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December 2, 2012
Brian Kelly was in Atlanta over the weekend. He said his staff has already begun to look at film. Alabama and the conference it comes from have ruled college football for the last six years.
Sunday night, when the BCS made it official that the No. 1 Irish would take on the No. 2 Crimson Tide, Kelly had already grasped the concept of what awaits his team in the national championship game on Jan. 7.
"We know about the SEC; they have dominated," said Kelly Sunday night from the Guglielmino Athletics Complex. "They are the pre-eminent conference. They've proven it on the field.
"Alabama has been the benchmark of college football, and (they've been in) three out of the last four national championship games. So we're aware of the challenge in front of us. We welcome it. We're putting ourselves in a position to find out where we need to go from here. We know about the SEC and have great respect for Alabama and its conference."
Kelly witnessed in person Alabama's thrilling 32-28 victory over Georgia in Saturday's SEC Championship game in Atlanta. The Crimson Tide, said Kelly, is just as impressive in person as they are to the TV viewing audience.
"Everybody notices size and strength and physicality," Kelly said. "What really stood out to me was that they were going to exert their will, and it didn't matter that they were down, they were going to run the football. They were going to go with their strength, and I like watching teams that want to beat you mentally as well as physically. They mentally won that game as much as they did (by being) physical.
"I was extremely impressed with both lines of Alabama. Extremely skilled across the board. What makes them very difficult to defend is they have a great playmaker on the perimeter where you can throw the ball down the field. Everybody has talked about their great offensive line, but their backs are physical. It's going to be a tremendous challenge for our football team."
Equally impressive to Kelly was Alabama's resolve when the Crimson Tide fell down by double digits in the first half and trailed in the fourth quarter. Nick Saban's team stayed the course and pulled out the victory.
"If you look at the way they played the game, there was no panic," Kelly said. "This is a team and a coaching staff that's been there before. They ran the ball in the third quarter and exerted their will on Georgia. Their physical and mental toughness is what jumps off the screen for me."
Kelly believes his team is headed down a similar path that Alabama and the SEC have carved in recent years. The next step is to determine just how far the Irish have come by taking on the defending national champions.
"That's what we're working on; we're still a work in progress," Kelly said. "Third year into it, the things behind the scenes, you're trying to develop that kind of player where on Saturdays, we'll have that physical and mental toughness. Those are things that happen on a day-to-day basis in your program."
Greatness can only start one place: defense.
"It's clear that the formation of any great program is going to be on its defense," Kelly said. "Whether it's high school, college or NFL, if you play great defense, you've got a chance. It starts with recruiting, first and foremost.
"For us to move Notre Dame back into national prominence, we had to begin with our defense. Our focus in recruiting, our focus in developing our talent and getting the right staff, was on the defensive side of the ball. You look to the SEC and the teams that were playing for the national championships - with Alabama leading that charge - those teams were built on defense."
While acknowledging the great football traditions at Alabama and Notre Dame, Kelly said history would play no role in his team's preparation.
"The tradition of Alabama and Notre Dame bring a special attention to it," Kelly said. "But we're just trying on our end to be the best team on Monday, Jan. 7. All of that tradition, what's happened in the past, is not going to help us on Monday, Jan. 7. But we do recognize and respect the history and the tradition of these two great universities coming together on the football field."
If the Irish don't pull off the upset on Jan. 7, Kelly doesn't believe it will be a result of the stage being too big and bright.
"If the moment is too big for you, it's an advantage (for Alabama)," Kelly said. "I don't know the moment will be too big. We've played at the Coliseum, we've played at Oklahoma, we've played at a great venue last year at Michigan, Michigan State?
"I'm not too concerned about that. I think what they have is a great football team. So I'm not as concerned about that as I am making sure our team is prepared on that one day to be the best team in that stadium."
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