Next challenge for ND: Handle No. 1 label

November, 20, 2012
11/20/12
9:00
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Everett GolsonAP Photo/Michael ConroyEverett Golson and the Irish must remain focused as they take on archrival USC.
Jeff Kilburg's Facebook feed has carried a familiar theme from former teammates these past few days.

You don't have to be the best team in the world, you only have to be the best team in the stadium.

The quote came from their coach, Lou Holtz, who used it throughout their near-perfect 1993 campaign.

Notre Dame, undefeated and ranked No. 1, is technically the best team in the world. And all it needs to maintain that label and secure a spot in the national title game is to be the best team this Saturday inside the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

But the task is easier said than done when dealing with unfamiliar territory. Brian Kelly has said that the Irish don't want the No. 1 label for just three or four days. The last time Notre Dame was atop the rankings, 19 years ago, it carried the distinction for just seven days before being upset against Boston College.

"It's not just a label they're carrying anymore, it's a target," said Kilburg, a former offensive lineman from 1993-96. "When it's a target it fuels your fire stronger, you work harder. It's a long time since they've been there. This group of young men get it. They fully embrace it, from Manti Te'o all the way down to the special teamers. They get what it means to be at Notre Dame -- it's unique to be No. 1 on the field and in the classroom. That's the bottom line. It's a unique school and the players embody that. Right now they've got to rise to the occasion.

"I'd say this is exponentially more impactful than it was in 1993, due to what we saw recently with all the No. 1s going down."

The terrain is new for even Kelly, who won titles at the Div. II level and had a perfect regular season at Cincinnati that resulted only in a No. 3 ranking.

Being in control of his team's title aspirations has not changed his approach.

"It's still about how we got here and the preparation and how these guys transformed themselves into champions by their habits and how they go to work every day," Kelly said, adding, "It doesn't mean much if we don't prepare. If we're not prepared, we're not going to win. For us it'll be about being consistent with what we've done up to this point."

Kilburg lived in Grace Hall when the No. 2 Irish beat top-ranked Florida State in the 1993 version of the "Game of the Century," so he had a front and center view of what many students saw Sunday afternoon, when the "#1" lights were lit on the building's roof to celebrate the football team's return to the top.

The excitement and distractions, however, extend beyond campus.

"To come off the victory against the unbeatable and to have to turn around and prepare the next week and hear analysts talk about us as No. 1 and so forth, it does feel good," said safety Jeff Burris, who played for Notre Dame from 1990-93. "It feels great to hear your name on top, especially with this team considering there weren't a lot of high expectations initially."

Kelly liked what he saw and heard Sunday morning in the training room, where his players said none of this will matter if they don't take care of business this weekend against USC.

In theory, an arch-rival awaiting would keep a team from looking ahead, though the last incarnation of No. 1 Notre Dame let the opportunity slip, dropping a home contest to rival Boston College, 41-39.

Kilburg still has trouble pointing to what went wrong, but he doesn't foresee a similar scenario with this year's team given its consistent improvement from Week 1 to now.

"It's hard to put a finger on that," Kilburg said of the loss to the Eagles. "Unfortunately, I think when teams are so laser-focused on big games, one downside is to inadvertently and unintentionally have a letdown against a lesser opponent and play to the level of competition.

"That may have happened a couple times this season with these guys, but they've learned and matured, specifically Everett Golson. From a former player'a perspective, it's amazing to see that type of maturity in one season. That doesn't happen. But now Golson's in a great position to lead these guys into USC and hit on all cylinders."

Matt Fortuna | email

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