On Sunday, the Fighting Irish (11-0) ascended to the top spot in the latest BCS standings. It is the program's first No. 1 ranking in 19 years.
“It's like being selected for the playoffs,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “Now you know you're in if you take care of business, and you've got to win each week. I think it's more about just the feeling that you're included now in the race for a championship.”
The adulation isn't limited to simply football victories for Kelly's program. With Sunday's ranking, it marks the first time in the history of the BCS and the NCAA Graduation Success Rate rankings that any team has ranked No. 1 both in the current BCS standings and in the current NCAA GSR ratings.
“I took the Notre Dame job wanting to really get an opportunity to play for a national championship and have high graduation rates,” Kelly said. “That's really why I took the job here. And I think we're going to validate that this year with the No.1 graduation rates that you can do both, and they don't have to be mutually exclusive in college football.”
The accomplishment took place just 48 hours after Tennessee had its probation extended by the NCAA for violations that occurred within the program of then Volunteer coach Lane Kiffin in 2009. Kiffin is the current USC coach, and the Trojans also have been reprimanded by the NCAA in recent years.
''We will finally close the chapter on the prior actions of members of a previous coaching staff,'' Tennessee athletic director Dave Hart said in a statement.
Many cynics have said that success in intercollegiate athletics is difficult to achieve on the field and in the classroom, but Kelly has never shared in that belief and he particularly doesn't feel that way about his current university.
“I have not seen anything here in my time that will not allow us to continue to have the highest graduation rates and compete for a National Championship,” Kelly said. “I've been doing it 22 years. So I think I know what it looks like if you couldn't do it.”If USC (7-4) hopes to knock off the Irish it will have to do so without its All-American quarterback.
Trojan senior Matt Barkley was injured in a loss at UCLA on Saturday and USC announced on Sunday that he would not start against the Irish.
"I feel bad for him and his family," Kiffin said. "This is obviously not how you want it to be."
Barkley was injured late in the game when sacked and left the Rose Bowl with his arm in a sling. USC did not disclose the nature of the injury or whether Barkley might be able to return for a bowl game.
“They have great weapons,” Kelly said. “(Marqise) Lee and (Robert) Woods and the running back situation, they've got two great backs. So it's- we're going to have to defend all of those players, not just one.
“If (Matt) Barkley is playing, which we'll prepare for him like he is playing, the offense is still going to be about getting the ball to their play makers. So it really won't change much in terms of what we do.”
The Trojans will have to rely on freshman Max Wittek, who will make his first career start. Wittek has played a limited role in six games this season and has completed 8-of-9 passes for 95 yards and a touchdown.