MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. -- Braxston Cave had a simple declaration to make as Notre Dame players came to grips with a 42-14 drubbing at the hands of Alabama.
"Notre Dame's back," Cave said. "Not how we wanted to (play) tonight, but we're back."
Being back doesn't mean being on Alabama's level, though. Plenty of Irish coaches and players talked about the gap between themselves and Alabama, which won its third championship in four seasons Monday night.
Auburn was the only team to break Alabama's stranglehold on the Coaches' Trophy since 2009. But two years after coaching Auburn to a BCS Championship win over Oregon, Gene Chizik was fired. After a meteoric rise, his program came crashing back to earth without its transcendent quarterback in Cam Newton.
That's one way to build a program, one which succeeds on the back of a star player. That's not how Brian Kelly has built Notre Dame. This is a program built to last, to succeed well into the future.
"We would certainly like to think we're not going to take a step backwards," offensive coordinator Chuck Martin said. "That doesn't mean we're going to play in the National Championship game every year, obviously that's very difficult. But the fact we can show up in the fall and that can be a realistic goal, we want to be in the BCS every year and hopefully get back to this game, and hopefully get back to this game where we play a lot better when we get here."
Manti Te'o is done at Notre Dame, as is the case for Cave, Tyler Eifert, Kapron Lewis-Moore and potentially Cierre Wood, who will decided whether to return for his senior season in a few days.
But Notre Dame has the nation's top-ranked recruiting class entering the program this year, a group stocked with the kind of "big skill" guys coach Brian Kelly and his coaching staff have targeted. Plus, Notre Dame will return plenty of talent, led by guys like offensive lineman Zack Martin, defensive end Stephon Tuitt and defensive tackle Louis Nix.
"We would certainly like to think we're not going to take a step backwards," Martin said. "That doesn't mean we're going to play in the National Championship game every year, obviously that's very difficult. But the fact we can show up in the fall and that can be a realistic goal, we want to be in the BCS every year and hopefully get back to this game, and hopefully get back to this game where we play a lot better when we get here. That's the goal, no doubt, at Notre Dame."
And, if you're looking for a positive from the BCS Championship, Everett Golson held serve, completing 21 of 36 passes for 270 yards and a touchdown against a defense that completely took away the threat of Notre Dame's running game.
"We got a lot of guys returning, a lot of guys who didn't play this year who can play," wide receiver DaVaris Daniels, who caught six passes for 115 yards against Alabama, said. "The future looks bright for us."
The clock is now ticking on the current BCS format, which will go away after next year's championship game. It'll be replaced by a four-team playoff, while Notre Dame has a tie-in with the Orange Bowl and a partnership with the ACC that'll assure the program won't be left behind. For all the consternation over Notre Dame's relevancy half a year ago, there's no questioning it now.
"When you start winning around here, you start to see what it does to the community, what it does to the fans and how it rejuvenates college football, and you realize that this program, this university means so much more," offensive lineman Chris Watt said. "And when Notre Dame's on top, college football's better."
For now, though, Notre Dame will go back to the drawing board. They now have a first-hand look at what the best college football program in the nation looks like -- and even before Monday's game, Kelly talked about getting Notre Dame to Alabama's level.
"Your program is defined in consistency, and Alabama is that model," Kelly said. "I concede to that. It's where we want to be."
No other team is there, though. Alabama is alone atop college football in terms of success as a program. Oregon is closer than anyone else, but Notre Dame is getting there.
Notre Dame couldn't make the giant leap to Alabama's level in South Florida. It'll take plenty of small steps, but this program is confident they'll get to that point.
"Obviously we didn't finish the way we wanted," Cave said, "but these guys coming back are going to be here to take the next step and finish the right way next year."