NOTRE DAME — There’s a sign that hangs on the right side of Notre Dame’s football auditorium.
It lists Notre Dame’s 12 regular-season opponents in order, as it did the season before. There’s a new addition this year, though. A 13th game.
January 7, 2014. BCS Championship Game.
No blank space. No “Bowl Game: TBD.”
Notre Dame is expecting nothing short of a return trip to the national championship.
It’s been on the team’s collective mind since the day after its 41-14 loss to Alabama in the BCS national championship in January.
“Everything we’ve worked on since that next day, and I mean the next day, is about getting back to the national championship game and winning it,” head coach Brian Kelly said in his season-opening press conference. “There’s not a man that sat in this seat, when we met as an entire team, that is not committed to that end. That’s why they’re here. That’s why there’s such great excitement and anticipation. From our standpoint as coaches, we can feel that.
“So it’s pretty clear that our players are committed to one goal, and that is to get back to a national championship, just as every other BCS school on Media Day is expecting the same thing.”
Every other BCS school may be saying it, but only two got that close last season. Alabama walked away with the crystal football, and Notre Dame was left wondering where it went wrong.
The recovery process wasn’t exactly ideal, either. In the days following the loss, Kelly flirted with a coaching gig with the Philadelphia Eagles. Off-season turmoil snowballed once news broke about the Lennay Kekua hoax; Gunner Kiel, Justin Ferguson and Davonte Neal’s departures; Everett Golson’s suspension and Eddie Vanderdoes’s transfer.
Kelly maintained that the Irish took it all in stride.
“It was in the rearview mirror the next day,” Kelly said. “I mean, we don’t even think about it, don’t even talk about it. It’s history. As I mentioned, our guys were focused the very next day on winter workouts, early-morning conditioning, building into our spring and into our summer. It’s not even something that’s discussed.”
Entering his fourth year as coach, Kelly has a bigger, stronger team on hand — nose guard Louis Nix padded an extra 31 pounds to his already-oversized frame — and a veteran quarterback with a chance to prove the doubters wrong.
Kelly named Tommy Rees the starter early in the summer because of his experience and owning the best set of tools to beat Temple. But on a team where last year’s accomplishments have little bearing on this year’s focus, Kelly said that Rees doesn’t have the starting job locked down.
“I didn’t name him the starter for all 13 games,” Kelly said. “I named him the starter for Temple.”
It’s that type of competition that’s fueling a handful of position battles, which Kelly looks forward to seeing shake out at running back, linebacker, defensive back and defensive line.
At running back, Kelly said coaches know they have a “big-play guy” in presumed starter George Atkinson III, but that he is waiting for practice to start to evaluate newcomers Greg Bryant and Tarean Folston.
At safety, Kelly said Matthais Farely has “proven himself to be a BCS safety for us.” He rattled off a half dozen names of linebackers, cornerbacks and defensive linemen that could see starting time this season.
“It’s going to be fun,” Kelly said. “We have a lot of veterans coming back, but there’s going to be a lot of things that we’re going to have to evaluate. We’re going to have a lot of players that will get that opportunity.”
As for his own future with the Irish, Kelly thinks an official contract is “imminent.”
“There are no issues with the contract,” he said. “There is no leverage play here.”