SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Notre Dame's senior class will play its final collective game at Notre Dame Stadium on Saturday, though they'll take the field against BYU in somewhat disappointing fashion.
A national championship isn't on the line, and hasn't been for over two months. A BCS bowl isn't at stake, either, after an ugly 28-21 loss at Pitt earlier this month. Notre Dame is 7-3, and in light of the expectations that's a disappointing season.
But the collective legacy of this senior class perhaps is this: In part because of their contributions, 7-3 is a disappointment.
"That's the goal when you come to Notre Dame, is to get it back on that pedestal," quarterback Tommy Rees said. "You don't have double-digit wins, that's not really acceptable at Notre Dame. For us, we were able to get there. It's obviously something we wanted to sustain this year."
Going undefeated in the regular season last year and reaching the BCS Championship raised expectations. Instead of setting out to accomplish smaller goals, like making a bowl game or winning on senior day — as Notre Dame is focusing on now — the goal became making it back to, and winning, the BCS Championship.
"Whether you're playing for the national championship or not it's really one game (at a time), it's trying to get to a national championship and next year, obviously, playoffs," coach Brian Kelly said. "So whether you're playing in Miami or New Orleans or whatever the destination is, they're all runner-up games."
Success at Notre Dame will always be defined by championships. Reaching a BCS bowl still counts as a success, even if it's a lesser one.
But the mantra of independence still holds some truth: Notre Dame can't go out and win a conference championship, its players can't strive to be all-conference.
"You gotta be the best of the best to get your name in the papers, be an All-American," offensive lineman Chris Watt said. "I think that's the way this place is — you have to be the best, and you want to be the best in everything you do all the time."
Other programs can call it a successful season by adding a conference championship to their trophy case. Notre Dame can't do that, which makes success in a non-championship season a little more nebulous.
A seven, eight, nine or 10-win season may wind up being disappointing, though there are some important caveats for this current Irish squad.
Everett Golson's expulsion from Notre Dame dealt an early blow to any championship hopes. Rees is who he is — he has neither the cannon arm nor elusive mobility of Golson, and despite being a highly intelligent player is prone to mistakes.
The defensive line that was supposed to anchor Notre Dame's defense hasn't been completely healthy all year, with Stephon Tuitt, Louis Nix and Sheldon Day all banged up a various points. The depth behind those guys (Tony Springmann, Kona Schwenke) was hit by injuries, too.
Viewed through those lenses, an eight-win season perhaps isn't so unsuccessful. Plus, eight wins is a good baseline for a contending program. You can bet Florida wishes it had a shot at eight wins right now.
But inside the walls of the Guglielmino Athletics Complex, that's not the line of thought. The line of thought is finding solutions for the issues that've plagued Notre Dame this fall.
The expectations will differ slightly next year, with a four-team playoff debuting. Getting into the playoff will be goal No. 1. But after 2012 it's a more tangible goal, not a pie-in-the-sky hope that allows the next-best option to seem attractive.
"That's something that we should be a part of and we should be talking about every year, going to a BCS game," Watt said. "That's what this university, I felt like, has always done. And we hold ourselves to the highest standard here at Notre Dame."