Is this as good as it gets for Notre Dame?

No. 8 Notre Dame could make a statement with a win over No. 7 Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl. "We're looking for a defining moment," Irish LB Jaylon Smith said. Matt Cashore/USA TODAY Sports

SOUTH BEND, Ind. - It's the 1988 national championship trophy, not the seven Heismans or the Four Horsemen sculpture, that greets visitors to Notre Dame's Guglielmino Athletic Complex.

Those who pass the trophy and enter the team auditorium will spot the 2015 football schedule flanking the front of the room. Like many, Notre Dame adds two placards, both displaying the College Football Playoff logo. One reads: Dec. 31 SEMIFINAL. The other: Jan. 11, 2016 NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP.

The symbolism comes through loud and clear.

"It's understood that everyone who decides to come to Notre Dame is deciding to go and attempt to win a national championship," quarterback DeShone Kizer said. "It's the ultimate success, the ultimate goal, in every year."

Kizer and his teammates fell four points shy of the goal, as losses to Clemson and Stanford ensured their national title drought would reach 27 seasons, a decade longer than any previous lull since Notre Dame won the first of its 11 championships in 1924.

But when the players enter the auditorium after a recent practice to discuss Friday's matchup against No. 7 Ohio State in the BattleFrog Fiesta Bowl, they project excitement, not despair.

Wide receiver Corey Robinson: "This is why you come to Notre Dame. You play in the Fiesta Bowl against Ohio State? C'mon, this is awesome. Everyone's super excited."

Linebacker Jarrett Grace: "This is going to be sweet."

Defensive tackle Jarron Jones: "It's an honor to play Ohio State."

Linebacker Joe Schmidt: "It's a great opportunity to show everyone where this program is right now. When people talk about teams that are at the top of everyone's list of the best team in the country, Ohio State's always up there."

Is Notre Dame? If not, where do the eighth-ranked Irish find themselves as 2015 winds down?

They're undoubtedly in a stronger place than they were a year ago, when they fell apart physically and mentally in October and November, only to salvage a bowl win against LSU. The Irish spent the entire 2015 season ranked in the top 15 and all but three weeks ranked in the top 10. They lost nine starters to season-ending injuries and still managed to win 10 games and compete well in all 12 -- a testament to both coaching and the recruiting depth amassed over time. The Notre Dame brand, already a giant, grew even more thanks to Showtime's behind-the-scenes series and other factors.

There's more than enough evidence to stamp this season a success. Whether that indicates a shifting standard at Notre Dame, though, is debatable.

Ohio State and Notre Dame entered the season with different external outlooks, but both sought the national title. The Buckeyes are bitterly disappointed to be in the Fiesta Bowl, no matter what they say in the coming days. The Irish, meanwhile, sound genuinely excited to be there.

Is this as good as it gets for Notre Dame?

"I absolutely don't think it's as good as it gets," Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick told ESPN.com "There are great teams that may not get to the national championship in two decades, really great teams. Things happen. But I have no doubt we can get to a national championship, no doubt we can win a national championship.

"I absolutely reject the notion that somehow this represents a high-water mark."

Swarbrick, like many, speaks of this season with reverence. The incessant injuries, combined with the schedule, provided "a litmus test."

"The coaching staff and the kids get A's with regard to that test," Swarbrick said.

Swarbrick loved the consistency that coach Brian Kelly displayed, never wavering from his core message. The AD saw not only depth in on-field talent, but in off-field leadership.

Although Notre Dame reached the national title game in Kelly's third season, the program's long-term foundation seems stronger as he finishes his sixth.

"It speaks to quality of player, it speaks to depth, it speaks to player development, it speaks to scheme," Swarbrick said. "In terms of all the program check marks, it was a real validating season. I never want anybody, whether it's a fan or somebody on one of our teams, approaching the year with anything other than the goal of winning a national championship. I fully endorse that as the goal, and it is absolutely achievable.

"It doesn't mean every year in which you don't achieve that is somehow a failure."

Notre Dame's championship path remains difficult and murky, given the four-team playoff and the selection committee's premium on conference championships. A Notre Dame win over Stanford would have forced the committee to choose between the Irish and Big 12 champion Oklahoma.

"I absolutely don't think it's as good as it gets. There are great teams that may not get to the national championship in two decades, really great teams. Things happen. But I have no doubt we can get to a national championship, no doubt we can win a national championship. I absolutely reject the notion that somehow this represents a high-water mark." Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick

At the very least, Notre Dame would have learned where it stood as a one-loss independent.

"We recognize that both in terms of the way we schedule and our independence, there might be years where that works against us," Swarbrick said. "That's just an environmental factor. Our approach to academics is an environmental factor, too. It's not an excuse. It's what you deal with."

Notre Dame is now left to deal with Ohio State. Swarbrick considers the Fiesta Bowl "another piece of information," not "some final verdict" on the season. He points to last year's Music City Bowl against LSU, a matchup billed as too steep for the Irish to overcome. "Once we did," Swarbrick said, "the significance of the game reduced."

Beating the Buckeyes likely would resonate longer, especially from a perception standpoint. Many view Ohio State as the nation's best collection of talent, even though it didn't perform like the nation's best team this fall. Notre Dame kept pace with the two most talented teams it faced, but lost to both. The last time the Irish entered a national postseason stage like this, they were whipped 42-14 by Alabama in the BCS championship.

That game and others like it -- 2007 Sugar Bowl (41-14 loss to LSU), 2006 Fiesta Bowl (34-20 loss to Ohio State), 2001 Fiesta Bowl (41-9 loss to Oregon State) -- reinforce the view that Notre Dame can't compete with the nation's elite. The Irish haven't beaten a top 10 team in a bowl game since topping No. 6 Texas A&M in the 1994 Cotton Bowl.

"In the preseason, it's ridiculous how they always count us out," said Jones, who expects to make his season debut in the game after suffering an MCL tear in August. "Our coaches tell us not to pay attention, but it's hard not to. They always disrespect Notre Dame.

"This win would change that, actually have people take a hard look at: Can Notre Dame win a national championship?"

The external criticism irks Jones, but he also understands it. He knows why many think Notre Dame didn't belong with Alabama in the national title game ("They have the evidence to back it up"). He caught the clip of Dabo Swinney's news conference in October when the Clemson coach, asked about "Clemsoning," went off on how it's a disrespectful term. Swinney rattled off all the reasons why it no longer applied, including a win against Notre Dame.

Clemson then went on to the playoff.

"That's something we need to take upon ourselves ... to win our big-time games," Jones said.

"We're looking for a defining moment," said Butkus Award winning linebacker Jaylon Smith.

But for a Fiesta Bowl victory and an 11-2 season to, in Swarbrick's words, not represent Notre Dame's high-water mater, the program must continue progressing. The Irish lose significant pieces, including possibly two top 10 draft picks in offensive tackle Ronnie Stanley and, if he chooses to skip his final season, Smith. The last time Notre Dame produced a top 10 pick -- defensive tackle Bryant Young in 1994 -- was the last time it won a major bowl.

The Irish will return key parts in 2016, especially on offense. They have brought in five consecutive recruiting classes rated in the top 15, according to ESPN Recruiting, and the 2016 class currently ranks 13th. The biggest concern for the future surrounds Kelly, especially if desirable NFL vacancies, like the New York Giants, open in the coming weeks.

But overall, life is good at Notre Dame, even if some think it's as good as it gets.

"I don't blame people for thinking that," Jones said. "I get it. Especially with the past, we haven't really been up to the heights.

"This is as good as it gets right now, but if we win this game, it can get better."