SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- A few weeks ago, ex-Alabama defensive end Damion Square was asked if his time in Tuscaloosa prepared him for the next level.
"This is the next level," he quipped.
Square and his teammates leveled Notre Dame, 42-14, just over three months ago to secure Alabama's third championship in four years. They did it with a revolving door of NFL-ready players, to the point where the question of whether the Tide could beat an NFL team was debated (of course, they couldn't, but the mere fact that it was a topic of discussion is telling).
For Notre Dame, that level of consistent success enjoyed by Alabama is what they -- and every other program in the nation -- are striving to reach.
Only a few teams have seen what Alabama is about up close in a BCS Championship, though. And that experience has fueled Notre Dame's workouts, practices and scrimmages since early January, helping crystallize the idea of what it takes to compete with Nick Saban's Crimson Tide.
"This is about being here more than just one year. So if there’s a blueprint, we want to be back here year in and year out," coach Brian Kelly said. "And I think Nick has proven that in the way he’s put his program together. And that’s the track that we’re on, is to build the consistency within the ranks, and you have to do it during this period of time."
The nation will get its first look at Notre Dame since the BCS Championship on Saturday, when the team's Blue-Gold game is televised on the NBC Sports Network. Eddie Lacy won't be dragging Manti Te'o around the field, nor will A.J. McCarron be picking apart the Irish secondary. C.J. Mosley won't be around to piledrive Theo Riddick into the ground. Both those images have stuck with Notre Dame, focusing the team's goal to not just get back to the BCS Championship, but win it.
"I think it gives us a little bit of motivation, actually getting there, seeing what it was like, having your dreams kind of crushed of actually winning it," quarterback Everett Golson said. "It definitely puts that fire in you. I know for me that fire’s burning to get back. For the other guys too, it’s just motivation to just strive to be better every day."
Last year at this time, Notre Dame wasn't sure what it took to compete in a BCS Championship. The school hadn't been in the conversation for a BCS bid in six years, and a few of its players committed to the school before, during or after a three-win season.
Still, players insisted an undefeated season and shot a title was always their goal in 2012.
"I believed it was possible when we were working out in the offseason," former safety Zeke Motta said after Notre Dame's win over USC last November. "I believed it then based off the way we competed every day and visualized our goal. And from then until now, it was always in our mind."
But it was an abstract goal, one no player on the team had come close to experiencing. For Alabama, it's a goal that's ingrained in Saban's program.
"We have an idea of what it looks like to be in the National Championship. We played Alabama, that’s what it looks like," offensive lineman Zack Martin said. "We know we’re not there yet, but that’s what we’re working to."
That's the difference this year. At this time in 2012, Notre Dame was working for a goal, one the players believed in but one they weren't familiar with.
It's a new team in 2013, but offseason workouts and spring practice have been conducted with the knowledge of what it takes to make -- and win -- a championship game.