NCAA Football Preview - Notre Dame Fighting Irish

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Updated: 8/21/2013 1:30 pm

The Fighting Irish began their 125th season of football in the most obvious of locales, Dublin, Ireland as they clashed with a familiar foe in Navy. Notre Dame had received some votes in the AP Top-25 poll heading into the event in early September, but still the rest of the nation wasn't too sure what to make of the squad and head coach Brian Kelly at that stage.

A year earlier, UND had thumped the Midshipmen at home by a score of 56-14, so perhaps there were similar expectations being set up for the Emerald Isle Classic as well. The Irish faithful got what they expected as Notre Dame thrashed Navy in a 50-10 decision, setting in motion a somewhat unexpected campaign for the Fighting Irish.

By the second game of the season the team was ranked 22nd in the country as it settled in to face Purdue at home. The Irish had their hands full with the Boilermakers, to the point where coach Kelly pulled starting quarterback Everett Golson (due to injury) in favor of Tommy Rees who led the squad on a game-winning drive in the final minute of regulation, culminating with a Kyle Brindza 27-yard field goal with seven seconds left on the clock in what turned into a 20-17 triumph.

A week later the team made sure to make it not as intense as it defeated Michigan State on the road, 20-3. The Irish pushed their win streak to four in a row with a 13-6 victory against Michigan at home.

After a break in the action Notre Dame clashed with Miami at Soldier Field in Chicago and, as a top-10 team, used the opportunity to deliver a major beating to the Hurricanes, 41-3.

One of the toughest tests during the regular season came against an undefeated and nationally-ranked Stanford squad that required overtime, before the Irish could put a 20-13 decision into the win column. A week later, Notre Dame pulled out another close call, grabbing a 17-14 win over BYU.

The enigmatic Fighting Irish were up to seven straight wins when they visited Oklahoma, a meeting that was presumably a potential stumbling block, yet the team still came away with a convincing 30-13 triumph,

During the first week of November, the team was ranked fourth in the country as it awaited a visit from Pittsburgh, the Panthers at that point sporting a mere 4-4 mark, and yet the Irish were pushed to three overtime sessions before claiming a 29-26 win.

"We made uncharacteristically some mistakes turning the football over obviously twice in the end zone," said coach Kelly of the challenge. "Last year that would have been a loss for us. But our team kept fighting, kept playing. I told them that they have to understand that everybody they play against will play their absolute best."

Despite the huge target on the backs of the Irish, the team marched on with wins over Boston College, Wake Forest and USC, giving them a record of 12-0 and a shot at the national championship against Alabama. Notre Dame had the stats to back up its invitation to the big game, but some of the attention on the actual team was taken away by persistent issues with Golson.

Unfortunately for Notre Dame, the team didn't stand a chance against the Crimson Tide, falling behind 28-0 at halftime and 35-0 in the third, before finally suffering the 42-14 defeat in front of a national audience.

Still a successful season, the lopsided finale led some to believe that coach Kelly was exploring other options, particularly in the NFL, but eventually he decided to return to Indiana.

"This decision was motivated purely by my love for Notre Dame and the entire Fighting Irish community, the young men I have the great fortune to coach, and my desire to continue to build the best football program in the country."

2013 ANALYSIS:

OFFENSE: Initially, Golson was supposed to be returning as a key figure for the Notre Dame offense in 2013, but the signal-caller won't be found anywhere near campus during the season due to the fact that he was suspended by the university in late May. Golson, sent packing due to "poor academic judgment," completed close to 59 percent of his pass attempts for 2,405 yards and 12 touchdowns, and also ran for another six scores in 2012.

With Golson out of the picture, Kelly now turns his attention to pushing Rees to be the best he can be on the field. A starter in two games in 2012 and appearing in 12 games overall, Rees converted 57.6 percent of his pass attempts for a mere 436 yards and two touchdowns, which means he'll be thrown into the fire moving forward. Rees had been a primary figure for the offense in the second half of 2010 and all of 2011, but this is a new age for Notre Dame football.

Providing Rees with some comfort in the backfield will be George Atkinson III, the top returning ball carrier who was responsible for 361 yards and five touchdowns as he started three games and appeared in 12 last season. Filling the void left by Theo Riddick and Cierre Wood, who combined for more than 1,600 yards and nine TDs on the ground, will be tough. Riddick was also responsible for 36 catches for 370 yards and two more TDs through the air.

