Notre Dame's championship expectations coming into focus

Notre Dame's championship expectations coming into focus
August 4, 2013, 7:15 pm
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SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Seven months after being run out of Sun Life Stadium by a thoroughly superior Alabama team in the BCS Championship, defensive tackle Louis Nix found a silver lining to his team's 42-14 defeat.

"We kinda got spanked by Alabama a little bit, but I think that was a learning lesson," he explained Sunday. "They're obviously a good team, coached by a great coach, (they have) great players and I think we needed that beatdown to get us motivated -- let's get back there, let's put up a challenge again."

Notre Dame expects to be back, to again challenge for a championship. It's ingrained in the team's goals for 2013, as represented by their schedule inside the Guglielmino Athletics Complex that features a placard for Jan. 6, 2014: The BCS Championship in Pasadena, Calif.

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Now that Notre Dame knows what it looks like, the expectation can be set.

"It gave us a lot of confidence going into the offseason," left guard Chris Watt said. "Obviously, you can't really think about last year but it still gives us a lot of confidence going into the year that this is possible. No one last year thought that was going to happen."

After reaching the BCS Championship, Notre Dame thinks it can happen again and has felt that way since the day after losing to Alabama. While it's a new team with new players, Notre Dame's experience at the BCS Championship in January crystallized everything for the 2013 squad. 

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For coach Brian Kelly, it's all part of building the program. Still, there's an equilibrium that he, his coaching staff and his team leaders must find in drawing on last season and focusing on this fall.

"Our kids believe in what we do and how we do it. There's a way of doing things here, so that never goes away," Kelly said. "That has permeated this football program, the way we do things on a day‑to‑day basis, the expectations of how we play defense, offense and special teams, how we prepare.

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"But the players that were here last year that are no longer here are not part of this team any more. The plays that were made last year have no influence on this year. So that's the balance."

Here is where it's worth noting a team from the SEC has won the BCS Championship in each of the last seven seasons. Not since Texas' Vince Young made a last-second dash to the end zone against USC has a non-SEC team hoisted the Coaches' Trophy.

The SEC is college football's premier conference, and Alabama is its premier team. Notre Dame's up-close look at the Tide in January opened some eyes as to how it's done. 

"Alabama's been a great team the past however many years (coach Nick) Saban's been there working those guys, and that's the model of how to do it," quarterback Tommy Rees observed. "I think we have a great foundation set on how to get back there and I think that's what everyone has in mind."

While the BCS Championship is the central goal for Notre Dame, a cliched mantra remains: We're taking it one game at a time. And while that's a phrase that can be heard coming from just about any athlete in any locker room, it's one that may hold a little weight for the Irish.

[MORE: How other BCS championship losers fared the year after]

That's because last year, Notre Dame found out what can happen if its players take a week off. If not for a missed field goal (and missed call that at least would have resulted in another field goal), Notre Dame would have lost to Pittsburgh a week after beating Oklahoma in one of the biggest wins in recent program history. 

Players still point to that game as a wakeup call, a reminder that not only does everyone want to beat Notre Dame, but that everyone wants to knock a team off a championship path. 

So there's another lesson from 2012: It's a delicate balance to strike, but taking an greater step back it's a good problem to have. Try as Notre Dame might, the 2012 season will define the 2013 season. 

Without last year, Notre Dame may not have the BCS Championship on its schedule, reminding all its players of objective for this fall.

"I think it's a good thing it's up there," Nix said, "because now everybody's reminded every day we come to the meeting room that we're here for something, and that's it."