Notre Dame was so close. And yet, they were so far. So very, very far.
The Fighting Irish enjoyed what seemed, for a good few months, to be an absolute dream season in 2012. Under third-year coach Brian Kelly, the Irish went from preseason afterthought to the national title contender, completing a remarkable 12-0 regular season that included impressive wins over Michigan, Michigan State, Stanford, Oklahoma and USC.
For their efforts, they were rewarded the ultimate prize: A trip to the BCS National Championship Game, to take on mighty Alabama.
And from there, well, the dream season turned into a nightmare.
From the opening snap of their title showdown against the Tide, it was clear that the Irish were completely and utterly overmatched. The final was 42-14, and really, the game wasn't even that close; Notre Dame had been exposed. They were a very good team in 2012. But they weren't great. And now the question is where they go from here. We attempt to answer that question here, in Part III of our 2013 season preview edition of College Football Questions & Answers.
1. Can Notre Dame make it back to the BCS title game in 2013?
If they made it last year, sure, they can make it this year. Let's be honest: The Irish pretty much came out of nowhere in 2012, and even those of us who expected Brian Kelly to make a great leap forward in his third season were stunned by what that team accomplished. I believed the Irish had borderline Top 10 talent. I certainly didn't expect them to finish No. 1 in the final regular season poll. But that's the thing about Kelly: He's a heck of coach--a guy with a truly remarkable record of success and a proven history of building great programs. He did it in the lower divisions and he did at Cincinnati and, after a couple challenging years, it appears he's doing it at Notre Dame, too. Yes, Manti Te'o will be off to the NFL, and so will several other key contributors to that 2012 team, but over the past three years Kelly has built a very, very strong foundation in South Bend. The pieces may not be there to create an elite team just yet. But those pieces weren't there last year, and Kelly still managed to traverse a pretty tricky schedule. Don't put it past him to do so again in 2013.
2. Who needs to step up to make another title run possible?
You can start at quarterback, where Everett Golson will be counted to be the main playmaker on an offense that, despite making strides in 2012, still lacks a bit of panache. Golson made a huge leap forward last season, emerging as not only a true run-pass threat (he threw for 2,405 yards and 12 touchdowns, and added another six touchdowns on the ground) but also a steadying force in the huddle and on the field--impressive stuff, given his youth. He was hardly perfect, of course, and his completion percentage wasn't what it needed to be in some key spots, but for all of his completely expected faults (he was a young kid, thrown into a national title hunt), the fact is, Golson got the job done. In 2013, he'll have to do a little bit more than that. His passing will need to improve, and he'll need to continue making plays--big plays--with his feet. If he can do so--if he can make the next leap, from "good" to "great"--then he'll go a long way to helping the Irish back to the promised land.
3. What's the schedule look like?
It's your typical modern-day Notre Dame schedule: Not as good as the Irish faithful would have you believe, but not nearly as weak as their detractors say. After an easy opener against Temple, the Irish kick off the season in earnest against three longtime Big Ten foes: Purdue on the road is an automatic win, but both Michigan and Michigan State will put up a fight. After that, it's a crucial home clash against Oklahoma and a strange road trip, to Arlington, to take on Arizona State If the Irish come out of that first half at 7-0--and yes, it's certainly possible--they should be able to cruise their way to the season-ending showdown at Stanford, where they'll take on a Cardinal team that many see as a title contender in their own right. That being said, I don't think this Irish team will catch all the breaks it caught in 2012, and I don't think it will survive the Week 3 trip to Ann Arbor. In the end, I see at least two losses for this bunch--but 10-2 would still be more than good enough to get the Irish into a BCS bowl.