It's not an excuse for being dominated in resounding fashion by Alabama, but it's at least a small part of the explanation.
Notre Dame didn't have offensive line depth last year. Thanks to a few injuries and the preseason departure of Jordan Prestwood, Brian Kelly and Harry Hiestand barely had enough players to fill out the team's up-front unit in the weeks leading up to the BCS Championship. Without enough able-bodied linemen to rotate in, Notre Dame wasn't able to prepare in the fashion they wanted leading up to Jan. 7.
"If there was one thing that stood out for me, we were in that game, and we lacked depth at some critical positions which didn't allow us to do some of the things I would have liked to in that period of time before the game, especially on the offensive line," Kelly said earlier this year.
Kelly didn't feel comfortable going live with the offense against the defense at points, and wasn't able to get his players tackling as much as he wanted between late November and early January. That's why Kelly described the need for offensive linemen as critical.
It's a need Notre Dame addressed not only with its recruiting class, but one that's been addressed by a few players coming back from injuries last fall.
Notre Dame lost two starters from its 2012 line in center Braxston Cave and right guard Mike Golic Jr. The left side of the Irish line was a strength in last year, with seniors Chris Watt and Zack Martin manning it.
"We certainly use the left side of our offensive line, I’d say at times at a ridiculous rate," offensive coordinator Chuck Martin said before the BCS Championship. "I’m not giving away any secrets."
That won't change in 2013, with Watt and Martin returning for their final seasons as graduate students. Martin's brother, Nick, is in line to take over at center, and junior Conor Hanratty is set to slide in at right guard.
Looking back, Notre Dame was incredibly lucky to not suffer an injury to one of its starting offensive linemen in 2012 -- the same five players started every game last fall. This year, if there is an injury to Zack/Nick Martin, Watt, Hanratty or Christian Lombard, the pool of replacements is larger and more talented.
Notre Dame's especially strong with its backup tackles in sophomore Ronnie Stanley and early-enrolling freshman Steve Elmer. Matt Hegarty could have a chance to push Martin for the No. 1 center gig in August, but at the worst he looks like a steady reserve. Mark Harrell and Bruce Heggie have the ability to slide between center and guard, although Stanley was tried out at guard in April's Blue-Gold game and held his own.
The Irish also welcome a talented crop of incoming freshmen linemen to campus this fall: Four-star guard John Montelus, four-star tackles Hunter Bivin and Mike McGlinchey, and three-star tackle Colin McGovern. With that group, Notre Dame can go three-deep on its depth chart with scholarship linemen.
The impact on Saturdays will be subtle, but having that depth is a massive boost for Kelly, Hiestand and the Irish this fall.