The way Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly sees it, his team was a lot closer to contending for a BCS Bowl than its eight-win regular season would've indicated. And 2012's 12-0 regular season record just as easily could've swung to an eight-win year labeled as a disappointment.
But in four years, Notre Dame's win totals have been eight, eight, 12 and nine. That's not the consistency Kelly wants, though he feels the Irish are on the verge of stringing together 10 or more wins every year from here on out.
"We're very close to being able to put double-digit wins each year," Kelly said prior to the Pinstripe Bowl at Yankee Stadium. "And that's really the goal, in terms of getting your program to double-digit wins and competing for BCS opportunities. That's where we need to be. We're close, we're not there consistently yet. Certainly the record is what it is."
Players point to defined roles and expectations as being the key there. Bringing in talent-rich recruiting classes then feeds and grows the program.
Once a player enters the system, the expectation is set. Outgoing linebacker Dan Fox said — using freshman linebacker Jaylon Smith as an example — that's the reason why he's so optimistic about Notre Dame's future.
"He just keeps getting better, then there'll be another younger guy that comes in and Jaylon will show him, then Jaylon will leave and it continues," Fox said. "That's why, I think, the coaches are so successful here."
The goal for Notre Dame will change this coming fall, when making the four-team playoff replaces vying for a BCS Championship berth. The allure of prestigious bowls — most likely the Orange Bowl for Notre Dame — will remain a nice enough backup plan.
But in one sense, those are narrow goals. In a broader sense, the goal for Notre Dame is to be in the championship discussion every year. Its not there yet and won't be until the team can prove 2012 wasn't an aberration.
That's where, though, Notre Dame might not see 2013 as significantly different from 2012.
"Sometimes I look at the games and they made one or two more plays than we did, games that we lost," Fox said. "Those one or two plays that can change a game, you never really know when they are. It could be a little inch here or there, but there's inches all over the field and they add up."
In 2012, just about every one of those plays swung Notre Dame's way. Manti Te'o's elite ball skills, Everett Golson's arm strength and Theo Riddick's tough running contributed a lot to it — and none of those players were around in 2013.
The Irish defense didn't make enough plays against Michigan, and the offense wasn't good enough to win a shootout. Two early turnovers doomed Notre Dame against Oklahoma. A pair of Tommy Rees interceptions, coupled with an inexplicable lack of focus on a fumble, crushed the Irish at Pitt. A valiant defensive effort wasn't good enough as the Irish offense struggled against Stanford's stout defense.
"A good year that could have been a great year," Kelly summed up after Notre Dame's Pinstripe Bowl win over Rutgers. "It's not enough for us. 9‑4 is a good year for Notre Dame. It's not what we sign up for every year. We wanted a little bit more out of this year."
But that Notre Dame is in the position where a few plays can swing a season is viewed as a good thing within the program. Still, Notre Dame isn't Alabama, which routinely blows out opponents and requires extraordinary efforts to beat in the regular season. Those mid-2000s USC teams weren't a few plays away from being eight-win teams.
That's where Notre Dame wants to be — a level at which it takes a virtuoso performance from a Heisman Trophy winner or a walk-off touchdown on a missed field goal to beat them. It's rare for a program to reach those heights in just a few seasons — so getting the foundation in place is the first step.
And there are worse bedrocks on which to be than being a few plays away from championship contention, if that's where Notre Dame sees itself.
"I think the foundation's set where we know how to win games and we know what makes a great team and what makes a good team," Rees said. "You can never really think about one thing, but there are certain plays that if you make them, it'll change the whole outcome of your year.
"You look at our season last year, we were a few plays away from being 8-4 and we were 12-0. That's something the coaches have talked to us about our entire careers here. Coach Kelly, his staff has done a great job putting it in place what it takes to be great, and the guys have bought into that and understand that."