FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – It is debatable whether Notre Dame will return to the BCS National Championship Game in 2014. What isn't debatable is whether Notre Dame has returned to relevance on the national college football landscape.
Now the question is, can they stay there, or was 2012 a one-year gift from the football gods?
The answer is clear. Notre Dame isn't going away anytime soon, so the Fighting Irish haters can keep on hatin'.
In the 42-14 loss to Alabama, maybe some would look at the fact that Notre Dame played 28 players with eligibility remaining (not including tight end Tyler Eifert, who announced after the game that he would not return), as a positive, but Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly did.
“(Quarterback) Everett (Golson) talked about it; his motivation in the offseason is going to be to get back to this game,” Kelly said. “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.”
Golson was one of 13 players to start Monday who can return next season. He played very well (286 yards of total offense and a pair of touchdowns -- one passing, one running), but so did receivers TJ Jones (seven receptions for 90 yards) and DaVaris Daniels (six receptions for 115 yards).
“Obviously with a young quarterback that is coming back, and emerging wide receivers in Daniels and TJ Jones was outstanding tonight,” Kelly observed. “We feel really good about the nucleus and the development. These guys have played great competition across the board from the start of the season to the end, and obviously it's only going to help them as we move forward.”
Here is a look at the Irish offense by position groups for the 2013 season:
Golson improved with every practice and played well in some of the biggest games of the season. He has three seasons of eligibility remaining.
“I think it's just been steady improvement as the year has gone on,” Notre Dame offensive coordinator Chuck Martin said of Golson. “The nice thing for him, the difficult thing but the nice thing for him, is he got thrown in the fire right away.
"When you come out and you play three Big Ten teams your first four games and two or three huge rivals your first four games, he didn't get to ease into this thing like some young quarterbacks do, so he got put in a bunch of different situations. But I think it's just been steady progress based on getting out there, getting game experience, learning what we're trying to do offensively at the same time and then just kind of a steady progression.”
Golson completed 58.9 percent of his passes for 2,135 yards, but more importantly, he didn't turn the ball over. The first-year player threw for 11 touchdowns, ran for five more and had just five interceptions.
He'll be the starter entering spring practice, but also getting a serious look will be freshman Gunner Kiel, who spent the fall directing the scout team. It is not beyond comprehension that Kiel wins the starting job, but Golson has a pretty established resume after one season.
Both Tommy Rees and Andrew Hendrix will be seniors next fall, and both have the ability to play well if the younger players struggle.
Highly touted recruit Malik Zaire will more than likely gain a year of experience next season guiding the scout team, as both Golson and Kiel have done.
PROSPECT: Golson will win the job and be one of the most dangerous offensive weapons in the country next fall.
Kelly said last month that Cierre Wood would wait until receiving his evaluation from NFL personnel before deciding whether he wanted to spend another year in South Bend. However, the Alabama defense did the evaluation Monday on behalf of the NFL.
Wood, who would be a fifth-year senior next fall, gained 6 yards on four carries against the Crimson Tide. Despite that less than stellar performance, he would be a very valuable contributor to the Irish offense next season if he returns.
Wood would share carries with junior-to-be George Atkinson III, who Martin said has all of the ability – as does Wood – to be a featured back.
“The truth be told, they all could be a feature back,” Martin recently said of Wood, Atkinson and the graduating Theo Riddick. “They all could do all the things.
"Everybody is like, he plays more, what's wrong with him? There's nothing wrong with any of the three. We'd like to get George 20 carries a game, but there's one football. Coach (Kelly) and I had a discussion at the beginning of the year, 'We have to get George more touches,' and I'm like, 'I'm with you, we've got to run more plays.' Whose touches do we want to take away?”
Also getting a look in the backfield will be juniors-to-be Cam McDaniel and Amir Carlisle, as well as possibly true freshmen Greg Bryant and Tarean Folston.
PROSPECT: The Irish split the position successfully between three players this season and will do so again next year. Wood will lead the team in rushing, but Atkinson will be featured on "SportsCenter" more often.
If there was a really positive sign that came out of Monday's game, it was the outstanding play of junior-to-be Daniels and senior-to-be Jones. The two combined for 13 catches and made plays against the defending champion Crimson Tide.
Both will be featured – and both will be household names next fall – along with younger players such as Davonte' Neal, Chris Brown and senior Daniel Smith.
A pair of true freshmen, Torii Hunter Jr. and William Fuller, could also get opportunities to prove themselves.
PROSPECT: The 1-2 punch of Daniels and Jones has the ability to be the most dangerous receiving duo in the country. They aren't Woods and Lee at USC, but they are as good as anyone will have next year, and Golson will rely on them.
Jabari Holloway, Dan O'Leary, John Owens, Jerome Collins, Anthony Fasano, John Carlson, Kyle Rudolph and Eifert -- these are the names that come off of the Notre Dame-to-the-NFL assembly line tight ends in recent years.
If you are a good tight end at Notre Dame, you will eventually get paid to play the game. It's that simple.
With Eifert leaving for the NFL, juniors-to-be Ben Koyack and Troy Niklas will be looked upon for production. And as much as Kelly employs two-tight end sets, they could both get equal reps.
PROSPECT: NFL scouts will be salivating over Niklas by Halloween. This position will never be a concern in South Bend.
Of the nine offensive linemen listed on the Irish depth chart, seven return. True, center Braxston Cave and right guard Mike Golic Jr. will be missed. However, many felt left tackle Zack Martin was the most consistent lineman this season, and he'll be joined by his brother, right tackle Nick Martin.
Chris Watt has started 26 consecutive games and filled the left guard spot this season, while right tackle Christian Lombard started all 13 games this year.
Along with Nick Martin, sophomore-to-be Ronnie Stanley (left tackle), junior-to-be Conor Hanratty (left guard) and senior-to-be Bruce Heggie (right guard) will get opportunities to prove themselves.
PROSPECT: Cave was the starting center and when he got injured in 2011, Golic Jr. slid over and filled in well. Who will snap the ball to Golson and anchor the line? Whoever it is, Zack Martin, Watt and Lombard are a strong start to putting together a solid – if not great – offensive line.