Notre Dame's 49-14 win against Southern California on Saturday night may have been the most unanticipated result of the weekend in college football to everyone except Brian Kelly.
The Fighting Irish coach revealed that, before kickoff, he had written on a notecard in the locker room at Notre Dame Stadium that anything other than a convincing victory would be disappointing.
"And I did that because I would then reevaluate some of the things that maybe we did relative to our preparation," Kelly said. "I thought we would do well. Our kids performed extremely well and to the level that I thought they would play at, and next week brings another challenge, but I thought that they were prepared. They were ready."
The trouncing, which included a 28-0 lead at halftime, emphatically confirmed Kelly's foresight and elevated Notre Dame (6-1), now ranked ninth in the country, into the thick of the chase for the College Football Playoff. The first CFP rankings will be unveiled Oct. 31.
Notre Dame faces three more ranked opponents this season: No. 14 North Carolina State, No. 8 Miami and No. 20 Stanford (with the last two on the road). Assuming the Fighting Irish win out, the rugged stretch would significantly reinforce their claim to one of the CFP's four berths.
Notre Dame is one of four one-loss schools in the top 10, with its only defeat coming against unbeaten and third-ranked Georgia, 20-19. No. 6 Ohio State's only loss was to No. 10 Oklahoma, 31-16; No. 7 Clemson and the Sooners fell to unranked opponents.
"We just want to be aware so we can enhance where we are," Kelly said. "Just be aware of your situation, and that means you've gotten here because you have really stuck to what we've asked you to do. So my point being that the big-picture stuff, [players are] aware of it, but they know how they got here, and they like where they're at."
They're in the midst of a complete reversal from this point last season, when the Fighting Irish were 2-5.
Kelly said the turnaround began immediately following the final game last season, a 45-27 loss to the Trojans in Los Angeles that left the Fighting Irish 4-8. He told players to decide whether they wanted to come back to the team and, if so, to be ready to double down on their commitment after the Fighting Irish's first losing season since 2007.
Among those leading the resurgence is left tackle Mike McGlinchey, a second-team all-American last year. The graduate student has been a captain for the past two seasons and called Saturday's victory his most gratifying in five years at Notre Dame.
"We made a commitment as soon as we were in that locker room at Southern California last year that things were going to change," he said. "It started with Coach Kelly and the staff that he's brought in and the changes he's made and just the players buying in completely. We're starting to expect to do the things we're capable of doing, and I think that's where our biggest jump has been - in the mind-set of getting after people and being able to take it to them."
Notre Dame has an average margin of victory of 28.4 points during its five-game winning streak and has rushed for at least 333 yards in four of those games, including 515 against Boston College during a 49-20 road win Sept. 16.
The only opponent in that stretch that held Notre Dame relatively in check on the ground was Michigan State, which is eighth in the nation in rushing defense (93.6 yards per game). Still, the Fighting Irish managed 182 rushing yards in their 38-18 win Sept. 23 in East Lansing, Michigan.
Notre Dame is sixth nationally in rushing offense (317.9 yards per game) behind running back Josh Adams and quarterback Brandon Wimbush. The duo ran for 191 and 106 yards, respectively, against the Trojans, marking the fourth time this season the Fighting Irish had two players amass 100 rushing yards in the same game.
They had just five such games over the previous 15 seasons.
"We already put it in motion at the beginning of the season that we wanted to be one of two teams in the national championship, and once we did that, it was full steam ahead," Adams said. "I think that every guy has that in his mind, but we don't look too far ahead. We just focus on the next opponent. We're just let everything take care of itself."