NORMAN — It only counts as one.
That's the message Notre Dame football coach Brian Kelly is sending to his players this week. Almost 900 miles from South Bend, Ind., Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops is sending the Sooners a different message about Saturday's game in Norman.
“Probably the most anticipated game here since 2000,” Stoops said, “when Nebraska came in here ranked No. 1 in the country and we were No. 2. It was a pretty incredible day.”
This Week 9 matchup that interests even ESPN's GameDay crew is between No. 5-ranked Notre Dame and No. 7 Oklahoma.
Kelly sees this as “one”? That's it? That's what history of breaking OU's record 47-game win streak and an 8-1 series advantage means to Notre Dame?
Yup. The Irish's main man, now in his 22nd year of coaching, said his players “know they haven't arrived … and they haven't reached the level that they can. That is a very good place to be.”
Kelly didn't even speak the words “national championship” during a press conference Sunday despite the Irish owning a 7-0 record.
Heck, Kelly is going into Oklahoma game week undefeated — and he asked for the typical 2 p.m. press conference to start 15 minutes late so he could enjoy his son's final football game of the season.
This is not just a Notre Dame team mentality. Al Lesar has been covering Notre Dame for the South Bend Tribune since 1991, when Irish football went from Lou Holtz's heroics to losing seasons under Tyrone Willingham and Charlie Weis.
“It was like this in 2002,” Lesar said. “They ended up in a BCS with Willingham. We all know how that ended.
“This isn't as significant as the big picture in terms of where they can take this. Sustainability is the main thing.
“This is just the first step in how can you maintain this.”
The void of national championship talk isn't just a this-week thing. Lesar said Kelly has the season pretty much compartmentalized, simply focusing on just one week at a time.
Why doesn't a nonconference game mean the same to Notre Dame as Oklahoma? Well, Notre Dame's football program always plays nonconference. Although the Irish have a pretty similar schedule of teams such as Michigan, Michigan State, Southern Cal, Army, Navy and Boston College, the OU game is just another one on the schedule.
However, Notre Dame fans see it a bit different. Corey Walz is a senior at OU. He grew up five miles south of Notre Dame Stadium. And as he puts it, “When you grow up in the shadow of the Golden Dome, you don't really have a choice.”
He called this coming weekend the hardest of his life.
Sixteen members of his Irish-loving family are making the trip to Norman, and he's decided to root for Oklahoma.
“It's going to rip my heart out,” Walz said.
He will soon become an OU graduate, which is why he decided to support the Sooners this weekend. But, he's not going to cheer against Notre Dame.
That's the common response from Irish fans who are current Sooners. This weekend's game is exactly like Nebraska in 2000 for a possible Huskers fan residing in Oklahoma — nothing good will come out of either team winning because it will most likely ruin one team's shot at the national championship.
While OU has played these big games regularly and been in the BCS title game three times since 2000, Notre Dame has never made it in the new millennium. For all of Notre Dame's tradition, competing for a national championship has become a bit unfamiliar.
The last time Notre Dame started a season 7-0, it was 2002. The Irish was ranked No. 4 — and then lost to Boston College at home. The Irish later to USC and ended up in the Gator Bowl.
For his Sunday column after Notre Dame edged BYU, Lesar wrote that the game against Oklahoma isn't a “BCS berth” game, it's a “placement game.”
Will this be a Fiesta Bowl season or a shot at the crystal-trophy-in-the-national-title-game season?
Kelly and the Irish don't know.
All they're focused on is making this next one count.