In terms of receivers, yes, Tyler Eifert is no longer playing on Saturdays, but at least TJ Jones is back on campus after he produced nearly similar stats (50 receptions, 649 yards, four touchdowns), albeit from a wideout position which isn't quite the same as Eifert who was an All-American and Mackey Award winner at tight end. DaVaris Daniels also showed good hands with 31 grabs for another 490 yards in 2012, but he never made it into the end zone.

Troy Niklas is listed as a returning starter at tight end, but he was used rather sparingly last year with just five receptions. Niklas obviously has a long way to go if he wants to be considered anything close to Eifert.

The offensive line will have to be retooled after losing All-American center Braxston Cave and offensive guard Mike Golic Jr. The squad still boasts Christian Lombard, Zack Martin and Chris Watt in the trenches, which is good news for the skill players.

DEFENSE: While the offense deals with the change at quarterback, the defense for the Fighting Irish tries to move beyond linebacker Manti Te'o who, before heading to the NFL, captured a record seven individual major awards -- the Walter Camp, Maxwell, Lombardi, Butkus, Nagurski, Bednarik and Lott trophies. Unfortunately for Te'o, who seemed to disappear during the national title game, he'll be remembered more for his imaginary girlfriend fiasco than anything he might have on his mantle.

Because of Te'o and his teammates, Notre Dame was seventh in the country in total defense, allowing just 305.5 ypg, and second in scoring defense with a mere 12.8 ppg. Five times the program held an opponent to seven points or less in 2012, with much of the credit going to Te'o.

However, returning to patrol the middle of the field for the Fighting Irish are linebackers Dan Fox and Prince Shembo. While Te'o was taking home all of the postseason awards, Shembo was placing second on the squad with 10.5 tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks, not to mention pacing the group with 12 quarterback hurries. A quick and lively bunch at the line of scrimmage, UND recorded 70 TFL overall and had almost twice as many sacks (34) as the competition (18).

Danny Spond was supposed to be among the returning starters at linebacker, after posting 38 tackles a year ago, but he just recently informed the team that he was retiring from the game after dealing with concussions and severe migraines over the last two campaigns.

"What was pretty apparent was that it was an emotional decision and it didn't come without a lot of thought," coach Kelly told the Chicago Tribune. "He spent the day speaking to a lot of specialists and his family was here. This was not a decision that came easy. He loves his teammates. But what's most important is he did what's in his best interest for the future. He's got a bright future."

Hopefully the secondary can make up for some significant losses in the middle, what with Bennett Jackson, KeiVarae Russell and Matthias Farley all planning on making a return. Jackson was not only third on the team in total tackles with 65, he was also second with four interceptions and logged eight passes defended to rank first in the latter category. Russell and Farley also had their moments and combined for another three picks.

SPECIAL TEAMS: One area that could use some added attention this season is in punt returns. Notre Dame was not only last among the Independent teams a season ago, the squad was a dismal 116th nationally with an average of just 2.2 yards per a return. Obviously not a strong suit for the program, it is hard to imagine that even by accident the group didn't produce a couple of big gains in that particular category.

Davonte Neal handled all of the punt returns for the team in 2012 but barely made an impression. Atkinson, who was the primary returner on kickoffs, averaging 20.0 yards per attempt, could be the replacement for Neal, just as long as taking on all of these added responsibilities doesn't negate his productivity as a primary running back.

Brindza came on strong for the Irish when it came to kicking the ball, converting 23 of his 31 field goal attempts. Despite having a long of 52 yards, Brindza did have some issues between 40-49 yards where he connected on only three of seven tries. Nevertheless, as one of the nation's top returning kickers, he still figures to be the go-to-guy on field goals and might even take over the punting duties, depending on how that competition plays out.

Nick Tausch could give Brindza a run at placekicker after missing almost all of last season with an injury.

OUTLOOK: Not only does Notre Dame have to deal with the annual scrutiny and skepticism that comes with being one of the most beloved and hated sports teams all at the same time, the squad has to figure out how to overcome a few unexpected missing parts, as well as those who have exhausted their stay in South Bend.

Remaining on the North American continent for the entire regular season, the Fighting Irish settle in against visiting Temple in the opener before taking on familiar rivals in Michigan and Purdue on the road. The matchup versus the Wolverines could shape the rest of the season for sure, depending on how UND competes.

Two more familiar foes in Michigan State and Oklahoma drop by before the end of September and after that is the Shamrock Series against Arizona State at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas of all places.

Back on track two weeks later, the Irish play the first of three home dates in the second half of the season versus USC, with Navy and BYU to follow in November. Trips to Air Force, Pittsburgh and Stanford will all be challenges, but only the latter should be a tough matchup for a Notre Dame program that enters 2013 as the 14th-ranked team in the country according to the AP.

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