Perhaps the most challenging obstacle for the Fighting Irish remains ahead.
After advancing to the 2013 BCS National Championship Game—the school's first appearance in college football's title game in 24 years—the expectations for a program with annually high expectations have expanded to enormous proportions.
Living up to a 2012 season in which the Irish finished the regular season unscathed before a blistering loss to Alabama in the championship game will no doubt be a monstrous task, but one that the program is most certainly capable of accomplishing.
A checklist of "to-do" items is handy for these types of endeavors, so I'll begin with the most nagging issue head coach Brian Kelly and Co. dealt with a season ago.
5. Develop a Consistent, Efficient Red-Zone Offense
The Irish finished the 2012 season ranked 71st nationally—out of 120 FBS teams—in red-zone efficiency, at a clip of .80. For perspective, the highest-ranked team in the statistic—Clemson—scored in the red zone at a rate of .95.
Where Notre Dame encountered trouble was getting the ball in the end zone once it reached the red zone.
Drives that entered the opponent's 20-yard line had fans groaning and expecting the offense to sputter, ending with a field goal. In fact, the Irish and Oklahoma State tied for the most red-zone field goals of any team in the country.
The solution to this problem sounds simple but may not be so simplistic in nature—starting quarterback Everett Golson must develop a comfort level with throwing the ball on a short field.
Kelly and offensive coordinator Chuck Martin can't become content with packing it in and running the ball once the team reaches the red zone. Becoming a one-dimensional team will only result in more frustrating field goals.
4. Sweep the Big Ten Portion of the Schedule...Again
In Notre Dame's final season before its scheduling agreement with the Atlantic Coast Conference kicks in, the Irish will, per usual, play three teams from the Big Ten Conference—Michigan, Michigan State and Purdue.
Last season, the Irish swept all three of those Big Ten member schools, which was a feat that hadn't been accomplished in this writer's lifetime.
The Irish did experience a nail-biting 20-17 victory against Purdue at Notre Dame Stadium in Week 2 of the 2012 season, but a rookie starting quarterback had a large say in the outcome of that contest. With a season's worth of experience under his belt, along with the Boilermakers being under the direction of first-year head coach Darrell Hazell, expect this contest to be a more comfortable victory in 2013.
The Irish endured a similar set of circumstances against Michigan back on Sept. 22. Despite six turnovers committed by former Wolverines quarterback Denard Robinson, Notre Dame escaped with a narrow 13-6 victory.
Once again, a young, inexperienced Everett Golson played a major role in the offensive shortcomings.
Yet against Michigan State, the Irish captured a rather comfortable win, earning redemption from the debacle in their meeting with the Spartans in 2010 with a resounding 20-3 triumph at Spartan Stadium in East Lansing, Mich., on the back of a heroic effort from their stifling defense.
With Golson in his second season as a starter, and an equally suffocating defense, it won't arrive as a surprise if Notre Dame sweeps its Big Ten competition for a second consecutive season.
3. Establish a Feature Back
Theo Riddick and Cierre Wood have taken their talents to the NFL, leaving George Atkinson and Cam McDaniel as the only running backs on the spring roster who have taken meaningful snaps for the Irish.
Atkinson appears to be making a push for the lead gig, as he has beefed up to 217 pounds and will not be a member of Notre Dame's track and field squad in an effort to place all of his focus on football.
McDaniel, despite the fact he brings a consistent effort on a daily basis, doesn't appear as a threat for the starting job, though incoming freshmen Tarean Folston and Greg Bryant will be serious competition for Atkinson.
Amir Carlisle, a USC transfer, will miss the rest of spring practice with a broken collarbone and will be in the mix for the role of hybrid running back/slot receiver upon his return.
2. Field Another Top-10 Defense
The key ingredient to Notre Dame's journey to the BCS national championship was no secret—the Irish rode a rock-solid defense all the way to Miami. The unit finished the season ranked seventh nationally in total defense, second in scoring defense and 11th in rushing defense.
The good news for Irish fans is that that same defense returns eight of 11 starters in 2013, though defensive end Kapron Lewis-Moore, linebacker Manti Te'o and safety Zeke Motta have each moved on to the NFL.
With such an experienced core returning, there's no reason why the Irish shouldn't field one of the nation's elite defenses once again.
1. Return to the BCS
In the last season of the broken, crooked BCS system, Notre Dame will be a front-runner for a spot in one of the five BCS games—Fiesta, Orange, Sugar, Rose and the championship game.
Now, it's silly to assume that a schedule is a breeze or a gauntlet this far from the beginning of the season, so it would be against one's better judgment to make assumptions about the Irish's 2013 slate at this point.
However, its inclusion in January's championship game automatically places Notre Dame in the VIP section of college football along with the likes of LSU, Oregon, Alabama, etc.
How the Irish handle the pressure that comes along with that distinction will be a key factor in whether they make a return to the BCS party.
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