Rant Sports 100 in 100 College Football Previews: No. 39 Notre Dame Fighting Irish

They are one of the teams that cause the most division among college football fans.  But whether you “Raise her Gold and Blue, And cheer with voices true: Rah, rah, for Notre Dame”, or you are one of the haters who laments NBC as the “Notre Dame Broadcasting Network”, you cannot deny that college football is better when Notre Dame is good.

The Fighting Irish come in at number 39 in our 100 in 100 college football preview series.

Head coach Brian Kelly, entering his third season at the helm, has led the Irish to two 8-5 seasons.  It’s no big secret that those are not the kind of numbers that get you invited to Thanksgiving dinners in South Bend.  Coach Kelly is going to have to take a big step up in 2012 to keep his job secure.

There were to major problems last season which have to be rectified for the Fighting Irish to be looked at as contenders again.  First, they must finish the drill and play four full quarters. Last year they let the first two games of the season slip away through mental mistakes and sloppy play at the end of the game.  Second, they must have some consistency at the quarterback position.  A revolving door of quarterbacks will not get the job done for this team.

OFFENSE

Let’s not kid ourselves.  Losing Michael Floyd (100 receptions in 2012) is a huge blow for this offense, but not one that can’t be overcome.  Tight end Tyler Eifert and running back Cierre Wood are two guys that can definitely catch the ball, and will provide some stability for whoever the starting quarterback is.  The wide receiver corps is very young, but talented.  We’ll have to see who steps up to attempt to fill Floyd’s shoes.

Another factor that will benefit the yet-t0-be-named starting QB is the experience on the offensive line.  Coach Kelly puts a lot of stock in a strong offensive line, and he should start seeing the fruits of some of his recruiting at that positions this season. Notre Dame averages about 6’5,  295 pounds on the offensive line right now.

The big question mark, as stated earlier, is starting quarterback.  Who will it be?  Tommy Rees, who started 12 of 13 games for the Irish last season, would seem to be the likely starter, but Rees entered a guilty plea on two misdemeanor charges – resisting law enforcement, and illegal consumption of alcohol by a minor -  stemming from his arrest May 3 as police broke up an off-campus party.  To date, coach Kelly has not commented on how the end of Rees’ legal proceedings will affect his position with the team.

One thing is for sure. Whoever the starting quarter back is will have to work on cutting down the turnovers.   In their five 2011 losses, Notre Dame turned the ball over 19 times and had only six takeaways.

Another unknown is whether or not the Irish will be able to run the ball well in 2012.  Junior Cierre Wood is the one known commodity, but the rest of the backfield is yet to be proven.  Amir Carlisle, who transferred in from Southern California, suffered a broken ankle during voluntary spring drills, so the coaching staff hasn’t had a good opportunity to evaluate him yet.  It may end up being be a back-by-committee year, especially if Wood has to spend more time catching passes.

DEFENSE

Notre Dame did lose a number of defensive stalwarts to graduation, but linebacker Manti Te’o chose to return for his senior season and he will no doubt be the defensive leader for this team.

The young Irish secondary will have to grow up in a hurry this season, as getting some pressure on the opposing quarterback was something Notre Dame lacked last season.  If production on the defensive line doesn’t improve, the Irish defensive backs are going to have to stick with receivers on long routes.  Sophomore defensive end Stephon Tuitt will need to step up his game this season, and continue where he left off at the end of 2011, when he had two sacks in the last three games.

Linebackers are the one defensive position where the Irish are not only set, but are basically stacked.  With several returning upper-classmen, and some very highly regarded sophomores and incoming freshman, Manti Te’o and the Notre Dame linebackers are fierce looking.

SCHEDULE

Just one word.  Brutal.  Absolutely brutal.  If you look up and down Notre Dame’s schedule, there isn’t a single cream-puff on it.  Games against Pittsburgh and Purdue may provide somewhat of a breather (though very little, if at all), but the rest of their schedule is fraught with peril.

If the Irish can’t get out of the gate with at least a 5-1 record in their first six games, the chances of them getting a BCS bowl berth are slim.  Road games at Michigan State, Oklahoma, and Southern Cal make this one of the toughest schedules in the nation.  Oh yeah…and they have to travel to Dublin, Ireland to play their opening game against Navy.  Did I say brutal yet?

This could be a very good Notre Dame team that finally breaks through for coach Kelly.  But then again, it could turn into a huge catastrophe.  A lot depends on the quarterback situation, and the mental toughness this team can show in the face of a tough schedule.

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