NORMAN — Bob Stoops said Saturday's game at Notre Dame is “just another one” on the schedule.
His players, though, sang a different tune Monday. They spoke of the trip to South Bend as an opportunity to prove themselves inside one of the nation's premier college football meccas.
“You don't want to define a season by one game, but this game could point our season in one direction or the other,” said senior center Gabe Ikard. “We all realize the magnitude that this game will have on our entire season.”
In reality, the game is important for both Oklahoma and Notre Dame — two of the great programs in college football history that have regularly been slapped with the “overrated” label in recent years.
A Pollspeak.com study in the summer declared Oklahoma the most overrated program between 2008 and 2012, based on their pre- and postseason ranking in The Associated Press' Top 25 poll. Notre Dame, meanwhile, boasts a rich football history, but has struggled to consistently stay among the nation's elite over the past few decades.
Over the last 25 seasons, Oklahoma and Notre Dame have combined for only two national championships. The Irish won their last title in 1988, and the Sooners won it in 2000, Bob Stoops' second season at the helm.
The Sooners are 3-0 and appear drastically improved in several areas from last season, when Notre Dame came to Norman and held OU to 15 team rushing yards and left a 30-13 victor.
OU has rushed for at least 300 yards in two of its three wins this season so far, and junior quarterback Blake Bell added a major spark to the passing game in his first start against Tulsa.
The OU defense also seems improved, but against Louisiana-Monroe, West Virginia and Tulsa, it's tough to determine just how improved it is.
“It's really important,” senior linebacker Corey Nelson said of the Notre Dame game. “This is the most important game of the season so far. We have a lot to prove. This will show what our defense is really made of.”
After he arrived in 1999, Stoops clearly lifted Oklahoma back into the ranks of the nationally elite programs. But the Sooners have lost five of their last six BCS bowl appearances, three of which were national championship game losses.
What better way to regain some of that lost luster than a victory at Notre Dame?
“All of a sudden Texas doesn't matter? Big 12 championships don't matter?” Stoops responded when asked if a win at Notre Dame could become the signature victory OU has lacked in recent years.
“At the end of the day, it's not a conference game. We've played one conference game. There's a big schedule still in front of us.”
Oklahoma has won seven Big 12 titles outright under Stoops, and shared last year's with Kansas State.
“You'd rather win a conference game as opposed to this,” said defensive coordinator Mike Stoops. “We're about winning conference championships and competing for national championships. This is the next game.”
Notre Dame, of course, doesn't have conference titles to fall back on.
The Irish have always played football independently, meaning that to Notre Dame, high-profile games like this one are vitally important to the only championship it competes for — national championships.
The Irish enters Saturday's game at 3-1, with a 41-30 Week 2 loss at Michigan blemishing their record.
Fourth-year head coach Brian Kelly led Notre Dame to an unbeaten regular season in 2012, but the Irish were routed by Alabama in the national championship game.
Last October's win at Oklahoma helped the Irish establish themselves as a legitimate national contender a year ago, and a win Saturday over the currently unbeaten Sooners could again boost the program in 2013.
“I embrace it,” Nelson said of the hype surrounding OU-Notre Dame. “You only get a once-in-a-lifetime chance to be in a situation like this. I'm embracing the opportunity.”