Brian Kelly wanted to get a gauge on his team's attitude toward being No. 1 this morning, so he eavesdropped on a few conversations his players were having in Notre Dame's training room. The result was exactly what he was looking for.
"A couple of the guys were congratulated by a couple of the trainers, and their first response was, yeah, but it doesn't mean much if you don't beat USC, so that's really all I needed to hear," Kelly said.
Kelly had about a dozen friends and family over at his house last night to watch Kansas State-Baylor and Stanford-Oregon, and responded with a "heck yeah" when asked if he joined in on the loud cheering for Baylor and Stanford.
"It's like being selected for the playoffs," Kelly said. "Now you know you're in if you take care of business, and you've got to win each week. I think it's more about just the feeling that you're included now in the race for a championship."
While the BCS won't give way to a playoff system until 2014, Notre Dame, Alabama and Georgia play what amount to playoff games this week and next. For Alabama and Georgia, they'll need wins over heavy underdog rivals in Auburn and Georgia Tech before moving on to face each other in the SEC championship. For Notre Dame, a win over USC means they advance to the BCS title game.
The Trojans are in disarray, coming off a 38-28 loss to UCLA in which quarterback Matt Barkley suffered a shoulder injury that could keep him out of Saturday's contest. If he doesn't play, redshirt freshman Max Wittek -- who's thrown a total of nine passes at the collegiate level -- will get the start.
But regardless of who's under center for USC, Notre Dame's gameplan won't change.
"(Marqise) Lee and (Robert) Woods and the running back situation, they've got two great backs," Kelly said, referring to Silas Redd and Curtis McNeal. "We're going to have to defend all of those players, not just one. Certainly if Barkley is playing, which we'll prepare for him like he is playing, the offense is still going to be about getting the ball to their play makers. So it really won't change much in terms of what we do."
While Woods' production has dropped off in recent weeks, he still has 66 catches for 721 yards with 10 touchdowns on the season. It's been Lee, though, who's emerged as USC's top wideout, with the sophomore racking up 107 receptions for 1,605 yards and 14 touchdowns. Barkley or not, defending that pair of receivers is a tall order for Notre Dame's secondary.
"Tackle, tackle, tackle, tackle and tackle," Kelly said of the key for Notre Dame's defense.
"They're incredibly skilled with the ball in their hand, and if they have a lot of space, they're going to make you pay. You know, we felt that we had to against Oklahoma limit some of the catches and the extended runs. We'll have to do a great job tackling, and that will be paramount to our success against USC."
Over the last month, Kelly has noted plenty of times that his team can't get ahead of itself, that it can't afford to overlook an opponent. Notre Dame did just that against Pittsburgh, and it nearly cost the team its shot at championship. The way Kelly has seen things early in the week, perhaps that experience will pay off.
"They understand the importance of the USC game," Kelly said. "I was happy to see that they had that kind of maturity to know that it's all about how we play against USC."