SOUTH BEND | The magic of Notre Dame's surprising run to the national championship game last season started fading long before this season began.
The trouble started three months before the opening kickoff when news leaked that quarterback Everett Golson, who had helped spark the Irish to the title game, had been suspended for the semester by the university. That was quickly followed by news that blue chip recruit Eddie Vanderdoes was defecting to UCLA before signing up for his first class at Notre Dame. Then, during preseason practices, linebacker Danny Spond was forced to give up football after being struck for a second time by a paralyzing migraine headache.
Coach Brian Kelly often talked of the margin between winning and losing being razor thin a year ago, when the Irish survived many a close call en route to an undefeated regular season. He said the margin this season is even thinner. And nothing illustrates that better than Notre Dame's 37-34 victory over Arizona State on Oct. 5 that allowed the Fighting Irish to go into their off week with a satisfactory if not satisfying 4-2 record rather than 3-3 with a fan base in full-fledged panic.
The players know the difference, regardless.
"For us just mentally and with our schedule, 4-2 is a lot better than 3-3," receiver TJ Jones said. "Leading into the bye week, we needed to leave on a good note."
The Irish have won 11 national championships during their storied history, but are a quarter century removed from their most recent title — the longest drought ever. So how do the Irish measure success these days? Athletic director Jack Swarbrick said there are two parts to that answer: the Irish want to aspire to a national championship each year, but have to realize sometimes circumstances make it difficult.
"That's the way we engage in the business," he said. "Every year is going to be different and represent different potential, injuries, what your opponents are doing — a whole host of things come into play. What I'm looking for is, are we making week-to-week progress, quarter-to-quarter progress? Are we getting better? Are we developing the student-athletes?
"That's the only litmus test I have once we're in the season."
Swarbrick sees progress in this year's team, saying the win over Arizona State was the most complete effort by the Irish as the offense, defense and special teams all contributed. He also sees year-to-year progress under Kelly, who signed a five-year contract just before the season started.
With a national championship out of reach, and some difficult games on deck, the Irish will continue to push forward. They play host to USC on Saturday, and the regular-season finale is at Stanford, ranked No. 5 this week, on Nov. 30.
With the Irish still a season away from gaining access to bowls with Atlantic Coast Conference ties, Notre Dame faces the prospect of earning a BCS berth or waiting to see which of the lower-level bowls are unable to fill their slots. But Kelly doesn't think believe his players are looking that far down the road.
"We just don't get too far ahead of ourselves, because we are staying in the present," he said. "And if we think about anything else but the next day of practice, we just would be putting ourselves in peril."
The Irish will start the season's second half still searching for a balanced offense, a No. 1 running back and adjusting to life without starting middle linebacker Jarrett Grace. The replacement for Manti Te'o, Grace sustained a broken leg last week.
And they'll play the rest of the way on freshly installed grass, the third time this year that new sod is being installed at Notre Dame Stadium. Kelly was asked whether putting the new turf in was his decision, as the team has dealt with torn grass all season.
"I've made it pretty clear what I want for a surface," said Kelly, who prefers FieldTurf.
Some alumni and fans are against seeing anything but grass as the playing surface. Swarbrick didn't say FieldTurf is coming, but said something has to change.
"Notre Dame can't have a field like we had against Oklahoma again," he said. "That's just not Notre Dame."
The university is continuing to review a proposal announced in May that calls for changes at Notre Dame Stadium. Among them is adding buildings around the facility, as well as introducing more than 3,000 revenue-producing premium seats.
Swarbrick said some sort of video board will at least be considered if the proposed stadium changes are approved. Playing home games at neutral sites for five years has let fans see how Notre Dame would use a board to promote the university.
"I would not want to have what you see at most places — a video board stuck just up in the air. That's not Notre Dame," he said. "You want to integrate it into the stadium and the structure in a way that felt like it fit. That will have to be figured out as well through the renovation."
The Irish will also play Air Force, Navy, Pitt and BYU this season.
"I think the most important thing for them is they now look at it as a six-game schedule," Kelly said. "And they have got to be perfect for six weeks."