SOUTH BEND, Ind. – Was it all just wishful thinking?
NotreáDame put together one of its most magical seasons in years, winning its first 12 games and climbing atop the rankings in what many Fighting Irish fans hoped was a return to glory for one of college football’s most storied programs.
Following an embarrassing 42-14 loss to Alabama in the BCS championship game, the worst loss in three seasons under coach Brian Kelly, the offseason will be filled with questions and a concern that NotreáDame had simply spiked again – seemingly back among the elite – only to fade back to mediocrity or worse.
If recent history is any indication, Irish fans have reason to be concerned.
NotreáDame hasn’t won the national championship since 1988, or even a major bowl game since beating Texas A&M 24-21 in the Cotton Bowl following the 1993 season. It hasn’t put together back-to-back strong seasons since 2005-06, when Charlie Weis and the Irish lost 34-20 to Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl and then 41-14 to LSU in the Sugar Bowl.
The Irish went 3-9 the next season.
Notre Dame had similar good seasons in 2002 under first-year coach Tyrone Willingham and coach Bob Davie in 2000 followed by disappointing seasons – and firings.
NotreáDame didn’t do much Monday night to suggest they will compete at Alabama’s level next season.
“We’ve got to get physically stronger, continue to close the gap there, and just overall you need to see what it looks like. Our guys clearly know what it looks like,” Kelly said.
Even with the disastrous showing against Alabama, giving up 529 yards and 42 points, the Irish defense still finished seventh in the nation, giving up an average of 305 yards a game – the best NotreáDame has finished since finishing fourth in 1980. The Irish finished second in scoring defense at 12.77 points a game.
Most of the defense will be back next season. The Irish lose the top two tacklers in linebacker Manti Te’o and safety Zeke Motta, as well as defensive end Kapron Lewis-Moore. Safety Jamoris Slaughter is seeking a sixth year of eligibility, and cornerback Lo Wood also is expected back.
On offense, the Irish lose tight end Tyler Eifert, center Braxston Cave, right guard Mike Golic Jr., receiver Robby Toma, running back Theo Riddick and possibly running back Cierre Wood.
Quarterback Everett Golson will be back, and the Irish will also have running back Amir Carlisle, a transfer from USC who missed this season with a foot injury.
The Irish also are expected to sign their best recruiting class since the Irish had the No. 2 consensus class in 2008 under Weis.
Kelly, who failed in his first attempt at winning the national championship in Division II while coaching Grand Valley State before winning the next two national titles, said playing for a title changes players.
“It just changes everything when you walk into that building on a day-to-day basis. Everybody is playing for championships. So this will be a great springboard in making sure that we get back to this game,” he said.
In 1973, Notre Dame went 11-0 and won the national championship ... one season after losing 40-6 to Nebraska in the Orange Bowl.