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Irish cannot ignore what awaits next year

Perhaps Brian Kelly could have been a newspaperman in another life, his terming of Notre Dame's latest loss — "the debacle in the desert" — sly enough to warm the hearts of headline writers everywhere. Except what he said after that shied away from the macro approach the rest of us are taking after his Irish were virtually eliminated from College Football Playoff contention this past weekend.

"We have a lot to focus on just on Tuesday," Kelly said Sunday. "So we're going to focus on cleaning up what we need to clean up internally, offensively, defensively. So there won't be any big‑picture conversations. We've got a lot of work to do to be better as a football team. That's going to be the focus this week."

Kelly can start with his quarterback, the guy who never gave the Irish a chance to beat a Sun Devils team that itself now has a path toward the postseason after handing Notre Dame a 55-31 defeat that looked like the 2013 BCS title game in final score only.

Notre Dame was not overmatched in Tempe the way it was nearly two years ago against Alabama, that 42-14 result being the last time the Irish lost by such a wide margin. Everett Golson just could not get out of his own way Saturday, and you have to wonder how much longer that is going to impede the Irish.

With playoff hopes out the door, these final three regular-season games take on new meaning. And they could help shape this team for 2015.

Of the 22 guys Notre Dame started Saturday, 20 have eligibility remaining for next year. The defense could get back a potential All-American next year in cornerback KeiVarae Russell, too. This is a team that might still finish with 10 or 11 wins this year, and the combination of all of those numbers makes for a unit that should absolutely be primed to make a run in 2015.

Notre Dame cannot screw this up the way it did Saturday.

And that starts with the quarterback.

This is not to say that Malik Zaire or DeShone Kizer or someone else is the answer at quarterback. Golson can still make incredible things happen — going punch-for-punch with the reigning Heisman winner in defeat — and he still has a 17-3 career record to his name. The body of work is impressive. But the home stretch here might be the time for Notre Dame to at least explore the possibility of an alternative, seeing as though there is little to lose.

Way too much of this operation relies on Golson to begin with. The dangers of that were exposed last year, when he got himself kicked out of school after being handed the keys to the offense that spring. If that did not set the program back some, it severely hampered the momentum gained from a national title game appearance.

For all of Golson's greatness through Notre Dame's 7-1 start this year, from the premature Heisman Trophy chatter to the game-winning touchdown pass that beat Stanford, there was a seemingly inevitable feeling that came with each passing week — as the competition level grew, as the young defense regressed to the mean, as turnover upon turnover piled up.

Then came Saturday, a confluence of mistakes meeting an opportunistic team that was oh so happy to take what Notre Dame gave it.

Five turnovers from Golson at Arizona State — including a pair of pick-sixes — have given him 17 turnovers in his past six games. That is more than 74 other teams have committed all season long. And, frankly, Golson is lucky there have not been more.

If that kind of play is not enough to at least entertain the prospect of Zaire, if only for a few snaps here or there, what is?

Notre Dame is not going to the playoff this year, and the fact the Irish could even remain in that discussion through the first weekend of November, despite all of their shortcomings, is impressive. It will be expected next year, though, and that can no longer be ignored.