Everything changed on Nov. 24, 2012.
It was on that day that then No.1-ranked Notre Dame defeated archrival USC, 22-13, which not only secured the Irish's first national championship appearance in 24 seasons, but also raised the bar to unprecedented heights.
When now fifth-year head coach Brian Kelly arrived in South Bend, Ind., in December 2009, the program was desperate to simply return to relevancy—go ahead and debate the meaning of the word in college football—and the forefront of national discussion.
That Kelly guided the program back to not only BCS contention but to the grandest stage of college football in three years was one of the most tremendous feats in program history, but has since led the program to a precarious position.
It's now "national championship or bust."
Fair or not, those are the odds presently facing Kelly and Co.
And to return to college football's championship game and satisfy its persistently dissatisfied fanbase, Notre Dame will need to piece together an even more memorable season than the 2012 edition that saw the Irish run the table.
No longer is finishing the regular season No. 1 or No. 2 in the defunct BCS rankings enough to compete for a national championship. Now, teams throughout the country must jostle to finish in the top four of the sport's new ranking system and win two playoff games to earn the distinction of "national champion."
With Notre Dame's treacherous 2014 schedule, it's tough to envision the Irish galloping to a 14-0 record and a national championship at AT&T Stadium in Dallas on Jan. 12, 2015.
The schedule alone won't be the only constraint for the Irish, though.
While quarterback Everett Golson has returned after missing the 2013 due to an academic misconduct issue, he won't be greeted by the same dominant defense that led the program to the national title game two seasons ago.
Gone are stalwart defensive linemen Louis Nix and Stephon Tuitt, along with standout linebackers Dan Fox, Carlo Calabrese and Prince Shembo. Losing five key pieces along the front seven may prove harmfully untimely, particularly after Notre Dame finished 70th nationally in rushing defense and 96th in sacks a season ago.
Given the inevitable youth movement—the Irish could start as many as four underclassmen in the front seven—following the departure of the aforementioned quintet, it may be tough sledding for the Irish defensively.
However, quick conclusions regarding the defense may be a bit rash at this point with first-year defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder having yet to implement his system.
Either way, the combination of a revamped front seven along with a first-year coordinator may cause a mirroring of the 2012 season, with the offense pulling the weight for the defense. Thus, the hope remains that Kelly and offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock can concoct an attack that can mask any and all defensive shortcomings.
Should that be the case, Irish fans are in for many high-scoring shootouts. It would be quality television, but it would also likely cause undesirable amounts of teeth-gnashing and hand-wringing.
Given that condition, combined with a formidable schedule that includes a date with the defending national champion Florida State Seminoles, 2014 isn't likely to see the Irish finish as one of the nation's top four teams and advance to the first annual College Football Playoff.
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