The annual Blue-Gold game in South Bend is finally here. Coach Brian Kelly and the Fighting Irish staff will put their players through one last scrimmage before they break the players for summer and there is, perhaps, no team with more intriguing position battles.
The Irish always enter the season with heightened expectations and this year there is no room for error—on the players' part and the coaches' part.
Notre Dame has made headlines a few times since the season ended with some good—Amir Carlisle transfer, Gunner Kiel commitment, top-10 recruiting class—and some bad—Deontay Greenberry miss, Tee Shepard leaving school, Aaron Lynch transfer—news alike.
The spring game is a chance for them to give fans some hope entering the 2012 season.
Where: Notre Dame Stadium, South Bend, Ind.
When: Saturday, April 21, 1:30 p.m. ET
Watch: NBC Sports Network
Live Stream: UND.com
Position Battle to Watch: Quarterback
Sorry, but we cannot talk about the Irish without knowing who will line up under center this season. Kelly and his staff have four possible starters on the roster (although it is doubtful that Gunner Kiel will be the guy) and not a lot of time to make a decision.
Tommy Rees has the experience and seniority, but he's limited in what he can do and has trouble making tough decisions.
All the talk in South Bend indicates that he is making strides, but there is plenty of reason to be skeptical of a guy who threw 14 interceptions last season.
The other two options are Andrew Hendrix and Everett Golson.
Both players have better athleticism than Rees and bring a bit of dual-threat element to the field—Golson is a gifted athlete, but smaller at 6'0", 190 pounds.
Hendrix saw time last year and proved he can make plays both in the air and on the ground, but Kelly won't play him if he doesn't feel comfortable with his grasp of the offense.
That is why Rees has a strong to at least open the 2012 season as the starter, especially considering the Irish are in Ireland for the first game of the year.
Kiel is still in there, but barring some surprise he'll likely find his way to a redshirt this season to preserve a year of eligibility.
This job won't be won or lost on Saturday, but it will give us a chance to see which quarterback can make the most of what weapons he has on offense.
Area in Need of Most Improvement: Wide Receiver
The defense has some major areas in need of improvement, but the hole left by Michael Floyd is enormous.
The return of Tyler Eifert at tight end is huge considering Floyd caught 60 more passes than any other receiver on the roster last year.
Kelly landed two receivers and a top-notch athlete in the 2012 class, but it would be surprising if he got a major on contribution from any of them.
While the Irish will be able to depend on Cierre Wood in the backfield, and get a boost from USC transfer Amir Carlisle, they need find some players who can make plays on the outside.
Theo Riddick and T.J. Jones both caught 38 passes last year and are returning, but they'll have to be much better than that if this team is to succeed.
It will be interesting to see how the receivers and quarterbacks click on Saturday.
What to Expect in 2012
We always expect there to be huge expectations for the Irish and this year is no different. Their schedule, however, is brutal.
Opening in Ireland against Navy is a fun and exciting opportunity, and they should win, but things pick up throughout the month of September.
They should defeat Purdue at home in Week 2, but all bets are off when they travel to East Lansing to play Sparty the following week and welcome in the rival Wolverines the week after that.
The Irish have just as good a chance at going 2-2 as they do 4-0 to start the year—most likely they'll be 3-1.
They're home for three games against Miami (played at Soldier Field), Stanford and BYU but then have to travel to Norman to play Oklahoma.
An ever difficult battle with Pittsburgh is on deck after that followed by a trip to Chestnut Hill to play Boston College. The Golden Eagles are arguably the weakest opponent on the schedule, but they lost only by two to the Irish a year ago.
And finally, Irish faithful may not want to hear it, but a trip to the Coliseum against the mighty Trojans is almost assuredly a loss. USC is the odds-on favorite to win the BCS Championship this year and with damn good reason.
All in all, if the Irish find the right quarterback and don't have any letdowns like last season they could be looking at a really solid 9-3 record.
The last time Notre Dame won nine or more games was 2006 under Charlie Weis in Brady Quinn's senior season.