A tough schedule is part of the territory in South Bend, and 2013's slate was no exception. But a difficult road doesn't explain four defeats in 12 outings -- 2012 was nearly as challenging.
Seniors graduated and moved on, many of them crucial pieces -- two of them all-time program greats -- but that's part of the game as well. (Florida State lost 11 to the 2013 NFL Draft, plus six assistant coaches and rebounded to finish 14-0.)
The realities above remain for 2014 and likely for every Irish season thereafter.
Other circumstances though, one beyond any coach or program's reasonable control, were also at play, plaguing the 2013 Irish en route to a 9-4 finish.
#1 -- Unexpected AttritionIn chronological order, the following talent never took the field for Kelly's Irish in 2013:
Gunner Kiel (5-star QB, transfer), Davonte Neal (4-star receiver, contributing 2012 player, transfer), Justin Ferguson (3-star receiver, transfer), Chase Hounshell (4-star defensive end, injury), Everett Golson (10-1 as a starting quarterback, suspension), Eddie Vanderdoes (5-star DL, transfer), Danny Spond (starting linebacker and every-down defensive player, retired due to injury), Tony Springmann (4-star DL, top 5 DL from 2012, injured knee),
Transfer, injury, and suspension are woven into the fabric of college football as much as are blocking, tackling, and marching bands, but Notre Dame's unexpected losses noted above bordered on the absurd.
Thereafter, starters and/or two-deep reserves Sheldon Day, Jarrett Grace, Daniel Smith, Elijah Shumate, Christian Lombard, Ben Councell, Nick Martin,and Louis Nix each suffered injuries that robbed them of between three and seven games from the 13-game slate.
Whoever coined the phrase "Injuries aren't any excuse" likely presided over a squad in good health.
#2 -- A Case of Mistaken IdentityPoint #1 above was beyond any coach's reasonable control.
Point #2, however, falls directly on Kelly's shoulders.
Notre Dame proved late in 2010 it was a better offensive football team when it ran the ball more and therefore passed it less. They finished 4-0 with that plan of attack.
Running backs named Cierre Wood and Jonas Gray became the offense's focal point thereafter and the team won eight of its next nine with both in the fold before dropping two straight to end the season sans Gray, arguably the team's MVP prior to tearing ligaments in his knee on November 19.
In 2012, Kelly's Irish finished 12-0 and No. 1 at the conclusion of the regular season when they ran the ball 30 or more times (each week).
Nine months later, playing with their backup quarterback in Rees, Kelly and the Irish chose to follow the plan nine times: run the ball more, pass it less. More than 30 times, to be exact.
They finished 9-0 in those contests.
When they failed to run more than 30 times? 0-4.
Kelly chose to rely on his quarterback -- slated for backup duty just months earlier -- rather than the rest of the offense and it's developable weapons.
Total pass attempts by Notre Dame quarterbacks in the 15 losses of the four-season Kelly era:
44, 55, 45, 38, 56, 49, 39, 43, 37, 35, 36, 53, 25 (Oklahoma 2013), 39, and 34.
That was Phase #1 of the Kelly era. In Phase #2 the offensive staff would do well to remember the following:
Throw for show, or run for championship dough.
#3 -- The D-Boys Fall from GraceThe 2012 Irish defense ranks among the best in program history, statistically and otherwise.
They were disciplined. They were fundamentally sound. They were heroic with their backs to the wall.
They were none of the above in 2013.
They played poorly at full strength (41 points allowed in Ann Arbor). They played poorly against one of the best offenses they faced (Oklahoma) and did the same against one of the worst (Pittsburgh).
They later showed grit and toughness while playing vastly undermanned in forgivable loss No. 4 at Stanford. (Had they approached games played in Ann Arbor or the Steel City similarly, a 10- or 11-win season would have ensued.)
Notre Dame's defense won the USC game for the squad. It did the same against the eventual 12-1 Michigan State Spartans. It found a way to limit explosive Arizona State, powerful Stanford, and the dual-threat prowess of Brigham Young.
But inconsistency reigned, from major communication breakdowns and maddening missed tackles in the secondary to a lack of consistent punch up front (vs. the run and pass).
Kelly opined in August that, "If the defense can stay within the same area code as it played last year, and we really up our offensive output, then we can have the kind of year that we're all looking forward to."
Too often, the defense failed to hold up its essential part of the equation.
#4 -- A Special PlanThere are 123 teams among the official FBS statistical rankings.
Among them, Notre Dame finished 105th in net punting, 80th in punt returns, and a ludicrous 121st in kickoff coverage -- that's without allowing a return touchdown to in any way skew the average.
Kelly summed up the latter unit's standing on the squad in his final post-game press conference of the season noting, "that disaster of a kickoff coverage team…"
Notre Dame has one of the best kickers in college football in Kyle Brindza (he's doubtless the most clutch), and he doubles as a quality punter, posting a 41-yard net average with just one touchback over the last 11 weeks, and seven boots in excess of 50 yards.
They have a strong kickoff return team (ranked #22 led by the efforts of George Atkinson) and even addressed the national joke of a punt return unit, putting their best player back to receive punts (Jones was admirable in his attempts to swim upstream).
But punt coverage has been intermittently poor (it was great in 2010, fine in 2012, awful in 2011) and kickoff coverage has been substandard for three seasons (ranking in the low 70s in both 2011-12), bottoming out last fall.
Phase 2 of the Kelly era has to feature more consistent special teams play. And not just because it has nowhere to go but up.
#5 -- The Dreaded Stubbed Toe: Pittsburgh9-4 Notre Dame finished the 2013 season ranked No. 20 in the final Associated Press poll.
After its No. 4 finish last fall, the 2012-13 seasons mark the first with back-to-back ranked seasons since 2005-06 when the Brady Quinn-led Irish finished No. 9 and No. 17 respectably. (They entered bowl season ranked No. 5 and No. 11).
With wins over over #3 Michigan State, #19 USC and #21 Arizona State -- and losses to #6 Oklahoma, #11 Stanford, and to arch-rival Michigan, all things considered, Notre Dame's season played out in a respectable manner.
But then there's Pittsburgh. (PITTSBURGH!)
The importance of a top 10 vs. top 20 vs. top 25 finish can be argued, what was truly lost in Notre Dame's ignominious Steel City defeat was the right to be in the conversation -- for a BCS Bowl berth.
At 9-2 rather than 8-3 entering the season's final game at Stanford, Notre Dame would have been firmly planted in the national consciousness. Instead they were playing the role of spoiler. Barely, as Stanford was headed to a Pac-12 championship tilt regardless of the outcome.
Spoilers play in the Pinstripe Bowl and spend New Year's at home with their families.
Here's to a return to contention for Kelly's capable Irish in 2014 and a New Year's Eve spent preparing for the inaugural College Football Playoff.
Phase 2 of the Kelly era begins in earnest.