Would win over Ohio State be Brian Kelly's finest at Notre Dame?

Al Lesar
South Bend Tribune

Hard to put a value on a college football victory that doesn’t come with a title.

In the grand scheme, everything else is just window dressing.

That’s why Brian Kelly might be challenged to consider a win over seventh-ranked Ohio State (11-1) Friday in the Fiesta Bowl as the most significant victory in his tenure at Notre Dame.

It’s not as easy as just measuring talent or records. The future plays role. If that conquest doesn’t bring a national championship, the next circumstance to consider is: What does it do to the big picture? How does it enhance the next season?

Case in point: Face value, last year’s Music City Bowl win over LSU (which finished 8-5) was barely a blip on the college football radar. What it did, though, was stop the bleeding from a four-game losing streak and dress the Irish for success this season.

So, big-picture, that was a significant win.

“I really don’t count ‘em,” Kelly said of ranking significant victories. “Each year presents different challenges. You have football teams. … The greatest victory we had was when we beat USC to go undefeated (in 2012). But the greatest victory I had last year was beating LSU (in the Music City Bowl), because we had lost four in a row.

“Each year, for me, is a snapshot of one year. For me, there are 25 of my greatest victories in my 25 years (as a head coach). Each year there’s that great victory, because I break it down by year, by year, by year.

“Beating Ohio State would definitely be the greatest victory this year. That’s the truth. Each year I focus on that specific year. It’s almost impossible to take one (over the others), because each year is so different.”

Kelly went on to rationalize what a win in the desert would mean.

“(Beating Ohio State) would be a significant win for our football team, because they’re defending champs,” the coach said. “We’ve come up short a couple times, right? We came up short last year against (Florida State) the defending national champs. We’ve been close to getting that.

“It would be a significant win. How I would characterize it? I’d have to do that when we sit down and do the book.”

Rather than waiting for the memoirs to be published, it’s fair game to speculate about what this game means to Kelly and the eighth-ranked Irish (10-2) — and the long-term success of the Notre Dame program.

Since arriving six years ago, Kelly’s mandate has been to get Notre Dame back into the elite group that contends for a national championship every year. Even in the uber-competitive, no-room-for-failure world of college football, teams like Alabama, Ohio State — and even Michigan State —have proven it’s possible.

Kelly suggested the 22-13 escape from LA in 2012 that earned a spot in the national championship game as a monumental win. But after being tossed around like a rag doll by Alabama, its value was diminished.

The undefeated run in 2012 was supposed to be the start of the period of dominance, but the humbling disaster of getting rolled by the Tide, followed by 9-4 and 8-5, caused backpedaling like a big-time cornerback.

Ohio State is loaded with athletes who will be signing seven-figure contracts real soon. The Irish have a few. The Buckeyes’ only blemish over the last two years came on a field goal as time expired. Notre Dame has lost 17 players to injury who were on the preseason two-deep. Ohio State is healthier now than when it won the title a year ago. Notre Dame hasn’t won a bowl that mattered in more than two decades.

Odds are stacked against the Irish, but not any more than they were against Clemson and Stanford — both winnable games to the very end. By now, the Irish have become numb to adversity. Another injury? No big deal. Suspension? Who’s next?

This is Kelly’s opportunity to position his program for the long haul. A win over Ohio State would only be as significant as next year allows it to be. Steps backward can’t be tolerated. Six years into a mission should be yielding some big-time results.

That’s when the victories really come with a value.

Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly during practice on Tuesday, Dec. 29, 2015, at Scottsdale Community College in Scottsdale, Ariz. (Tribune photo by Robert Franklin)