SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Brian Kelly began his press conference Tuesday by pre-empting any questions about his comments on the Notre Dame-Michigan rivalry.
"It's a great and historic rivalry that we'll be playing this Saturday, so let's get that out of the way right away so we don't have to answer any more questions about this rivalry," Kelly said. "We're excited about the game, excited about playing it. This will be decided by the players on the field and the preparation that goes along with it so we can stick to that and dispense with the nonsense."
The focus of this weekend's pivotal game shifted off the field long before this week, however, A year ago, Notre Dame exercised its opt-out clause, removing future games with Michigan from its schedule after 2014. In May, Michigan coach Brady Hoke told a group of fans that the Irish were "chickening out" of their rivalry with the Wolverines, a statement he backed up at Big Ten media day and again this week.
On Sunday, Kelly downplayed the Notre Dame-Michigan rivalry on his weekly teleconference, saying it didn't have the tradition or history of some of his program's other rivalry games.
Any time a highly-rated, intense rivalry comes to an end, the focus shifts off football. It's been an all-too-common occurrence during the realignment cycle of the last few college seasons: Texas isn't playing Texas A&M, Missouri isn't playing Kansas, Pittsburgh isn't playing West Virginia.
Theatrics and lamenting aside, Notre Dame's matchup with Michigan on Saturday carries far more importance than standing as the final scheduled game between the two storied programs in Ann Arbor. The winner of the last two Notre Dame-Michigan games has made a BCS bowl; the loser has gone 8-5.
It's a game, wide receiver T.J. Jones said last weekend, that gives each team a good sense of what their ceiling is for a given season.
For both Notre Dame and Michigan, a win means their path to the BCS Championship gets a lot less nerve-wracking. Each team faces a top-five opponent to end the season (Stanford for Notre Dame, Ohio State for Michigan), games that likely become a must-win if either team enters them with one or two losses.
2013 is the last year of the BCS, and Notre Dame is cognizant of the importance of strength of schedule with the new playoff format beginning next season. Notre Dame will play five ACC opponents as well as three rivalry games it'll keep -- Navy, Stanford and USC -- not giving the Irish a ton of wiggle room to tweak much.
After 2014, Notre Dame plays Texas in 2015 (in South Bend) and 2016 (in Austin), and then gets the Longhorns again in 2019 (Austin) and 2020 (South Bend). That's something Kelly pointed to when asked about dropping Michigan -- keeping a national program such as Texas on the schedule is of high importance.
Still, Kelly said playing Michigan makes sense for Notre Dame. Perhaps the early-season bellwether game will be revived down the road -- the way Kelly talks, it doesn't sound dead, like a few other casualties of conference realignment.
"It's really, for me, about two programs that share a border, that it makes sense to play. I get that," Kelly said, when asked about Hoke's "chickening out" comment. "It's just there's so many complexities with our schedule and our agreement with the ACC that it's difficult and frustrating. I can see the frustration that would be there."