Notre Dame's 42-14 loss to Alabama in the Discover BCS National Championship provided a certain segment of the country the chance to rejoice in the familiar "S-E-C!" chants that reign every January. An entirely other segment, one that rejoices in the failing of all things Notre Dame -- and thus inadvertently fuels the surge that makes this program so darn popular in the first place -- bellowed that the Fighting Irish's 2012 regular season was the product of a weak schedule, bad officiating and, well, the luck of the Irish.
Brian Kelly's brief flirtation with the Philadelphia Eagles in the aftermath did not help matters. But once Kelly put the kibosh on the NFL and as the rest of the nation continued to mock the loss -- along with recycling every fake dead girlfriend joke imaginable in light of the Manti Te'o saga -- players and coaches inside the Guglielmino Athletics Complex put their heads down and went to work.
By the commencing of spring practice, Kelly was singing an entirely different tune.
"My comments after the game and my comments after I got a chance to watch the film were a little bit different," the fourth-year Irish coach said of the loss to the Crimson Tide. "I thought watching the game there were some things there that we weren't in a position yet to even come close to. But we're a lot closer than I thought."
That starts up front, where the Irish return two guys who will hear their names called on April 24, 2014 if they choose to enter the NFL. Louis Nix and Stephon Tuitt are two of eight starters back on a defense that finished second nationally in scoring, and though it loses the Heisman Trophy runner-up in Te'o, it is every bit as talented, and even deeper, than last season's outfit.
Offensively, position battles waged at running back, center and right guard, with Everett Golson building off his first season in the driver's seat by bulking up, taking on more of a leadership role and understanding what did and didn't work during a campaign that ended with a national title game performance that wasn't exactly one to forget for the 20-year-old.
"For him, knowing Everett, it's just another day for him," offensive coordinator Chuck Martin said this spring of Golson's first and only loss. "He wasn't in awe of the moment, which is awesome. He played very well under a lot of duress for a lot of different reasons. The first guy you'd think would fold at 21-0 is your freshman quarterback in that moment. And he didn't, he kept competing, he kept fighting, he's getting better and better."
Just how much better Notre Dame can get after its best season in 24 years remains the question. The offense is still in search of playmakers in the backfield and at tight end. The defense loses the leadership of Te'o and Kapron Lewis-Moore. The schedule is roughly the same as 2012.
The Irish's most valuable lesson this calendar year came on Jan. 7, fueling a response in the months since of a program not content with being second-best.
"I think it's a very confident group of guys," Kelly said after the spring game. "They have got a lot of confidence in themselves. They believe that they are going to be successful. So I would say that the identity of this group right now is that they are a confident group. Now, we are going to have some tough times and we'll see how we bounce back from those.
"That's really the measure, right? Everybody is good when they are 0-0."