NOTRE DAME, Ind. - Twenty-four years had passed between Notre Dame's 1988 national championship and its next chance to play for a title this past January. Nearly eight months have passed since the Jan. 7 BCS Championship Game loss and the Irish are anxious to put that wound-licking memory behind them as they prepare to open a new season.
"Getting back on the field for our football team after a loss is the best recipe for any football team," head coach Brian Kelly said this week. "It's been a long time since we played that last game and a lot of work, a lot of preparation heading into this first game against Temple."
Notre Dame coaches, players and fans alike don't need to be reminded. They know what the scoreboard read as they walked off the field at Sun Life Stadium: 42-14. That reality check of an outcome marked a bitter end to what had been a remarkable 2012 season. It also marked the start of the offseason that leads up to Saturday's 2013 opener.
"It's driven the whole team hard," said Irish running back George Atkinson. "Just making sure we get back climbing the mountain the right way. I think as a team we've got a good focus. (We are) making sure we're ready and preparing for each opponent like it's the championship game."
The fruits of Atkinson's offseason work have already shown this fall. The junior has added 10 pounds of muscle and weighs-in at a chiseled 220 pounds as he sits at No. 1 on the running back depth chart heading into the new campaign.
Atkinson played only sparingly in the lopsided loss to the Crimson Tide last January, but KeiVarae Russell was on the field throughout. He says that while that loss was a bitter pill to swallow, it has ultimately had the right effect on him and his teammates.
"If we would have won, I'm not saying we would have been complacent, but you start to realize what you need to do to get better," Russell said. "I think going into this offseason our objective was to get to that next step - get to the national championship level and actually win it. I think our confidence level is way higher than it was last year."
DaVaris Daniels had a breakout game in the loss to Alabama. The Irish had to play catch-up from the get go and the receiver had six receptions for a career-high 116 yards. Despite the personal high, he says that season-ending loss has fueled his fire throughout the offseason.
"I think you have to," said Daniels. "In order to excel at this level you have to have something that motivates you day-in and day-out and that was one of the worst feelings we have ever felt. A lot of us carry that into this season with a chip on our shoulder trying to get back."
"We obviously carried it in the winter, but I think that's all behind us," Christian Lombard said of how the Alabama loss affected him. "We're ready to prove that we put a lot of work into this offseason and we're ready to go. It's a fresh start and a new season."
Regardless of how last season ended, the fact is Notre Dame went 12-1 in 2012. It marked the program's first 12-win season since a 12-1 final record in 1989. The overall success has brought a positive carryover into 2013.
"I would say we were confident last year, but we feel really good about this first week," said Lombard. "We've made tremendous strides from last year. We're leaps and bounds from where we were as a unit, so we're ready to go."
"Our morale is pretty high," Daniels said this week as he prepares for his second season of action after sitting out in 2011. "We know what it takes to excel at this level. We just want to carry that on into this season and see what happens in the end."
Daniels, Lombard and Russell had zero combined starts between them heading into last year's season-opener in Dublin against Navy. That trio alone now brings 29 starts from 2012 into Saturday's opener against Temple.
"It's so much different," Russell said of the vibe of this year's team compared to just a year ago. "Just because I think the fact that we didn't win a national championship makes a lot more hungry. (We are) a lot more confident in the fact that - we didn't win that (and) we knew we had so much more to grow."
"Right now we're over that game," Russell continued. "Occasionally I might watch a few plays from it to see what I've done wrong and how I've grown personally, but as a team it's in our past and we're focused on 2013."
Saturday cannot get here soon enough.