With the impending announcement that Notre Dame would conclude its 12-0 regular season by facing defending national champion Alabama in the Discover BCS National Championship, Irish players were met in their lockers by blue and gold T-shirts with the phrase "Unfinished Business."
They wore them during the Dec. 2 viewing party when they found out they were officially bound for Sun Life Stadium. Now, after the Crimson Tide beat them every which way Jan. 7 as they won their third national title in the past four years, they can begin spring practice and the ensuing 2013 season with a similar theme as they look to close the gap following a renaissance campaign.
That was obvious to athletic director Jack Swarbrick in the immediate aftermath of his team's first and only loss of 2012 -- "There are 121 FBS schools, and we're in pretty good shape relative to all but one of them" -- and it was obvious to coach Brian Kelly three weeks later, when he spoke publicly for the first time since the night of the title game.
"On that day, Alabama was the winner by 28 points, and it's our job to begin work as to how we close that gap," Kelly said Jan. 28. "That gap on that day was certainly one that we got a chance to experience. Here's the great thing for me: In the three short years when I stood before [my team] my first year, we did not have a player on our roster that had beaten a Top 25 team. Three years later, we're playing in the national championship game with 15-plus starters coming back. So, really excited about the progress that our program has made in a very short period of time."
A loud January that saw the Tide rout, Kelly's flirtation with the Philadelphia Eagles and the Manti Te'o girlfriend hoax gave way to a February that saw Notre Dame bring in the country's No. 4 recruiting class on national signing day. The Irish beefed up an offensive line that was strong on its first tier but sorely lacked capable, healthy bodies day-to-day.
Five of those incoming recruits enrolled in January, and now they begin preparing with the rest of the team for spring practice -- a session that will begin much the same way the Irish's postseason did.