish are 6-3 against the Panthers since 2002, but eight of those games have been decided by eight points or fewer.

There have been seven total overtimes across two of those games -- a four-overtime Pitt win in 2008 and last year's three-overtime Notre Dame victory, its last close call on the way to the BCS title game.

"You know what, we're letting it go, it's old news," Pitt end Bryan Murphy said. "Whatever happened last year happened. We're not paying attention to it. We're just moving on from there. That's all last year. We were a different team, they were a different team. So we're not even concentrating on anything that happened last year."

Chryst echoed that sentiment during his Monday press conference in Pittsburgh, though tight end J.P. Holtz had a decidedly different tone when he told reporters that he did not like Notre Dame, calling their coaches "really cocky."

The comments seemingly made their way back here to Irish coach Brian Kelly, who said Tuesday: "They don't seem to like Notre Dame very much, and they want to beat Notre Dame."

Though in just his fourth year at Notre Dame, Kelly is more familiar with Pitt than any other opponent in the last seven years, having faced the Panthers in each of his three seasons at Cincinnati before playing them annually so far while with the Irish.

He has also faced the Panthers' new starting quarterback, redshirt senior Tom Savage, who appeared in Rutgers' 2009 season-opener against the Kelly-coached Bearcats.

"A big kid, strong-armed, and obviously they like to throw the football with him," Kelly said of Savage. "He's got some talented receivers. We're going to have to prepare ourselves for a kid that likes to throw the football and has some weapons."

The best of those weapons, redshirt senior Devin Street, is two weeks removed from becoming Pitt's career leader in receptions. Though winless and held to 42 or fewer yards in each of his three contests against the Irish, Street has no particular distaste for the team he will face this weekend.

"We don't go in disliking anyone, but we definitely have a respect for Notre Dame and the tradition and that type of team," Street said. "But we don't hate them or anything like that. I think they're a great team."

Both teams are coming off consecutive games against option teams -- Pitt losing to Navy and Georgia Tech, Notre Dame beating Air Force and Navy.

And both will reconvene in two years, and roughly every three years after that, as part of the Irish's five-game-per-year scheduling agreement that takes effect next year with the ACC, which Pitt is finishing out its first season in.

"Everyone knows Notre Dame; Notre Dame is one of the most historic football programs in the country, and they always will be," Murphy said. "I think it's amazing to have a team like that on your schedule. That's always a primetime game for us. I think it's huge for our team going forward to always have that game because we always play great against them. It's always just an amazing game between us two, so I think it's important that we continue that matchup."
SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Some of Notre Dame's seniors committed following a three-win season. Others hopped aboard amidst staff uncertainty.

Three and four years later, the Irish are staring perfection in the eye with one home game remaining against Wake Forest, and their coach is hoping that is not lost among the sea of emotions that will accompany many for this weekend's senior day festivities.

"The most important thing is for them to get the proper perspective through the week," Brian Kelly said. "In other words, yes, it is your last home game, but we've got a lot in front of us. What you'll remember most is whether you win the game, not that it was your last home game. So make sure that you keep the distractions to a minimum. And if there is any emotion let that be after the game. Let's have the emotion after the game celebrating a great victory.

"So, yeah, there is a little bit of dialogue and conversation about that. Our guys have been around it. They know what it's like. I expect them to handle it appropriately."

[+] EnlargeManti Te'o
Matt Cashore/US PresswireManti Te'o saw the raw emotions of senior day before he even committed to Notre Dame.
Consider the message the same for Saturday's visitors, who feel they let a huge upset chance slip away last year in a close loss at BB&T Field and are intrigued by the chance of eliminating a national title contender with two weeks left in the season.

"I feel like most of our team knows that it's football. This is a game that most of us have played since we were 5 years old," Demon Deacons fullback Tommy Bohanon said. "For me and a lot of the team, once we get out there and we're on the field with those guys, it's just business as usual, and we'll be able to play the game."

If the Irish are vulnerable this year, it has been at home.

Their starting quarterback, Everett Golson, has been pulled at one point or another in three home games and was knocked out of another, forcing him to miss one more contest. Notre Dame has needed four total overtime periods to come away with five wins by 23 combined points, and 10 of its 13 turnovers have come in front of the home crowd.

"I think what you find is that most good team find a way to win," Wake Forest coach Jim Grobe said. "It's not always the prettiest win, but a win is a win and they've won them all. You know that they know how to do it. I think if you have a chance late, you have to make plays. We have a big challenge. This is a really good Notre Dame football team."

Twenty-six Irish players will take part in a pregame ceremony to honor their final contest inside Notre Dame Stadium, and no one will draw a bigger reaction than Heisman candidate Manti Te'o.

The linebacker's first visit to Notre Dame was for the team's 2008 senior day, a loss to Syracuse that ended with the home players getting pelted with snowballs from the stands.

That memory has stuck with Te'o, though for a different reason.

