SOUTH BEND – Notre Dame was two wins from a national title in 2018.
It was the second time in the last decade the Irish have gotten within striking distance of breaking the longest championship drought in program history, which has reached 31 years.
The quest to bring a title back to South Bend ended the same way it did in 2012-13, with a blowout loss against the eventual national champion that left many wondering whether the Irish have the speed and depth to really compete with the country's elite.
“Do I feel like it's different than (after Alabama)?” coach Brian Kelly asked after the loss to the Wildcats. “Oh, I do. Absolutely. ... This is a totally different feeling. I feel like this football team is on the brink. Where, when I left (the loss to Alabama), it was, 'Boy, do we have a lot of work to do.'”
“We're close,” Kelly added. “We're going to work our tails off to get there.”
Being close has been the theme of Notre Dame's offseason preparations heading into the 2019 campaign, which begins Monday with a road matchup against Louisville. The mantra for the Irish as they've gone through offseason workouts has been “finish,” as in finish the job and win a championship.
Quarterback Ian Book put the focus in more colorful terms when asked about it on the first day of fall camp.
“The ceiling is the floor,” Book said, meaning reaching the College Football Playoff again should be a minimum goal for the Irish this season.
“We made it to the playoffs,” Book said. “We know what that feels like, but we didn't win in the playoffs. Now we know what it takes to get there. It's time to get there and actually win it this time. Everyone on the team understands that.”
This is a different team than the one that won 12 straight games in 2018. The Irish lose their two top linebackers, Carroll product Drue Tranquill and Te'von Coney, who combined for more than 200 tackles last season. Gone are shutdown corner Julian Love, explosive running back Dexter Williams, three-year starter at center Sam Mustipher and top receiver Miles Boykin.
There's plenty of talent returning, as well, including Book, who was one of the most efficient quarterbacks in college football in 2018, a pair of terrifying pass rushers on the edge in Khalid Kareem and Julian Okwara, and a potentially elite safety tandem in Jalen Elliott and Alohi Gilman.
Gilman, a captain, is eager to prove this team is as special as 2018's group.
“Coach Kelly talks about sharpening our ax,” Gilman said. “Now that our ax is ready and we're ready to go, I'm interested to see who we are as a team. Every team is different. Last year's team is completely different than this year's team. Once we step out (on the field), we're going to see how we react to adversity, how we play in a big atmosphere, and how the leaders are going to respond to those situations.”
This team has been preparing to take last season's success a step further almost since the moment it left the field at the Cotton Bowl. The promise of competing for a national title again has fueled the Irish for eight months.
“Throughout the spring and summer, we're just a group that has attacked anything that's been put in front of us,” Gilman said. “Any workout, any challenge, any adversity. We just attack.
“For us, we focus on just being a warrior out there. I think we have the people and the pieces to do those things.”
Notre Dame's schedule is unforgiving, with three road games against top 25 teams, but the Irish haven't shied away from a challenge yet. The season is just one day away.
Monday: at Louisville, 8 p.m.
Sept. 14: New Mexico, 2:30 p.m.
Sept. 21: at Georgia, 8 p.m.
Sept. 28: Virginia, 3:30 p.m.
Oct. 5: Bowling Green, 3:30 p.m.
Oct. 12: USC, 7:30 p.m.
Oct. 26: at Michigan, TBA
Nov. 2: Virginia Tech, 2:30 p.m.
Nov. 9: at Duke, TBA
Nov. 16: Navy, 2:30 p.m.
Nov. 23: Boston College, 2:30 p.m.
Nov. 30: at Stanford, TBA