SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) — Notre Dame's latest run at a national title under coach Brian Kelly ended with another rude awakening.
"We got a taste of what it's like to be in the playoffs," said Kelly, whose 10th Irish squad begins preseason drills Sunday morning at Culver Academy, 45 miles south of the Notre Dame campus. "I want to win the darn thing."
The Irish started 12-0 last season but were dismissed 30-3 by eventual national champion Clemson in a College Football Playoff semifinal. It was similar to 2012, when Kelly's undefeated Notre Dame team lost 42-14 in the national title game.
Aiming for the national championship is an annual ritual for the Fighting Irish, who steadfastly adhere to their independent status in football. But it's a goal the Irish haven't achieved since 1988 under Lou Holtz. Four coaches later, Notre Dame is still looking for a title under Kelly.
"They know what the mission is — that is, graduate from Notre Dame and win a national championship," Kelly said Friday. "That's the standard. It's on the back of their shirts when they work out — maintaining the standard."
This year's Irish could be in the mix for one of the four College Football Playoff berths if they can survive a stretch of away games that begins at Louisville on Labor Day evening and includes visits to Georgia (Sept. 21), Michigan (Oct. 26), Duke (Nov. 9) and Stanford (Nov. 30).
"One of our themes this year is we have to be road warriors," said Kelly, whose home schedule includes traditional rivals USC (Oct. 12) and Boston College (Nov. 23). "That's what they sign up for. That's why they come to Notre Dame because they really relish those challenges."
Senior Ian Book, who completed 68.2 percent of his passes for 2,628 yards and 19 touchdowns, leads a retooled offense that averaged 33.8 points a game. He spent part of the summer as one of the elite college quarterbacks serving as counselors at the camp run by the Mannings — former NFL great Archie and his NFL sons Peyton and Eli.
"He came back, and he knows the things that he needs to work on, but he also knows the things that he's really good at," Kelly said. "He walks around this building with a great presence around him."
Defensively, the focus for Kelly and second-year coordinator Clark Lea will be on the linebacking corps, which lost its top playmakers in Drue Tranquill and Te'von Coney but has plenty of numbers and talent. Graduate Asmar Bilal moves into the middle to replace Coney while junior Jordan Genmark Heath is ahead at Tranquill's weakside spot. Junior Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah and sophomore Paul Moala are battling at rover. There are at least eight other players in the mix.
"It will be the focus of our fall (preseason)," Kelly said. "I have worked our schedule to make sure we get more reads for key linebackers. That's an important part of our evaluation."