After close calls, perfection and playoff within Notre Dame’s reach

EVANSTON, IL - NOVEMBER 03: Head coach Brian Kelly of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish leads his team onto the field prior to a game against the Northwestern Wildcats at Ryan Field on November 3, 2018 in Evanston, Illinois. (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)

SOUTH BEND – Three has been a quite a number in the history of Fighting Irish football.

A number of quarterbacks – including Joe Montana – have worn the number three. Frank Leahy, Ara Parseghian, Dan Devine, and Lou Holtz all won national championships in their third year.

Brian Kelly was in the BCS National Championship Game in year No. 3 of his tenure in South Bend.

Now comes another three for the Irish to think about as they complete the 2018 regular season: The number of times they’ve appeared in the top four of the College Football Playoff poll.

They were there in 2015 in November but couldn’t hold it. They started off in the poll in 2017 but stumbled late in the season. Maybe the third time is the charm to finally get a shot at the College Football Playoff.

The path is simple: Win against USC and the Irish finish with a perfect 12-0 record and seal up one of the four spots in the playoff. They’ve bolstered their resume with strong victories in November, including a dominating 36-3 win over then No. 13 Syracuse at Yankee Stadium last Saturday.

It’s kept them at No. 3 in current CFP rankings – and a victory over the Trojans in the school’s 90th meeting will keep them there.

“We’ll do what we’ve done each and every week,” said Kelly of the game, arguably one of the biggest in his nine years in South Bend.

A victory would put the Irish two wins away from their first National Championship since 1988. For a program with 11 titles, that’s quite a bit of time, with Bob Davie, Tyrone Willingham, and Charlie Weis all failing to get Notre Dame the No. 1 ranking at the end of the season.

Kelly got Notre Dame to the brink in 2012 before getting decimated by Alabama in the BCS National Championship game. Any victories from that year, however, were wiped out by the NCAA due to the use of ineligible players.

Odds appear to be in Notre Dame’s favor as they face a struggling Trojans’ team that just lost to two-win UCLA last week. Yet at 5-6, USC is still playing for a postseason berth, and would love nothing more than to spoil the Irish’s perfect season.

Yet Kelly says his mind is far from the drama going on in Los Angeles.

“All that sounds really intimidating and imposing, but we’ll focus on what we need to do to prepare our football team,” said Kelly. “As I mentioned at the outset, we have some things we need to work on. That will be our focus this week, what we need to do to be successful this weekend.”

While making the third time near the College Football Playoff a charm.