Kelly built his reputation and winning teams at previous stops on fast-paced spread offenses. In South Bend, Ind., he has put the fight back in the Irish, who have won eight AP national titles — only Alabama has as many — but none since 1988.
Notre Dame has allowed the fewest touchdowns in the country (10) and is sixth overall in total defense (286 yards per game).
"It's clear that the formation of any great program is going to be on its defense," Kelly said. "If you play great defense you've got a chance. For us to move Notre Dame back into national prominence we had to develop a defense."
The face of the Irish isn't a strong-armed quarterback or speedy ball carrier. It's middle linebacker Manti Te'o, a 255-pound offense wrecker with a nose for the ball. The senior has seven interceptions and is a likely Heisman finalist.
Te'o, along with 300-pound linemen Stephon Tuitt and Louis Nix, have formed a red-zone wall for the Irish. Late goal-line stands highlighted victories against Stanford and USC.
"There's some pretty physical guys that have some great toughness and some great licks," Saban said in assessing Notre Dame.
While nurturing redshirt freshman Everett Golson, Kelly has leaned on Notre Dame's running game, which averages 202 yards.
"This is just a good all-around football team with tremendous balance on offense and a very physical defense," Saban said.
If Notre Dame, making its first appearance in a BCS championship, is going to break the SEC's strangle hold on the crystal ball trophy, the Irish will try to beat 'Bama at its own game.
And Kelly will try to uphold a Notre Dame tradition, by winning a national title in his third season as coach. Frank Leahy, Ara Parseghian, Dan Devine and Lou Holtz all won it all in Year 3 playing in the shadow of the Golden Dome.