SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Was it all just wishful thinking?
Notre Dame 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 Notre Dame 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.
Notre Dame 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.
The Irish also had similar good seasons in 2002 under first-year coach Tyrone Willingham and coach Bob Davie in 2000 followed by disappointing seasons — and firings. Notre Dame didn't do much Monday night to suggest they will compete at Alabama's level next season. The Irish were thoroughly beaten along the line on both sides and the defense that played so well all season, making key goal-line stands against Stanford and Southern California, missed tackle after tackle against the Crimson Tide. Even when Notre Dame defenders were in position to make plays, they couldn't.
Kelly said playing the Crimson Tide showed the Irish how much they need to improve.
"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," he said. "We all now know what we have to do to move from where we are, which is a 12-0 football team, pretty darned good football team, but not good enough."
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 Notre Dame has finished since finishing fourth in 1980. The Irish finished second in scoring defense at 12.77 points a game, their best ranking since finishing second while winning the national championship in 1966 (3.8 ppg).
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, who was hurt during Monday's loss. Safety Jamoris Slaughter is seeking a sixth-year of eligibility from the NCAA after tearing his left Achilles tendon in the third game against Michigan State and cornerback Lo Wood also is expected back after missing the entire season with a similar injury.
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. Wood has a year of eligibility left, but is considering declaring for the NFL draft.
Quarterback Everett Golson will be back and the Irish will also have running back Amir Carlisle, a transfer from Southern Cal who missed this season with a foot injury.
"We feel really good about the nucleus and the development," Kelly said.
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.
It wouldn't be the first Notre Dame squad to bounce back from an embarrassing bowl loss to win a national championship. In 1972, coach Ara Parseghian and the 12th ranked Irish faced No. 9 Nebraska in the Orange Bowl and were beaten 40-6. The Irish went 11-0 the next season and beat top-ranked Alabama in the Sugar Bowl to win the national championship.
Te'o said he believes the Irish, whose No. 4 ranking in the final poll is the best for the Irish since finishing second in 1993, are close.
"Because if we weren't close, we definitely wouldn't be in South Beach. And I know coach Kelly and Everett and all the guys who are coming back, they're just going to be that much better, and it's going to be exciting to watch them next year," Te'o said.
Notre Dame opens the season Aug. 31 at home against Temple, followed by visits to Michigan and Purdue. Oklahoma, Arizona State and USC are on the schedule, which closes with a Nov. 30 game at Stanford.