9-3 would indeed be good enough…I wrote a summer series in 2009 detailing Notre Dame's top 15 teams of the last 30 years. The No. 8 ranked squad and the best, by my estimation since the oft-referenced 1993 group, was Charlie Weis' first team of 2005. Their 9-3 finish included one black mark (a home loss, thrilling as it was, to middling Michigan State) and two high-profile defeats against top teams USC and Ohio State.
The rallying cry for that group heading into 2006 was that "9-3 is Not Good Enough."
For many fans of the current Irish, a team that for all-the-world looked like it was poised to join that select group of 15 at the season's outset, 9-3 is now the only remaining acceptable outcome – at least one that would assuage the collective feeling of mediocrity that plagues the program.
For head coach Brian Kelly, big picture thoughts are best left for pundits, not players.
"It's program building," Kelly said of the team's universal goal. "All the things that go along with being a successful football program: Winning games, that's one of them; preparation; recruiting; game-day atmosphere.
"You know, when we took this job on, we had some work to do, and we're making great progress," he continued, admitting, "I'd like to make more on the field; 4-3 is not where we want to be. But clearly we're right in the midst of building the program.
"Again, from our standpoint, what we try to do is bring everything along. I like some of the things I see. I don't like some others. But our sleeves are rolled up. We're so entrenched in building our football program that it's hard sometimes for us to have that big-picture view that I know you guys have."
The BCS was Kelly's stated pre-season goal; one put to rest by USC, a program that for all of its ancillary issues nevertheless stands at 6-1 heading into the toughest portion of its schedule.
Where do the Irish go from here?
"Quite honestly, and I'm just telling you the truth here, the dangling of the carrot is more about a sound byte," Kelly said, using the direct question in his answer. "It's not what we do on a day-to-day basis. We come to practice saying we've got to be more disciplined with our eyes; we've got to do a better job on route adjustments. We're just so focused more on the detail that I think we look too much into those sound bytes as to each and every week; each and every day is for us the most important thing.
"We've got plenty to play for," he continued. "We've got plenty to play for because when you're building your football program you're building pride in what you do. And I think that's the overriding factor is that our guys have an immense amount of pride in what they do, and they want to get better at it."
Could part of getting better include a shift of focus toward 2012?
"Oh, it never gets to…I think I said this last night: I think you guys have more of a global view of everything. We just don't operate that way," Kelly said. "We're looking at how we can improve, how we can stop Navy. We really don't get into that. That's good talk for the radio shows and the pundits; they can talk about that stuff. We just don't get into those kinds of conversations. We keep it really focused on the day-to-day."
Speaking of today…Three quarterbacks played Saturday, one the direct result of a hyper extended knee suffered by starter Tommy Rees. Though Kelly's medical report wasn't due until after he spoke with the media, the head coach felt his starter would be ready to roll for Tuesday's practice.
"The initial (report) was that he'll have some soreness there, but it shouldn't prevent him from practicing on Tuesday."
Then, as has been the pattern this season, calamity ensued for the Irish offense. A fumbled snap (a play-action pass to the tight end was the call), a bumbled recovery kicked toward the full field behind him; an 80-yard sprint for an uncontested Trojans score.
Instead of 17-17, USC re-claimed a decisive two touchdown edge, 24-10 entering the final quarter.
With his senior quarterback's shot at redemption failing spectacularly, does Kelly feel he needs to be wary of the backup's mindset?
"No, I don't have to worry about it, he does," Kelly stated bluntly.
Regarding Crist's future as the No. 2, Kelly offered, "We haven't made any changes as of (Sunday)."
Crist took Notre Dame to the red zone on three occasions in 8.5 drives this season. None resulted in a point(s). He's not the only Irish quarterback that hasn't come up clean inside the opponents' 20-yard line.
"I think a lot of it is looking at our red zone efficiency," Kelly said of the team's quarterback rating that rests in the middle of the pack. "You know, Tommy, Dayne, the quarterbacks that have played for us, I think it's all of them, we haven't had very good red zone efficiency in throwing the football and making those plays.
"Clearly the throws that we make down there have a little bit of a different angle to them in what we do. So we've got to get better in the red zone. That's really, if there's anything on the offensive side of the ball after last night, it's, again, in the red zone."
Rees' only technical red zone visit vs. the Trojans resulted in a field goal to end the half. The sophomore missed an open Tyler Eifert in the end zone under late duress. The Irish are currently 110th out of 120 FBS teams in red zone efficiency ratings; the poor showing despite a recent string of nine touchdowns in their previous 10 visits entering Saturday's contest.
Running back Jonas Gray scored Notre Dame's only offensive touchdown on a 25-yard sprint in the second quarter.
Blame GameIrish message board chatter over the weekend revolved around Kelly's apparent shifting of the blame for Saturday's loss from he and his staff to his players. Kelly didn't backtrack, but he did offer clarification.
"We always have the conversations first before I talk to you guys; you get it second," Kelly said. "My conversation with our football team is what we talk about in the locker room, and then it's left for you guys to interpret any way you want. My players know exactly how I feel. There is one thing we don't have a problem with is communication.
"It's really clear with our guys as to what my feelings are after a game, what my expectations are of our football team, and we never put the loss squarely on one or the other. It's a team loss; I lost; our players lost. The specifics of that stay within the locker room."