MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — The best perspective on Notre Dame’s improbable appearance in the national title game came from athletic director Jack Swarbrick in September.
In an attempt to sum up star linebacker Manti Te’o's role in rebuilding the Fighting Irish, Swarbrick paid him a glowing compliment.
“Someday, when we are there holding up that crystal ball,” Swarbrick said, “I want Manti to be here with us because the role he has played in leading us from where we were to where we are going.”
Notre Dame began this season unranked. Two games on its schedule — at Oklahoma and at USC — were written off as losses before the year even began. Even the most optimistic Notre Dame fans, with calloused hands from praying so many rosaries, couldn’t have conjured up a scenario where it’d go 12-0 to earn a spot in the national title game.
Yet after a 42-14 beatdown at the hands of Alabama, this 2012 Irish team leaves a simple legacy: Appearing in this game showed just how far Notre Dame has come. Getting bulldozed by a clearly superior opponent shows just how far it has to go.
“They’re not just better than us; they’re better than everyone,” said Swarbrick, with t-shirt presses in Tuscaloosa primed to duplicate his words the moment they hit Twitter early on Tuesday morning. He added: “It doesn’t diminish the regular season. That foundation is here. We’re back in elite status.”
Let’s make no mistake: The Irish looked inferior in every way on Monday night. If this were an Olympic hockey game, it was Sweden versus Fiji. Notre Dame struggled with SEC size, SEC speed and SEC poise. It also struggled with SEC coaching, as Alabama looked better prepared and more comfortable; the Tide executed their gameplan with a sniper’s precision.
Without re-reading the entire autopsy, Notre Dame got pushed around. Alabama averaged 5.9 yards per carry and ran for two touchdowns, the same amount that the Irish surrendered all season. AJ McCarron threw for 264 yards and four touchdowns, and the Tide showed Notre Dame a blueprint of where it needs to go — for good measure, they tattooed it on the Irish.
“The only thing that I got out of it really was the physicality that they have and also the consistency of how they play,” said Irish tailback Cierre Wood. “They played at a high level from start to finish.”
There was one dissenter in the Notre Dame locker room who refused to bow to Alabama’s dominance. That was 326-pound Irish nose guard Louis Nix. Despite Alabama traversing the field at will — both by air and by ground — Nix insisted the Irish’s defensive front didn’t get dominated. When a reporter suggested that Alabama controlled the line of scrimmage, Nix asked, “Define control?”
“They were a pretty good line,” Nix said. “I think up front, I think our defensive line gave them a run for their money. They did not dominate. I hope no one uses that word. I don’t think they actually physically dominated us and took us out to the woodshed and beat our ass.”
Nix insisted the Irish’s problems revolved around missed tackles — and there were plenty of those on Monday night. But why? Nix pontificated: “I can’t explain it. Can you tell me why we’re on earth? Can you tell me, what is gravity?”
Nix can ponder those questions in a philosophy class next semester. And while his comments elicited chuckles down South, Nix is part of a core Notre Dame group that should help the Irish remain in the national title conversation again next season. Nix is among eight starters set to return on the Irish defense, while seven starters are set to come back on the offensive side of the ball. There’s also a high-end recruiting class on the way: Notre Dame has the No. 1 class on Rivals.com and the No. 3 class on Scout.com.
Notre Dame has a long way to go to reach the level of Alabama, but it may not be as far off as it showed on Monday. In fact, heading into next season, the Irish project to be favored in every game until their matchup at Stanford on Nov. 30. Even with this beatdown, they’ll be a preseason frontrunner.
“We’re a good team, but we’re not good enough to win a natty yet,” said Irish tailback George Atkinson, referring to a national championship. “We’re going to take this as motivation for next year. The seniors did a good job taking us this far, we’ve got to take it to that next level.”
Everett Golson will return at quarterback, and he started to develop as a top-notch talent. Last year’s top quarterback recruit, Gunner Kiel, will still be on the depth chart. There’s even plenty of talent at tailback whether or not Cierre Wood goes to the NFL; five-star tailback Greg Bryant stands as the most tantalizing of Notre Dame’s recruits. (He’s also a guy the Irish might not have roped in with a 9-3 record this year.).
On defense, Nix and fellow lineman Stephon Tuitt may be the best defensive linemen in college football not named Jadeveon Clowney. And two very good players who lost this season to injury — Lo Wood and Austin Collinsworth — return to bolster a solid secondary. There’s a solid talent base, yet still a ways to go to upgrade it.
“Obviously we saw today that we have some work to do,” said Te’o. “Us being here playing in this game, we know that we’ve closed that gap a lot. But there’s still that gap. Guys that are here, who are coming back, they experienced what its like.”
In a solemn locker room, Irish running back Theo Riddick wiped tears away from his face with a white Gatorade towel. Wood, in a sincere moment, tapped his friend gently on the head to console him.
Irish freshman cornerback KeiVarae Russell certainly looked glum, but he had no problem speaking of his optimism for the future. He thanked the Notre Dame seniors for returning the Irish to the national elite.
“It’s a building block around here,” he said. “It shows we’re not quite where we want to be, but we’re on the right track to where we want to be.”
In September, coach Brian Kelly stressed that this recruiting class would be key for the Irish to solidify depth and talent going forward. Notre Dame’s season, with a bit of serendipity in victories over Purdue, Pittsburgh and Stanford, helped achieve that success a year early. No one is sure when Swarbrick will be able to invite Te’o back to be with the Irish when they hold up the crystal ball, but it’s hard to imagine Notre Dame not being a mainstay in title conversation in the immediate future.
“Everyone was saying that next year is supposed to be the year,” Atkinson said. “We’re going to learn from this and keep pushing.”
No one expected Notre Dame to be here. And despite a dismal performance, no one should be surprised if the Irish have pushed their way back into the BCS title picture for years to come.