One can argue that the Champs Sports Bowl was Notre Dame's season in a nutshell.
Multiple turnovers. Quarterback questions. Michael Floyd making another spectacular play.
The 18-14 loss to Florida State left the Irish where they started the season, who went 8-5 for the second straight year and ended the campaign with another quarterback controversy, albeit not the same one they started the season with.
The fact that, at least on paper, there was little progress from Year 1 to Year 2 under Brian Kelly has to be frustrating for Notre Dame fans, especially since this season began with BCS-bowl expectations. The fact that Kelly, who entered Notre Dame with the reputation of a quarterback guru, has not settled on an answer at signal caller two years into his job also has to be troubling.
"I guess I'm not an offensive guy," Kelly quipped in Orlando, Fla., following Notre Dame's final loss.
Still, there are some positives to take away — namely, the defensive progress. Linebacker Manti Te'o returns to a unit that, at least on the front-seven, is primed to take a step forward. It had its way with Florida State throughout the bowl game. The Seminoles surrendered five sacks and averaged just 1.4 yards per rush. The talent on Notre Dame's defensive line will only continue to foster, as many of the standout performers this year — Aaron Lynch, Stephon Tuitt and Louis Nix, to name a few — were in their first year of playing college football.
Kelly acknowledged as much after the loss, saying: "It's nice to be able to talk about a Notre Dame football team that plays championship defense, because they did that today. Now we've got to get our offense obviously to play that level as well, and that will be the next step for our football program, is getting our offense to play at the same level that our defense is evolving to."
Last season Notre Dame rode a season-ending four-game winning streak, including a 33-17 Sun Bowl thrashing of Miami, into an offseason that seemed to have all the momentum pointing the Irish's way. Optimism floated all around South Bend, Ind., preseason expectations went through the roof and then the season began, with Notre Dame committing 10 turnovers over two opening losses that virtually crushed all preseason goals.
Irish players and fans would be wise to remember that when thinking of what may have been lost at the end of 2011.