Graham was the head coach for the Tulsa Hurricanes when they upset the Irish in Brian Kelly’s first season as the coach for Notre Dame. Their paths crossed the very next year, when Graham was the head coach for the Pitt Panthers, with Kelly’s Irish coming out on top this time around.
Now set for the rubber match in Texas, both coaches find themselves on two different paths for their respective team’s current season. Arizona State has one of the best offense’s in the nation, not a surprise under the direction of Graham, and currently sit 3-1 after their dismantling of the USC Trojans.
This year’s Notre Dame team under Kelly returned a good chunk of their starters from a year ago, but as Kelly has put it several times this season, “This is a different group than last.” After being led by their defense all the way to the National Championship game, the big plays they weren’t allowing last year have been allowed this year, and have dropped the Irish to a 3-2 record and out of the AP Rankings.
Both coaches are one of the main driving forces in the spread offense, becoming such a popular offense used, and both have reaped the benefits after enjoying success at small schools. Kelly led Division-II Grand Valley State to a 20-game winning streak, before enjoying success with the Central Michigan Chippewas (won the MAC Championship Kelly’s last year). A 12-0 season (Kelly didn’t coach the bowl game) with the Cincinnati Bearcats led Kelly to Notre Dame, where in his third season, coached them to the National Championship game.
Graham hasn’t quite enjoyed the success on the national stage like Kelly has, but can do so at Arizona State, the biggest stage he has coached at in his coaching career. A win, like one against the Irish on Saturday, and continued success this season, could push him there.
Both Graham and Kelly used a system that was implemented to give the smaller school a chance to win, and now they both are enjoying success in the big time. The next step for these two? It is quite possible that one of these two coaches could find themselves in the professional ranks, as Kelly flirted with the idea last season. This matchup, as much as any on the field, will be one to watch for when the two teams square off against each other.
Anthony Murphy is a contributing writer for RantSports.com. You can follow him on Twitter @AMurphyTFC.