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Notre Dame accomplished its clear pair of goals during the 2013 bowl season. Hello 2014.

Well, they didn't lose.

Not exactly a morning-after feeling that fills a fan base with joy on a Sunday prior to the New Year, but you have to admit, it fits.

Notre Dame's nightmare 2013 football calendar year produced more downs than ups for head coach Brian Kelly's Irish and the team's fan base. Alabama, an ensuing flight to Philly, the Manti saga, Vanderdoes, Kiel and his cohorts, Golson, Spond, injuries up front, Michigan, Oklahoma, Pittsburgh -- my goodness, Pittsburgh.

It's finally over. And somehow, despite all of the above and more unmentioned, Kelly and the Irish won nine football games. Three of them vs. ranked opponents. One of them against a clear-cut top 5 (technically No. 4) team in the nation.

To borrow from a conversation with a colleague last night, "for a supposedly mediocre football team, they sure do win a lot."

Notre Dame's seniors finished with 37 wins and 15 losses. Kelly's South Bend tenure is, to date, the same.

The seniors are finished, the head coach is just getting started.

"They have been great examples of what student-athletes are at Notre Dame, both in the classroom and certainly have set a high bar," said Kelly of the 2010 enrollees. "Four consecutive bowl games, played for a national championship, 21 wins over the last two years. It was a bit emotional in that sense to see those guys for the last time in the locker room sing the fight song.

"They'll leave an indelible mark in our relationship here amongst not only the staff and myself but the younger players that we hope they will carry with them."

Goal No. 1 for bowl season accomplished. If you don't think a dedicated senior class winning its final game matters, consider the alternative.

"You look into the eyes of the seniors in your locker room after the game and it's the last time they'll line up as Rutgers football players, and how much that means to them," said Scarlet Knights coach Kyle Flood post-game. "The day itself is a very emotionally draining day."

It was for the victors as well. The understandable absence of joy and inflated chests among Notre Dame's fan base post-game was in its rightful place -- with the players that yesterday finished a nearly year-long journey

"I don't think it's anticlimactic. I'm proud of the way we came out and got the W," said quarterback Tommy Rees, he of the 23 wins in 31 career starts and 319 passing yards Saturday. "I guess for me it'll set in once I'm not around these guys in the locker room. Being able to see my family on the field after games over these last four years -- it's been an awesome thing to share with them."

Rees ranks among the defining players of the first four seasons of the Kelly era -- Phase One. It was inarguably a success, not a smash hit, but with a trip to the BCS Championship included, one that doubtless righted the wayward ship Kelly inherited.

Phase Two (and its ensuing column) awaits.


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