SOUTH BEND — While the college football world watched the unveil of the first College Football Playoff rankings Tuesday night, the Notre Dame football team did just about anything else.
“I was watching SpongeBob,” defensive lineman Julian Okwara said. “I went to bed at like eight o’clock.”
Starting quarterback Ian Book was taking care of the “student” part of his student-athlete responsibilities.
“I was doing a group project,” Book said. “We present (Thursday), it should be fun.”
As if wide receiver Miles Boykin needed more football in his life, he was out on the field working on his leadership skills.
“I was coaching my flag football team,” Boykin said. “We went 2-2 in the regular season and we have a playoff game on Sunday.”
Elsewhere in South Bend, cornerback Julian Love was making sure to get to a volleyball match in time.
“I was on my way to my girlfriend’s intramural volleyball game. They just started their indoor season. They’re the reigning champs,” Love said. “They’re tough.”
It’s this type of focus that has Notre Dame in the spot they are today.
When the rankings were revealed on Tuesday, the Irish held the No. 4 ranking. If the season ended today, they’d be facing the No. 1 Alabama Crimson Tide in one of the playoff semifinal games.
No. 2 Clemson and No. 3 LSU rounded out the top four, with Michigan and Georgia in the next two spots, respectively.
It starts from the top with Notre Dame. Head coach Brian Kelly has made sure his team has focused on only one ranking all season.
“I want to pay attention to the last one. That's the one that really matters. Does this matter, this one? Do they put you in the Playoffs for this one? I don't think so,” Kelly said. “The one that we're interested in, the one that we'll watch as a team, is the last one. That's the one that we want to focus on. That's the one we'll pay attention to.”
That message was received loud and clear by the Irish players.
“I didn’t even know the rankings were even coming out, and I didn’t even really care,” Love said.
“No, we don’t talk about it, really,” Book added. “We have to take it week-by-week, and coach Kelly has been talking about that. It’s something none of us are really talking about. We’re talking about beating Northwestern.”
Notre Dame was in this spot a season ago. The Irish were No. 3 when the first rankings came out in 2017. Five days later, their playoff dreams were crushed with a 41-8 loss to No. 8 Miami.
Love acknowledged the team bought-in to the initial playoff rankings too much ahead of the game against the Hurricanes.
“Oh, 100 percent. Because, it’s a relatively new thing, the College Football Playoff. We, at Notre Dame, we were really trying to get that prowess back, so it was a huge distraction,” Love said.
After falling victim to the hype last season, Love notices a different attitude with his team in 2018.
“We’re so locked in across the board. There’s so much experience on this team that it doesn’t even matter,” Love said.
That experience has Kelly confident a late-season collapse isn’t in the future for his team.
“They know the things that we can't do. They have a process that they know has gotten them here. They've won 18 games over the last two years and lost three,” Kelly said. “I think just the knowledge of going through it — having it in front of us before, not finishing it the right way — has been a great impetus for all the guys.”
Chaos is bound to happen in the final five weeks of the season. We’re guaranteed a top-four team to lose this weekend when No. 1 Alabama takes on No. 3 LSU. That’s why the Notre Dame players know if they take care of business, they’ll be able to watch that final rankings show together.
“So much can happen between now and that last ranking. So, it doesn’t mean too much right now. We just have to do what we have to do,” Boykin said. “Nothing has really changed. We’ve controlled our destiny from game one. Just the stakes get bigger each and every week.”
Austin Hough can be reached at email@example.com or 574-533-2151, ext. 325. Follow Austin on Twitter @AustinHoughTGN