SOUTH BEND, Ind. – Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly has bigger things to worry about right now than defending national champion Alabama.
With the national championship game between top-ranked Fighting Irish (12-0) and the Crimson Tide (12-1) more than a month away, Kelly's main concern is making sure his players will be ready to play after 44 days without a game.
"We're just trying to be better than Alabama on Monday, Jan. 7," Kelly said. "So our entire focus will be on a one-game season, trying to be better on Monday, Jan. 7. So you can understand, we don't want to be better than Alabama on the 27th of December."
Alabama has already shown it knows how to be ready after long layoffs, winning the BCS title game in 2009 and again last season. Kelly said he talked to coaches at LSU, Oregon to get advice on how best prepare for a long layoff and they reinforced his plan of starting off slow with fundamentals.
Last week and this week, Irish players have been focusing on conditioning, weightlifting and school work.
It's a chance for players who may have lost a few pounds to get back up to weight and gain strength, he said. Notre Dame will hold its first practices on Friday and Saturday, then hold six more practices before players head home on Dec. 21. They'll return to campus for practices Dec. 28-31, and then leave for Miami on Jan. 2. They will practice three times in Florida before the game.
The early practices will have a preseason camp feel stressing fundamentals and giving younger players more work, then begin to fine tune the practices for Alabama as the game draws nearer, Kelly said.
The time away from the field will help some players. Kelly mentioned linebacker Manti Te'o specifically as someone who needs a little time to recover with all the attention he's been under as he begins traveling the nation for all the awards he's up for. He won the Butkus Award as the nation's top linebacker on Monday and was named one of the Heisman Trophy finalists, too.
"He's burned out. There's no question. He's on fumes," Kelly said.
Irish players said they're trying to make the most of their time away from the field.
"We're not taking this period off. We're not taking a break. We're going to get after it. We're going to let our bodies heal, give it the proper amount of time, but we're still going to be doing some stuff to make sure we're going to be on our A-game," safety Zeke Motta said.
The Irish also have some distractions to worry about as some players weigh whether to come back for fifth-years, others put in paperwork to the NFL to get an idea about where they might be drafted and some coaches could be considered for openings. Defensive coordinator Bob Diaco has been mentioned as a candidate for several jobs.
"That's a good thing, all three of those things," Kelly said. "That means good things are happening in your program. Those are the kinds of problems I want to have to deal with on a day-to-day basis because that means that you're developing your program in a manner that is putting you in a position to compete for championships."
Kelly expects everyone to be ready to play against the Crimson Tide. Nose guard Louis Nix is recovering from a wrist injury and tackle Zack Martin is recovering from an ankle injury. Receiver DaVaris Daniels, who sustained a broken left clavicle against Boston College, also is expected to be back.
Kelly said his goal during the 6 weeks between games – 2 days longer than the time between the sixth game of the season against Stanford and the final game of the regular season against Southern California — is for the Irish to heal, improve and be ready Jan. 7.
"It's a one-game deal," he said.