This past year provided a magical run for Notre Dame football. It was a return to glory that the Notre Dame faithful had been waiting two decades for.
The road to the BCS Championship Game was not an easy one for the Irish. They entered the 2012 season with the hardest schedule in the country, and few experts saw them winning more than eight games.
Although the schedule proved to be less daunting than initially thought, the Irish were still tested and needed a few goal-line stands (Stanford and USC) and a miraculous comeback (Pittsburgh) to get through the regular season unscathed.
The Irish also entered the season with question marks on offense and in the secondary. Quarterback Everett Golson matured throughout the season and transformed from a liability at the beginning of the year into an asset at the end of the season. The secondary also stepped up and provided the necessary back-end coverage that made their vaunted front excel.
Things went about as well as possible for the Irish last season—until they faced off with Alabama in the championship game. The Crimson Tide rolled to an easy victory and exposed every Notre Dame weakness.
It was men against boys.
Maybe the Irish were intimidated because it was their first national championship game, or maybe they did not handle the layoff as well as Alabama. Either way, Notre Dame now understands the gap between themselves and the gold standard that is the SEC.
Was the Alabama drubbing just a blip on the radar of an ascending, program or did the game point out Notre Dame’s inadequacies?
Only time will tell, but with a young team and key starters like Zack Martin and Louis Nix coming back for another year, the Irish will be in the thick of the championship race again in 2013.
Here are a few reasons why.
Although there are whispers that coach Brian Kelly will incorporate Gunner Kiel into a two-quarterback system experiment next year, Golson is still the man heading into the spring.
The Irish would not have been in the title game without Golson. His mobility makes him a dual-threat quarterback, and his improved passing was critical to the success of the Irish down the stretch in 2012.
In 2013, Golson will have a better rapport with his receiving corps. The Irish will lose Tyler Eifert and Robby Toma, but they bring back playmakers like T.J. Jones, DaVaris Daniels and Chris Brown.
The Irish will also have a new threat at the tight end position with Troy Niklas. He will provide a big target for Golson, and the Irish should not experience too big of a drop-off from Eifert.
In his second year at the helm of Kelly’s offense, Golson should continue to improve and take on a bigger leadership role.
Although the Irish lose two captains in Manti Te’o and Kapron Lewis-Moore, Notre Dame will still have a stout defensive unit in 2013.
The secondary will improve with another year of experience and they also get Lo Wood and Austin Collinsworth back which will give the secondary more depth.
The wild card for the defense is the eligibility of safety Jamoris Slaughter. Slaughter tore his Achilles against Michigan St. in September, and the Irish are waiting on the NCAA to rule on whether he will be granted another year of eligibility.
If Slaughter can come back, his presence will give the Irish a huge boost on the back end of their defense as well as a strong voice in the locker room to replace leaders like Te’o and Lewis-Moore.
The defensive line should also be a strength in 2013. Lewis-Moore will be gone, but Stephon Tuitt and Louis Nix return and young players like Sheldon Day and Ishaq Williams should see more playing time and emerge as playmakers.
The linebackers will be the biggest question mark on the defensive side of the ball heading into the 2013 season. It is impossible to replace a player and leader like Te’o. Even with Carlo Calabrese and Dan Fox coming back, the unit will have a difficult time filling the void in the middle left by Te’o's departure.
Brian Kelly made Notre Dame fans everywhere nervous with his flirtation with the Philadelphia Eagles shortly after the BCS Championship Game.
He eventually decided to stay, and Notre Dame will reap the benefits of that decision in 2013.
Kelly’s offensive system finally took hold in year three and it should be even more potent with Golson’s maturation. As evidence by the success of 2012, Kelly has players buying into his system and, with Bob Diaco coming back as the defensive coordinator, continuity on the coaching staff should bring further success.
Diaco’s return is huge for the Irish in 2013. He was a coveted commodity for other head coaching positions in the college ranks, but he managed to slip through the cracks.
Diaco is regarded is one of the best defensive minds in the country, as evidenced by the fact that he turned a defense with a solid front seven but with a questionable secondary into one of the elite defenses in the nation.
Over the last 15 years or so, it has been the defense that has held back the Notre Dame program. Although his defense was exposed by Alabama, Diaco for most of the year was able to come up with game plans and schemes that got the best out of his players and limited the productivity of the opposing offense in the process.
Notre Dame has often been criticized for not having the kind of athletes to compete on the defensive side of the ball. For the most part, that has been true. With improved recruiting, the Irish have closed the gap, especially on the front seven, but the secondary is not quite on that level yet.
Personnel-wise, the secondary is not one of college football's elite units. But, because of Diaco’s coaching ability, the Irish were able to hold potent passing attacks like Oklahoma and USC in check.
The Irish will be faced with another formidable schedule in 2013. They play the likes of Michigan, Michigan State, Oklahoma, USC and Stanford.
Every one of their opponents has the Notre Dame game circled on their schedule. That is just the nature of the beast when you are at Notre Dame, you get everybody’s best shot.
The Irish will be ranked somewhere in the Top-15 in the preseason polls and, like every year, expectations will be high in South Bend.
To reach the BCS Championship Game for a second straight year, the Irish need solid production out of their offense, improved special teams play and a defense as stingy as it was in 2012.
A little luck of the Irish does not hurt either.