Irish forced to deal in new reality

Notre Dame drew plenty of attention, as it always does, when preseason camp broke in August and the schedule posted inside the auditorium of the Guglielmino Athletics Complex featured "BCS Championship Game," slated for Jan. 7. The actual title game, the last of the BCS era, will actually be played Jan. 6.

It is of little significance to the Fighting Irish now, as it is clear that they will not be making a return trip this season. A second September defeat, Saturday's 35-21 home loss to Oklahoma, ensured that, while also seriously jeopardizing BCS bowl hopes.

Notre Dame has been down this road before in far uglier fashion, most recently two years ago, when their preseason goal of a BCS bowl took consecutive gut-punches during an 0-2 start. Knowing his team then needed to essentially win its final 10 contests, Brian Kelly went on to refer to the rest of the season as the playoffs.

The fourth-year Irish coach made no such declaration Sunday, though he did provide a blueprint for how he wants his players to respond to a 3-2 start.

"I would say this: They have been in the national championship game," Kelly said during his teleconference. "They have been to Florida for bowl games. What they are more interested in is playing well the next game and for the rest of the season. One bowl game or one game does not make it for these guys. They are more focused and we are more focused on being better as a football team and playing better week-to-week than the one game that we get at the end of the season."

It is a precarious situation, to be sure, managing a group coming off a national runner-up finish to push on through the reality that, no matter what it does over its final seven games, it will fall short of meeting its stated preseason goal. And the task becomes even more daunting when looking back at what the Irish could do, or couldn't do, in their first five games, while peeking ahead at who remains on-deck over these next two months. (Hello, Pac-12 trio.)

"We know it can't be a national championship, and we are disappointed that that's the case," Kelly said. "But to say, 'Hey, there's nothing to play for' -- what, for one game in Florida? What we are more interested in as a group -- and that's why we play this game -- is as a team, to play better, to be more consistent, to challenge ourselves, each and every week, to be better, and that's the group that we have here.

"That's the goal for this group. And I'm sure they probably articulated that to you guys in some fashion; that the most important thing is to get better as a group and play better football week-in and week-out. That's really what they want to be able to do."

The next nine weeks will bring seven games to prove how much better this team can get, and hardly any can be considered sure things given just how rocky the Irish have looked in their last four outings.

"It's painful now," captain TJ Jones said after Saturday's game. "I wouldn't say heads are down, but heads are disappointed in the loss, and we definitely know that there's a lot more work to be done to get back to achieving, I guess, the best record we can now."

The College Football Playoff remains a year away. Notre Dame can get a head start on it this season, though whatever trophy the Irish might raise this winter will not be quite the same.