SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Notre Dame's quest for a national championship began when players lined up for fourth-and-goal from the 3-yard line during spring practice.
The situation itself wasn't unique. Coaches simulate pressure and game-deciding plays all the time. Yet just before the snap, coach Brian Kelly threw the offense a curveball -- or, actually, a soccer ball.
"Score with a soccer ball," Kelly told the group, placing the ball in front of center Sam Mustipher. "Find a way."
"That was the craziest thing," Mustipher said later. "It kind of shocked me."
The conversion failed, as the soccer ball rolled away. The following day, in the same situation, Kelly pulled Buck linebacker Drue Tranquill, the fulcrum of the defense, off the field, forcing the other 10 to reorganize.
Same message: Find a way.
These displays weren't for Kelly's own amusement. Nor were the horns, sirens and helicopter-propeller whooshing that blared around the field. If it looked, sounded and felt more like chaos than a scripted practice more than four months before the real games kicked off, that meant the plan was working. Matt Balis, the team's strength and conditioning coach, has even orchestrated "chaos workouts" for players, complete with strobe lights.
"We're trying to create an environment of distraction," Kelly told ESPN.com. "I want them out of their comfort zone. As coaches, we practice, practice, practice, practice. Everything's scripted, five minutes for this, five minutes for that. Then, you go in the game, and all hell breaks loose and you're like, 'Whoa!'"
The Irish collectively screamed, "Whoa!" -- and other less-than-optimal words and phrases -- during a warm November night last year in Florida. Notre Dame freaked out Nov. 11 against Miami at Hard Rock Stadium, committing four turnovers and looking nothing like the nation's No. 3 team, which had flogged USC three weeks earlier and pushed eventual SEC champion Georgia to the brink in Week 2.
A 41-8 loss to the Hurricanes and their turnover chain ended Notre Dame's chances of making its first College Football Playoff appearance.
"That was a chaotic environment. It's either fight or flight," Kelly said. "And it starts with me. I did a poor job of preparing them. If we're playing our best, we beat Miami. We didn't play our best and the environment had something to do with it, so I have to create an environment that prepares them for that, so it doesn't happen again."
Notre Dame's offseason is largely based on chaos theory. If the Irish navigate frenzied stadiums like Miami's with many of the same players, they believe they will enter the national title talk, talk that is already happening around the Guglielmino Athletic Complex (more on that later).
Most of the initial shake-ups in practice caught players off guard. Defensive line coach Mike Elston recalled a time when Kelly removed an offensive player, leaving the defense with the man advantage.
"We just completely abort the defense and cut a man loose, and they score a touchdown with 10 guys," Elston said. "That really allowed [Kelly] to say, 'Listen, this is a situation we're going to find yourselves in. You cannot try to do somebody else's job. You have to focus."
Notre Dame opens with a massive test as it hosts Michigan on Saturday, and Stanford visits four weeks later. Both games are crucial to the team's CFP profile, which affords almost no wiggle room. But players and coaches spotlight a different game -- Oct. 6 at Virginia Tech -- as one that will truly test whether the offseason worked.
The Sandman is coming at Lane Stadium, and the Irish had better be ready.
"We're going to go to Blacksburg, Virginia, on a nationally televised stage," Kelly said. "It's going to be crazy, there's going to be chaos. You can plan, but you're going to have to handle the moment."
Coaches have seen players handle chaotic moments better in practice as more come their way. Defensive coordinator Clark Lea remembers "a lot of wide eyes" and overexcited players the first time the sirens blared. "They were reacting to the stimulus," Kelly said, "instead of focusing on what was important: executing their technique."
Kelly hasn't brought back the soccer ball, but he sets up situations where players must communicate to succeed.
"Now when that goes off, you just see this shift in focus," Lea said. "They go where the ball's being put down. They're listening for the information they can use. What's the situation? What's the call? What is it going to take to win?
"There's a calm and an ease that you see that wasn't there the first time."
It starts with quarterback Brandon Wimbush, whose play declined sharply beginning with the Miami game, which led to benchings both that night and during a Citrus Bowl victory over LSU. Wimbush reassessed everything this offseason and has drawn strong reviews in spring and camp.
The senior now must deliver for an offense that loses two top-10 draft picks on the line (Quenton Nelson and Mike McGlinchey) and 1,400-yard rusher Josh Adams. Talented junior Chase Claypool is the only returning wide receiver with more than 12 receptions from an offense that finished 102nd nationally in passing last fall.
