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College football: Irish want to be back in 'national conversation'

SOUTH BEND, Ind. – Notre Dame has four straight winning seasons for the first time this century, played a key role in deciding the national championship for two straight seasons, and reclaimed the title of winningest football program it lost to Michigan in 2003.

That's still not enough to satisfy Fighting Irish fans, who measure success by national championships, and have been waiting since 1988 for the school to win another. The Irish slipped to 9-4 last season, and finished the season ranked No. 21.

They went 12-0 in the regular season in 2012 before an embarrassing 42-14 loss to Alabama in the title game. The highlight of last season was a 17-13 victory over Michigan State, a lone loss that cost the Spartans a shot at the national championship.

Coach Brian Kelly acknowledges that isn't good enough.

"You don't want to have an undefeated season and then have just winning seasons. You want to be part of the national conversation," he said. "At Notre Dame, that's where we want to be."

Kelly enters this season in a position like few Irish coaches – without a national championship after four seasons, and without his job in jeopardy. The only Notre Dame coach who lasted more than five seasons without winning a national championship was Elmer Layden, who coached the Irish for seven seasons from 1934-40.

The 2014 season brings artificial turf for the first time at Notre Dame Stadium, new Under Armour uniforms, four games against Atlantic Coast Conference opponents, and a fan base eager for some old-style success. Here are five things to know about the Irish:

Scoring points: Kelly arrived at Notre Dame with a reputation as an offensive-minded coach, keeping defenses off-balance with a no-huddle, hurry-up spread attack. In his final season at Cincinnati in 2009, the Bearcats finished fourth in the nation in scoring at 38.6 points per game. In four seasons at Notre Dame, the Irish haven't averaged better than 26.3 points per game.

Attacking defense: The Irish enjoyed a lot of success using former defensive coordinator Bob Diaco's read-and-react style, finishing in the top 27 in scoring defense nationally 4 straight years. Diaco is the head coach at Connecticut now, replaced by Brian VanGorder, who prefers a more attacking scheme.

The Irish are inexperienced up in the front seven, with former walk-on Joe Schmidt expected to start at middle linebacker. The Irish have a difference-maker in linebacker Jaylon Smith, though, and a lot of experience in the backfield.

Special teams: Irish coaches spent part of the offseason visiting NFL and other college teams, looking for ways they could improve Notre Dame's not-so-special teams, whose play Kelly has described as "unacceptable." The Irish last season ranked 120th out of 123 teams on kickoff return coverage, 84th in punt return coverage, and 80th in punt returns, and haven't been much better the previous years.

Golden army: The Irish freshman class gave itself the nickname during the recruiting process, and now is expected to contribute immediately, especially to the front seven of the defense. Kelly already has defensive end Andrew Trumbetti listed as a starter at defensive end, and is expecting contributions from defensive linemen Jonathan Bonner, Jhonny Williams, Daniel Cage, linebackers Nyles Morgan and Kolin Hill, wide receiver Justin Brent, and tight end Tyler Luatua.

Rivalries end: This season marks the end of some rivalry games, because Notre Dame agreed to play a batch of games against the ACC, the conference of most Irish sports. The four games this season include an Oct. 18 game at defending national champion Florida State.

The Irish have played Michigan all but six seasons since 1978, but that rivalry ends Sept. 6. The annual game with Purdue, started in 1946, ends Sept. 13 in Indianapolis. Michigan State, on the schedule all but four seasons since 1948, doesn't play the Irish again until 2016.

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