Many questions will remain for the Irish heading into 2014 regardless of how well they finish this season in the Pinstripe Bowl.
As of now, there are questions abound in regards to key positions, coaches and a recruiting class that has yet to be signed.
As if the 2013 didn't start off bad enough, the entire year after Everett Golson's loss was littered with injuries, games unfulfilled with Jekyl and Hyde play and heartbreaking losses and coaching moves.
2 early turnovers put Notre Dame in unchartered waters against the Sooners.
A loss to Pittsburgh doomed the Irish BCS Bowl apsirations.
A late interception against Stanford all but extinguished possible overtime and an upset against the Cardinals.
Through it all, Brian Kelly managed to remain steadfast and keep his team together as best as possible-knowing all to well that the 'what could have been' thoughts will hang over him and his Irish until kickoff against Rice in 2014.
How Notre Dame and coach Brian Kelly move forward to next season could be as drama filled as the 2013 season-especially in the following areas:
Offensive and Defensive Coaches:
Lost are the heroes of 2012 in Bob Diaco to Connecticut and Chuck Martin Miami/Ohio from a coaching standpoint.
Diaco led the Irish defense last year to great things and of course the National Championship while Martin put together a managable package for a freshman quarterback to evolve in. Success was had which propelled Notre Dame into the title game for the 1st time since 1988 and both men became topics for future employment outside of South Bend.
Just like it has been with players, Notre Dame has in years become a fertile ground for future coaches to move themselves into positions at other universities. This season proved prime for poaching the Irish sidelines and the timing perhaps came at the right time for all schools. Notre Dame managed to look somewhat vanilla all year on both sides of the ball-especially on defense- and the Irish offense equally stumbled along, and neither assistant latched onto a quick fix.
For Diaco's defense- excuses could be made with a loss like Manti Teo and injuries to key players.
And early diagnosis on players like Nix and Tuitt with their injuries proved to be factors throughout the entire season, the most devastating coming with Tuitts hernia surgery. His lack of outside rush early on gave teams extra manpower to double up on Big Lou and thus, teams prevailed all year in running the football on the Irish-unlike 2012. Sadly-it made coach Diaco look simpleminded at his position.
It was later revealed at the end of the season that Nix suffered from knee ligament tears suffered during the National Championship game-injuries he managed to play through but with limited success.
Replacing each will be a task especialy since other national programs like Texas are in need as well, and the short list includes some names that could fulfill the Irish needs-like a Charlie Strong for defense. The most dynamic move would be for Kelly to lean towards former USC coach Ed Orgeron.
Nothing would scream revenge more than for coach O to sign on with USC's biggest rival.
Names like Rick Neuheisal and Luke Fickel from Ohio State are surfacing as possibilites-but knowing Brian Kelly's history-a promotion from within like Alford for offense and Elston on defense seems likely. Fulfilling the remainder of his positions could very well come in the form of former schools and those coaches he formally was over.
Recruiting Class of 2014
When Brian Kelly came to South Bend he clearly noticed which side of the ball needed revamped for the Irish-and not just for one year but for the future: Defense.
And since that time Kelly has more than satisfied the masses by acquiring some of the most elite talent nationally coveted by all of college football.
Consider that Aaron Lynch for USF was at one time wearing #19 for Notre Dame, its easy to recognize this years NFL draft is littered with Kelly players. Lynch and yet to determine his draft status Stephon Tuitt are Kelly signees-as was Nix when you consider it was Kelly that kept him from going elsewhere for his national signing.
For 2013's class-Kelly pegged local favorite Jaylon Smith as the face for that years class, and the top linebacker in the nation all but stamped his place in Irish history with his play in 2013. And players like Sheldon Day and Jarrett Grace will fulfill needs next year that should once again place Notre Dame in the top defensive catagory- as was the case last year during their title run.
And this years class for 2014 is shaping up equally impressive with big time defensive players like Jay Hayes, Richard Yeargin and tight end Tyler Luatua-who could move to defense- to name a few.
Late this week big time prospect Matt Elam eliminated the Irish from his list of schools-but as is always the case with Notre Dame- players change their minds or leave at the most unique of times- see Tee Shepahard,Deontah Grennberry and Ronald Darby for Florida State.
And players also prove signatures are non factors today.
Case in point with the class of 2013 and Eddie Vanderdoes. The National Signing Day of 2013 saw Vanderdoes not only commit to the Irish- but sign.
Shaky feelings and possible coach proding led the 5 star defensive prospect to second guess his decision.
Vanderdoes ended up at UCLA with former flip Shaq Evans and proved his worth in 2013.
With some of the nations top defensive ends and tackles shoring up their final choices, the Irish are left with some limited chances for the defensive front. Despite a late chance at a Matt Elam falling by the wayside- the class of 2014 is loaded on the defensive side of things.
With all star games yet to be played and National Signing Day still a few weeks away, some big names remain in play for the Irish like safety Ju Ju Smith and wide receivers Malachi Dupree and Machiah Quick.
Runningbacks and Quarterback
In 2014 Notre Dame will be favorites in most of their games-if not all- with the return of one Everett Golson.
His offseason workouts have been rumored to improve his already dynamic play but most of all- his mental side of things and the way he approached things have matured. It remains unclear today if Golson will project as a star going into 2014 simply based off of rumors and prognostication. But if his caliber of play in 2013 is any indication of what can be for Notre Dame in 2014, the Irish will have a potent caliber offense loaded with receivers and tight ends.
What will be key for the Irish is the progression of his backup- Malik Zaire.
Possessing all the tools is one thing but talent alone can equally place a player and his offense in undesirable positions.
For 2013, Notre Dame rested on Golson fulfilling those very needs, and when he was booted from the team the Irish were forced to rely on senior Tommy Rees.
A leader with limited skills during breakdowns or when the team was forced to move away from its ball control style to some extent- the Irish floundered around in some games like Pittsburgh and especially Navy. It revealed a glaring weakness that most of the teams that faced Notre Dame simply dared Rees to throw on them.
Its an area in 2014 Kelly more than ever will need to not only improve on but secure a backup plan should his starter eliminate himself from the picture in whatever fashion that may come.
And the runningback position will again vastly improve.
Incumbents Tarean Folston,Amir Carlisle and Cam McDaniel will return accompanied by freshman all world Greg Bryant. The options alone will provide Kelly with a variety of package options that should see moves like Carlise to possibly special teams as return man, but will also see big sets with Will Mahone involved more as well.
And as if drama wasn't selective for the Irish-the runningbacks are now involved a bit.
Player evaluation papers have been submitted for George Atkinson to the NFL.
A time for panick? No.
The runningbacks on roster for the Irish as of right now are as dynamic as any college team in the nation.
And it could very well include the likes of a 4 star Bo Scarbrough who has all but opened up his recruitment again to some big time colleges. Scarbrough visited the Notre Dame campus in October.
A sign for recruit guru's? Not really. But getting a top player on campus late in the game can be crucial.
The future remains a bit unclear in some key areas for the Irish as they close out the 2013 season.
However-2014 appears headed in the right direction as soon as some coaching positions are filled and practice resumes in spring with the first glimpse of the new Everett Golson.
There is also late discussion of a topic long hauvering over Irish faithful: Field Turf.
A possible new surface could be in the works for 2014 but will require not only a fast decision and major construction project to accomplish by the first game, but will require the changing of minds of most importantly the Irish historians that cling to tradition like no other university.
For 2014-Notre Dame could look very different in many areas.