"We've done a lot of situational stuff, real intense, win the game, all kind of chaos we can create for [Wimbush]," offensive coordinator Chip Long said. "How are you going to respond? He didn't respond great against Miami at all, or against Stanford. We've got to go to Blacksburg and it's going to be an 8 o'clock game. It's just teaching him that, 'Man, you've got to start taking your game to the next level. We've got all this other stuff fixed. Now it's time to be the guy back there.'"
Notre Dame's defense doesn't need one guy to control the chaos like Wimbush must for the offense. The team's signature unit returns 10 starters and quality depth at most spots. Coordinator Mike Elko, who orchestrated last season's renaissance, is gone to Texas A&M, leaving Lea in charge.
Lea, like the other coaches, wants players to better handle stressful situations this fall. The defense struggled against Miami (no takeaways, no sacks) and Stanford (no takeaways, season-high four touchdown passes allowed). But the overall upgrades in performance and confidence created trust, both between players and coaches and with the scheme, which Lea intends to maintain.
"The situation I'm in requires me to carry over as much as possible for me to be effective," Lea said, "because the advantage here is Year 2 in a system, and the goal is to play winning defense. It's not for me to reinvent wheels."
Notre Dame is entering Year 2 of a program reboot, as Kelly replaced his strength coach, hired new coordinators and changed areas of emphasis. There's no going back, and the on-field objective -- the only one that matters at Notre Dame -- is even clearer now.
"I don't think our eyes are on anything less than a national championship," Tranquill said. "That's one of the reasons I came back. It's been a dream of mine. To me, it's not about stringing together another good season. That's not the standard here, shouldn't be the standard. We've got the players, the talent to do more than just a good season."
Long puts it more succinctly: "I didn't come here to win the Florida Citrus Bowl. I came to win a national championship."
Notre Dame has yet to make the CFP, played for the national title just once in the BCS era and has just two top-10 finishes in the final AP poll since 1993. Although the CFP typically becomes a beauty contest of one-loss teams, Notre Dame wouldn't be guaranteed a spot as an 11-1 FBS independent. A second loss -- regardless of schedule difficulty -- would eliminate the Irish from consideration.
Yet around here, everyone talks only about national championship, not as an obligatory goal but, in their minds, a sincere and realistic one. It became even more so after watching Georgia nearly win it all.
"We don't have anything else to play for," Kelly said. "What would I talk about, the Citrus Bowl? But you walk into the weight room and it says: God, country and Notre Dame. So that's a pretty high bar. Are they unrealistic? No, they're not, but they're very difficult goals. All I can do is develop our players toward that goal every single year. Other than that, we're being less than honest.
"We don't have anything else. They're playing for a national championship, not a Big Ten Conference or an ACC championship."
To reach the biggest stage, Notre Dame must not only overcome chaotic road environments like Virginia Tech, but the most chaotic closing schedule of any college football team this season. Beginning Oct. 27, Notre Dame makes two West Coast trips -- it faces Navy in San Diego and visits USC in Los Angeles -- as well as an East Coast trip (Syracuse at Yankee Stadium) and another true road game against Northwestern. The Irish play only one game at home over that span, Nov. 10 against Florida State, followed by the consecutive coastal trips to end the regular season.
Kelly, who in December voiced concerns about Notre Dame's scheduling approach, said of this season's stretch run, "Who does that? Nobody does that. We're going from South Bend to New York, New York to South Bend, South Bend to L.A."
Aside from the travel, Notre Dame faces only one opponent (Syracuse) that didn't make a bowl last season -- and that Orange team upset No. 2 Clemson. USC won the Pac-12, Northwestern won 10 games, Navy is always a pest and Florida State's roster is built with top-three recruiting classes.
The quirky schedule adds to the obstacle of finishing strong, which Notre Dame has struggled to do. Under Kelly, the Irish are 46-18 (.719) in games before Nov. 1 and 19-13 (.594) in November games. Kelly knows he can't overhaul the schedule this season, but he made other adjustments. Winter workouts were moved a little later in the day. A recovery room was added, with a float tank. Notre Dame incorporated Omegawave technology to test players' central nervous systems and GPS to test the intensity of training.
Notre Dame's playoff path is fraught with hazards, but after an offseason of soccer balls and 10-man defenses, the Irish know they must find a way through.
"Our challenge is going to be when those situations present themselves in a game, to take them back to those moments on the practice field," Lea said. "You've got to make that connection. We've been here, we've done this, this is just like those chaos periods.
"In doing that, you'll see a return on the investment."