When the calendar changed from Dec. 31, 2012 to Jan. 1, 2013, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish were ranked No. 1 in the country, preparing to face Alabama in the BCS National Championship Game on the heels of an undefeated season.
Since that moment, though, it's been a tale of two very different years. With a series of slow and consistent waves, the walls of that campaign have been pelted into submission, crumbling around this team and leaving it in a state of genuine flux.
It started on Jan. 7 in Miami. Alabama waxed Brian Kelly's team in front of 26 million anxious viewers, confirming every cruel word that was spoken ad nauseam about Notre Dame's overrated-ness. With one fell swoop and a 42-14 loss, an entire year of reputation rehab went for naught.
Once the team had collapsed as a whole, Lady (Bad) Luck turned her attention to the players. Nine days after the loss to Alabama, Heisman runner-up and consummate Notre Dame poster boy, Manti Te'o, was exposed as either a gullible dolt or a calculated fraud (if not both). Quarterback Everett Golson was later suspended from the university for unspecified academic transgressions, putting the fate of 2013's offense on the fickle right arm of Tommy Rees.
The year came to an end against now 6-7 Rutgers in the Pinstripe Bowl at Yankee Stadium on Saturday—a sentence so sullen that it speaks for itself. Even in victory, 29-16, the Irish needed all 60 minutes to beat a team that lost to Houston by 35 points. This is how far they have slipped.
But the night is always darkest before the dawn.
The calendar changes from Dec. 31, 2013 to Jan. 1, 2014 in four short days. In no time at all, though it's been a long time coming, this star-crossed year becomes forever a thing of the past; Notre Dame has a chance to bury it in the dirt and start fresh.
And there are reasons to believe that it will.
Those reasons start with current form. Despite ugly games against Pittsburgh, Navy and Purdue, this team won nine games in 2013, and it was even better than its record might have indicated.
Though tempting to look at the lows, quite often a team's potential is defined by its highs. "How good is your good?" is a useful question for team evaluation, and in 2013—despite both injuries and Rees' penchant for turnovers—Notre Dame's good was pretty awesome.
To date, no other team in the country can say it beat Michigan State, which is 12-1 and preparing to play in the 100th annual Rose Bowl. If Stanford wins that game, Michigan State and Arizona State will have combined to lose five total games this season: three at the hands of the Cardinal, two to Notre Dame.
That is elite company for a team that endured as much as the Irish. Even with the Heavens working against it, this team's ceiling was hard to deny. And if the hteavens stop working against it in 2014, that ceiling should rise even higher than now.
Golson will return to the lineup, having been readmitted to the university on Dec. 13. He's spent this lost year working out with QB guru Marcus Whitfield, and if the reports are to be believed—which they shouldn't, necessarily, without confirmation—he's light years better than he was in 2012.
Sure, Golson lost a ton of in-game experience, which would have aided his development. But by the time he suits up in Week 1 next August, he'll have spent three-plus years learning Brian Kelly's offense, some of which took place in the midst of an undefeated season and national title run.
Few things can simulate that experience.
“if we have a quarterback with the ability to run the ball, we will be difficult to defend.” -Kelly— Irish Illustrated (@NDatRivals) December 28, 2013
Throw in the recruiting classes—which have been, currently are, and will always continue to be solid—and you have a team poised for progression to the mean. Kelly has never failed to meet expectations twice in a row in his entire career, dating all the way back to his days with Grand Valley State. Why should we expect him to start now?
Where Will Notre Dame Finish in 2014?
The schedule is tough, no doubt. Being better next year might not mean another run at the national title. With Michigan, Stanford, Florida State, Arizona State, Northwestern, Louisville and USC all looming, improvement might mean even fewer than nine wins.
But the Irish should be a better, more complete football team in almost every facet of the game, despite the potential losses of Stephon Tuitt and Louis Nix up front.
And if this team, cursed by the stars from the start, could stay competitive all season and pull some nifty upsets...next year's team should do all that plus more.