"For that to be their last experience in that stadium, I could really feel that," he said. "So amongst the cold and the snow and all that, I think the worst part of that was to see the pain in the players' eyes as they were crying leaving the stadium -- not because they lost, but because that was their last experience playing under the dome."

Kelly has just one memory of his senior day, 29 years ago at Div. III Assumption, and he does not want it sticking with his players.

"I don't remember the emotion of the game as much as losing the game after," he said. "So I want to make sure that we don't have that experience for our guys."

Bowl offers redemption for storied teams

December, 29, 2011
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A pre-January bowl meeting and regular seasons that failed to meet lofty preseason expectations have provided no hiding for Brian Kelly and Jimbo Fisher. Just look at Wednesday, when the second-year head coaches were asked during their final pre-bowl press conferences about restoring their respective programs back to glory.

No, a Dec. 29 finale in the Champs Sports Bowl is not what Notre Dame or Florida State had in mind when summer talk focused on BCS bowl berths and returns to greatness. But the pair of 8-4 teams have found consolation in the opportunity to take down the other and go into 2012 on a high note.

[+] EnlargeBrian Kelly
Matt Cashore/US PresswireNotre Dame coach Brian Kelly cited a bowl game's value in building team chemistry.
"I think it starts with the ability to keep your football team together for another month," Kelly said of what it will take bring Notre Dame back to its prominent status. "The ability to build more relationships and bonds with your players. You’re still evaluating and giving opportunities to freshmen that may not have that chance to go out and prove themselves. I think there’s a lot of things that go into having a bowl game. The game itself as a win/loss is not going to change the direction of your program. Certainly it’s going to make you feel good about yourself going into the offseason, but all of those other things are much more important than actually singularly one game."

Said Fisher, in response to a similar question: “Recruiting, a little bit of luck, and staying healthy. You have to understand the culture. It’s not been two years or three years since we’ve been on the top, it’s been 10. That’s something we have to change. I’ve said all year that I’ve been pleased with how our players practice. Their effort, their tenacity, they break out the distractions. And then the football gods have to be on your side a little bit, too. Sometimes the ball’s got to bounce your way. We’ve got a good recruiting class this year and I think we’ll have another great year next year. And hopefully a great game tomorrow.”

Ten turnovers and two mind-boggling defeats to start 2011 all but sealed Notre Dame's fate for Orlando, Fla., from the early going. An 8-2 finish that featured a brief return to the national rankings showed what the Irish were capable of, but the sour taste from an 0-2 start lingered.

Florida State, meanwhile, saw a 2-0 start give way to three consecutive losses, dampening its BCS-bowl hopes and, like the Irish, leaving many to wonder what could have been.

The offensive-minded Kelly saw the Irish notch at least 500 yards of offense five different times this season, as they averaged better than 45 more yards per game than a season ago. But that was tempered by 26 turnovers and the fact Notre Dame is closing the season with another quarterback controversy (Tommy Rees or Andrew Hendrix), albeit a different one from the beginning of the campaign (Rees or Dayne Crist).

"I would look at it as we’re still evolving," Kelly said. "From last year to this time there has been a process of evolution for our entire offense and it’s still ongoing. It’s ongoing as we speak relative to our offensive players understanding our system and of course in the recruiting area.”

The Seminoles saw their growth on the defensive side of the ball, where they finished the regular season sixth in the nation in total defense, fourth in points allowed and second against the run — way up in all categories from last season (when they finished 39th, 24th and 26th, respectively).

“Are we disappointed about the wins?" Fisher said. "Yes, we wish we would’ve won more games. I mean, you’d like to win them all. But for a young football team to deal with distractions, with criticisms, the things that come with not winning as many games as you’d like to, they never lost faith in each other. In fact, it maybe made them closer. I feel very good about the future.”

But the future must wait until this season is finished, and Thursday's matchup will provide one last opportunity for each side's seniors to end their careers on high notes.

And for Notre Dame, it's a chance to notch a nine-win campaign for the first time since 2006, before any current players came aboard.

"I feel like it's all that matters," senior end Ethan Johnson said of win No. 9. "It's all that matters. It's what we're focused on right now. Everyone says you take each game as it comes. That's very true. But there's a limited amount of time you can focus on each game in a season. And for this game we've had a long time to focus on it, and we're going to stay focused on it, and we're gonna continue to work and prepare and get ready to play our best football. And there's no reason why we shouldn't do that. No reason why we're not going to do that. We're going to do that.

"We're gonna continue to focus and practice hard and have fun while we're doing it. But yeah, it's really all that matters is getting this win, especially for the seniors. For the juniors, sophomores, freshmen, high school kids coming in — we're all pulling for it and we're all just gonna do the best we can because I came here my freshman year. And I'm a guy who believes you leave something better than it was when you came. I definitely wanna do that. I wanna leave this place better than when I found it."

ACC's lunchtime links

December, 28, 2011
12/28/11
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The ACC is 1-1 so far in bowl games and I'm 2-0 in predictions. We'll see how long that lasts ...

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