Here's the positive spin – and no, I haven't had a pint too many – for Brian Kelly's football program: it always knew where it wanted to go; now it knows how far it has to actually get there.
“Now it's up to those that return to take it one more step, and we saw that that step needs to happen,” the third-year Irish coach said in wake of the defeat. “We were beat today by a better football team. I don't know if they were 21 points, 28, 35, but they beat us today.”
Actually coach, Alabama was better than you by however much that it wanted to be better than you. But I digress.
Kelly's point is well taken, though. The Crimson Tide did Kelly and his program a favor in a morbid sort of way. Now they, and the Irish Nation for that matter, know exactly where this program stands among the football hierarchy.
The Fighting Irish are pretty good. Not great, but pretty good, which is a heckuva lot better than anyone thought of them 12 months ago.
Throughout this fall, as the wins piled up, there was a lot of bravado flowing through the South Bend campus. Following narrow wins over Purdue, Michigan, BYU, Pittsburgh and USC, Irish fans viewed those games through a “We find ways to win,” prism. In reality, those results should've been looked upon as “We find ways to survive against some really mediocre teams.”
But that is fine. Now everyone comprehends what those victories really meant. And those inside the football program now also understand what needs to be done to keep moving forward.
“We've got another step that we have to take in the development of our program,” Kelly said. “And it'll be left up to those that have been led by these seniors, and that'll be the challenge moving forward.”
The graduating seniors did the dirty work in this ascent. Guys like Zeke Motta, Tyler Eifert, John Goodman and Manti Te'o got this program from 8-5 to 12-1. That was a huge step. A miracle in many regards.
Now it will be up to guys like Everett Golson, Tony Springmann, TJ Jones, Sheldon Day, DaVaris Daniels and even future Irish players like Jaylon Smith, to complete the journey, which won't be easy.
“Everett talked about it,” Kelly said. “His motivation in the off-season is going to be to get back to this game. And the experience that he is able to take from this game, you can't duplicate it if you're sitting home or playing in a bowl game. When you're playing for a National Championship, that stuff doesn't leave you.”
Kelly has brought a lot into this program in three years. He's brought a winning mentality centered on traits like work ethic, attention to detail, and player development. But he also restored the “Fighting” in the Fighting Irish. And that showed even on Monday.
“The way our guys compete - now, Alabama was the better football team, but I love the way our guys kept fighting and kept competing. They didn't quit at all. They understand how to play the game. They played it better. They were the better football team today, but I loved the way our guys just kept playing. There are a number of young guys that got a chance to see that.”
They saw that and they can build on that. The future in South Bend is bright and in years to come, Monday will be viewed in a different – and more accurate - light than today.