SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Notre Dame has four games left, and the assignment is clear: Win out, and there's a good chance they'll make a BCS bowl.
September losses to Michigan and Oklahoma quickly dashed any hope Notre Dame had of reaching the BCS Championship for the second straight year. So in the team's bye week earlier this month, a new goal was set.
"Everybody basically knew we were out for our main goal up there on the ceiling,” cornerback Bennett Jackson said, pointing to the team's schedule in the Guglielmino Athletics Complex that still includes a placard for the 2014 BCS Championship. “Coach Kelly gave us a new directive of what we were trying to reach. He asked us, and every single person in the room said we want to make it to a BCS bowl. Obviously you want to finish in the top position you can, playing your best game at the end of the year that you can.
"We were halfway through the season, we were progressing as a team, and he just said let's start fresh here. We're halfway through, we win the next six, we go undefeated in the second half we make it to a BCS bowl game. And everybody was on board with that."
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A 10-win season doesn't guarantee Notre Dame a BCS bowl berth, seeing as in 2002 the Irish went 10-2 in the regular season and didn't make a BCS bowl. But finishing the season on a seven-game winning streak with strong wins over Arizona State and Stanford (as well as USC and BYU) should put the Irish in position for, say, the Orange Bowl.
Setting the goal on getting into a specific bowl game is new for Kelly at Notre Dame, and while the "one week at a time" mantra still exists, it's a long-term objective he felt his team was ready to take on.
"This is the first year we've even talked about bowl games and things of that nature," Kelly said. "We were too busy kind of putting the thing together and you know what I mean, talking about building it from day to day.
"And last year, if anybody brought up anything relative to a bowl when you're on the run that we were last year, we would have taken their tongues out."
Other schools have the fallback of a conference championship when they're knocked out of BCS contention, but as Notre Dame players and coaches are quick to point out, that doesn't exist for the independent Irish. The next best thing is a prestigious BCS bowl, although there's no margin for error going forward if Notre Dame wants to reach one.
The good news for Notre Dame is that they're relatively fresh -- at least, as fresh as most teams can be two-thirds of the way into a season. To be sure, the Irish have injured players (Christian Lombard, Louis Nix) and others who are banged up (Chris Watt, Sheldon Day, Elijah Shumate, among others).
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But mentally, players feel fresh. There are plenty of factors that go into that -- practices aren't as long and aren't grueling at this point, and last week's final practice before the Air Force game was done without pads.
"They have to feel as though when they come in in November that there's an energy to them," Kelly said. "They enjoy coming, that it's not a chore."
Safety Matthias Farley echoed that message.
"It's the same approach all year, but guys realize, especially at this point in the season, you have to enjoy, you can't let it bog you down or get in a grind," he said.
A relatively minor way Notre Dame's aimed to keep things fresh during the week is by switching up the music at practice. It's become a source of fun, at least for the defense -- since enigmatic defensive coordinator Bob Diaco is the one picking the songs from time to time. And apparently, he's pretty good at knowing the tastes of his players.
"It doesn't surprise me at all. I think it's hilarious," Farley said. "He'll pick a playlist with a song that just came out and get everyone hyped up, so it's definitely a good thing."
Cornerback KeiVarae Russell agreed, saying it's something that keeps things loose.
"Coach Diaco's a wild, exotic guy," Russell laughed. "He's up in the air every day."
November begins with Navy on Saturday for the Irish, a game in which they're heavily favored. Like Air Force, Navy runs the option fairly effectively but doesn't have a good defense. Notre Dame has clobbered Navy the last two years by a combined score of 106-24, and beat Air Force 45-10 last week.
But the theme here is to stay fresh, whether the next opponent is Navy or Stanford. Crystallizing a new goal -- reaching a BCS bowl helps with that, probably more than musical changes during practice.
"It kind of just gave us a new motivation and almost a brand new start," Jackson said. "Not really a start, but almost a new start, just to get everybody focused and on track to what our goal was so everybody was 100 percent clear."