MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. -- Notre Dame made major strides in 2012, vaulting the program from the ranks of mediocrity to earning a chance to win a title for the first time since 1988. But that chance materialized into an embarrassing 42-14 loss at the hands of an Alabama team that exposed a wide gap between the two teams on Monday night.
"It's a season that not a lot of people thought we were going to have," offensive lineman Chris Watt said. "Being 12-0 and being No. 1 for a while here was great, but it's hard, too, especially at Notre Dame when that's the expectation, to win a National Championship. It's hard to reconcile a season when you lose."
As Watt explained the loss in that context, his teammates coped with various stages of grief. There was shock, frustration, acceptance -- and then there was Theo Riddick, who couldn't contain his emotions, weeping at his locker next to roommate and close friend Cierre Wood.
"You put so much work in with all your best friends," Riddick said between sobs, "and all you envision is to win, and it just kinda hurts right now.
"I wasn't really prepared to be sad," he added.
For Riddick, the sting of such a thorough loss wasn't mitigated by the gains Notre Dame made in its previous 12 games. His college career is over, as is the case for a dozen other seniors along with tight end Tyler Eifert and possibly Wood.
"We came in here, a bunch of us seniors shed some tears," wide receiver Robby Toma said. "It's been a great four years. Although this really hurts, one day we'll be able to look back on it and be proud of what we did. I have a lot of great memories here, and something that I'll always take with me. I'm just so blessed to be part of this whole experience."
Toma was on the end of the spectrum already looking at the big picture, one in which a single game didn't diminish how he viewed his time at Notre Dame. That's not easy to do, especially with the way Notre Dame lost to Alabama.
"It's a group of seniors who have taken this program to the next level," center Braxston Cave said. "Obviously we didn't finish the way we wanted, but these guys coming back are going to be here to take the next step and finish the right way next year."
There was a positive outlook on 2013 running through the Notre Dame locker room in the wee hours of Tuesday morning, too. Getting to Alabama's level is the goal, although more realistically, establishing a baseline of year-to-year success -- much like Oregon has done under Chip Kelly -- is the next step.
That's a big-picture analysis, though. For now, Notre Dame players are figuring out how a four-touchdown loss in the BCS Championship will look in the face of everything they accomplished from Sept. 1 onward.
"At some point, once you get past the loss, once you can cope with it and learn from it, you gotta say hey, we made it to the National Championship," wide receiver T.J. Jones said. "No other team can say that since the '88 team. And even though we lost, we got the experience so if we go back next year, which will be the goal, we know how to play, we know how to prepare, we know what it's like."