SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Brian Kelly cautions that Notre Dame has not validated anything yet. A No. 7 ranking in October means, well, nothing. The Irish have an opponent this week in No. 17 Stanford that has beaten them in their last three meetings.
So Kelly is not ready to say that his three years at Notre Dame have proven that the highest standard on the field and in the classroom can mesh, not after two 8-5 campaigns. But he knows it can be done, and the fact that Saturday's clash is the first between schools ranked in the top 20 of both the AP football poll and the top 20 of the US News and World Report survey of best colleges is further proof. (Stanford is No. 6; Notre Dame is No. 17.)
"I would say that I am not frustrated that you can't do it at Notre Dame," Kelly said of the balance. "There is hard work just like there is anywhere else in building a program, but in no way do I believe that you can't -- after my close to three years here at Notre Dame -- that you can't be a competitive BCS football team year in and year out."
Just look at Stanford, the alma mater of the No. 1 NFL Draft pick Andrew Luck -- a player who returned to school for his senior season despite a similar draft forecast his junior year. The Cardinal have had the runner-up in the Heisman Trophy voting in each of the past three seasons, and they are coming off consecutive BCS-bowl appearances while eyeing a third.
Notre Dame has similar goals, and its ability to bring in consistently strong recruiting classes under Kelly-- along with this year's 5-0 start -- suggests similar success could be on the way.
"I wouldn't say it's much harder, it's just more proving it to the world that we can do both," said receiver TJ Jones, who initially committed to Stanford. "A lot of schools aren't powerhouses both academically and athletically. But to be able to put in the time and effort we do into our schoolwork, to put us at the top ranks and also come out on the field, and not be a powerhouse, but be one of the elite teams so far, I think that says a lot."
Kelly doesn't think the student-athlete ideals both schools embody get enough attention.
"I know that's one of the reasons why I came to Notre Dame," he said. "I wanted to make sure that everybody knew that you could do it in the classroom and you can certainly do it on the football field."
Even on the field, at least this season, these two programs seem to mirror each other from their formulas for success, which starts with physical, strong defenses and steady rushing attacks while each breaks in a first-year starter under center.
Kelly couldn't speak to the Cardinal's day-to-day operations but acknowledged that, from the outside looking in, each seems to have a similar blueprint.
Stanford, players and coaches said, has intimidated opponents with its machine-like approach.
"I think Stanford doesn't verbally intimidate teams," linebacker Manti Te'o said. "I think whenever you have a smash‑mouth mentality type of game plan and team, like Stanford, that you know what they're going to do yet you can't seem to stop it, I think that's intimidating in itself. I think that's what Coach referred to as intimidating. They intimidate the teams. Everybody knows what Stanford is going to do. It's just: Are you going to stop them?"
Te'o, like Luck, was the subject of much national attention after turning down a likely high draft selection to return to school for his senior year. Lately he has been the subject of all sorts of talk for national awards.
Games like Saturday's illustrate why the Hawaii native committed to play so far away from home.
"I love playing against Stanford," Te'o said. "They just line up and play hard. They don't say much. Past three years obviously went up against one of the best quarterbacks to ever come out of college football, and it was a pleasure to play against him, be on the same field as him, because he brought a different dynamic to the game.
"But with Stanford, I love playing against this type of team. It's just football, and they're going to keep running, running, running until you stop them. Then obviously they have play‑action and they can spread you out and throw the ball. So it's back‑to‑basics football."