You would have questioned my sanity had I told you Notre Dame finishing 9-4 would be the mark of a successful 2013 campaign for the Irish one year ago at this time.
It never ceases to amaze how rapidly and significantly things change in the course of a calendar year, though.
Once fourth-year head coach Brian Kelly and his team capped a 29-16 victory against Rutgers in the Pinstripe Bowl at Yankee Stadium in New York City on Dec. 28, the final page was turned on what was an incredibly bumpy, tumultuous ride for the Irish that began with a 42-14 drubbing in last season's BCS National Championship at the hands of Alabama.
Despite that ugly result, Notre Dame's sole aspiration never wavered in the immediate aftermath.
"National title or bust" was the rallying cry of the program, and rightfully so, as quarterback Everett Golson and eight starters from a legendary defense were slated to return for the 2013 season.
While Kelly's brief flirtation with the Philadelphia Eagles and Manti Te'o's catfishing debacle created what felt like a endless vortex of negative sentiments, spirits remained high but were shredded and mashed like fruit in a blender when Golson was expelled from the university in May for what was later revealed to be cheating.
Without a mobile athlete at the quarterback position, it's tough sledding against quality competition, of which there is a tremendous amount year in and year out on Notre Dame schedules.
It's not a knock on former quarterback Tommy Rees; he did everything asked of him throughout his career, and the Irish would have found themselves in dire straits without his services this season (see the second half of this season's USC game).
Adding in the tempered expectations for the season following Golson's expulsion—national championship dreams transformed to last ditch efforts to simply qualify for a BCS bowl game—it's no secret that the quarterback position is the most influential of all organized sports.
Despite the overwhelming amount of criticism launched in Rees' general direction, the Lake Forest, Ill., native guided a Notre Dame offense that averaged approximately two more points per game than it did during last season's national championship run.
Sure, the offense wasn't as dynamic due to the inability to implement the zone read, but it was as productive as it possibly could have been given the circumstances.
But for all the talk regarding Rees' effect on the offense and 2013 season as a whole, he was far from the lone factor.
Even with those aforementioned returning starters from a defense that was one of the best in the country last season, the unit experienced a rather surprising regression, particularly against the run.
After resembling a steel curtain a year ago, the Irish defense was anything but during 2013, finishing 70th nationally in rushing defense while allowing 168 yards per game on the ground. Though it likely won't ever be verified, the losses of Te'o, safety Zeke Motta and defensive end Kapron Lewis-Moore, three outstandingly influential leaders, seemed to have a negative effect on the 2013 defense.
When also considering the injuries the defense suffered this season, the Irish's 9-4 final record is even more impressive.
From a macro-perspective, that final result takes on an added significance.
Notre Dame played three BCS bowl teams: Stanford (Rose Bowl), Michigan State (Rose Bowl) and Oklahoma (Sugar Bowl). The Irish were 1-2 against that trio, with the lone victory arriving against the Spartans, who won the Big Ten Conference Championship Game, as well as Big Ten Conference's first Rose Bowl since the 2009 season.
Also worth noting are the Irish's victories against Arizona State and USC, two teams that finished ranked 14th and 25th, respectively, in the final BCS standings.
Fans and anyone else associated with the program can wonder "what if" as much as they'd like, but it won't change how the 2013 season played out. Either way you view it, the season was a success, even if 9-4 isn't your cup of tea.
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