- Mark Schlabach, ESPN Senior Writer
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SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Notre Dame hasn’t won a New Year’s Day bowl game since the 1994 Cotton Bowl and hasn’t won a BCS-level bowl since the ‘92 Sugar Bowl. Notre Dame last won a national championship in 1988 under former coach Lou Holtz.
But the Fighting Irish have some momentum. They won the last four games of their 2010 season, including a Sun Bowl victory over Miami, to finish 8-5 in Brian Kelly’s first season at Notre Dame. The Irish think they finally might be ready to compete for BCS national championship.
“I think we should be able to put together a program that competes for a BCS championship every year,” Kelly said. “That’s my goal -- to have a program year in and year out that competes for a BCS championship.”
With eight offensive and eight defensive starters coming back, Notre Dame might open the season as a top-25 team in preseason polls.
“It’s all about momentum,” Kelly said. “It’s about beating USC for the first time in 8 years and beating Miami handily. Clearly, momentum is huge and gives you something in the offseason and in recruiting. But we’ve got to win more games. Eight is not enough.”
Star receiver Michael Floyd, who returned to school for his junior season instead of entering the NFL draft, remains suspended from the team following his arrest last month on DUI charges. Floyd was spared expulsion and/or suspension from classes by the university last week, but Kelly still hasn’t decided if or when Floyd will return to the team.
“Mike wants help and we want to see that he gets help,” Kelly said. “I don’t want to see him in the NFL in three years and read about him getting arrested for driving under the influence.”
Even if Floyd doesn’t return to the team, Kelly thinks the Irish will be more equipped to win because they’ll be better on defense. Notre Dame ranked No. 50 nationally in total defense last year, allowing 357.2 yards per game.
“I think the biggest reason to be excited is we’re going to be able to play some defense,” Kelly said. “I’ve learned in 22 years of coaching that if you’re good on defense and solid in special teams, you can muck it up on offense enough to find a way to win games.”
Under defensive coordinator Bob Diaco, the Irish were markedly better at the end of the 2010 season. Notre Dame’s defense allowed only five touchdowns in the final five games and 22 combined points in the final three regular-season contests.
“That’s been our job since we were hired -- to fix the defense,” Kelly said. “I’ve made my living trying to put exciting offenses on the field. We just need to win football games. The quickest way in doing that is playing good defense.”
Rees believes Notre Dame is in position to make a big move in 2011.
“Everyone is completely dedicated to restoring Notre Dame on top,” Rees said. “Everybody wants to see it come back. Guys aren’t letting people be mediocre. Everybody wants to be great.”
Crist even thinks the Irish can be a BCS contender this coming season.
“The one thing I do know about this team is everyone is dedicated to winning a national championship,” Crist said. “BCS games are great, but we want to win a national championship. I think guys have come to a realization that it can be done. We’re going to have to work harder than everyone in the country, but we’re dedicated to achieving that goal.”
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