The Notre Dame football team will enter the 2012 season with considerably lower expectations compared to one year ago.
The Irish will face a brutal schedule containing five preseason top 25 teams, three top ten opponents, road games against a pair of top five squads, and do it with a new quarterback, a new defensive secondary, and without Michael Floyd.
There is little talk of a BCS berth. Pundits count as many as five probable losses, and, at best, this is thought of as a building year.
Still, the 2011 Notre Dame squad underachieved. Poor quarterback play and terrible turnovers doomed several contests in which the Irish out played and out gained the opponent (South Florida, Michigan and Florida State), only to see mental errors erode victory.
Had the Irish not beaten themselves so often last year, the 8-5 mark could have easily been 11-2, which would have set an entirely different tone for the upcoming season.
Here are 20 predictions of what 2012 will bring.
Les Miles' favorite quarterback to bash Gunner Kiel entered fall camp in a four-way competition for the starting quarterback job at Notre Dame.
The true freshman has all the raw talent in the world, but compared to the other potential signal-callers competing for the position, Kiel is farthest behind in coach Brian Kelly's apparently incredibly complex offense.
Kiel is taking far fewer reps compared to Everett Golson and Andrew Hendrix and is likely to end up third or fourth on the depth chart once it is released prior to the Navy game.
A red-shirt year would be in the best interest of both the player and the program.
There was a high probability that someone other than Tommy Rees would hold down the QB position for the Irish this year, but his arrest and subsequent suspension has all but cemented his position on the sidelines wearing a red hat.
Rees will be a contributing member of the team, will continue to be a very vocal leader and will be of extreme value to the Irish, but it will be as a mentor to the lesser-experienced quarterback that ultimately takes the position.
Rees will more than likely make some cameo appearances, but barring injury, it is doubtful that he plays in a meaningful situation.
It is likely that Sophomore Everett Golson will emerge as the starting quarterback.
The Myrtle Beach, South Carolina product has a live arm, superb accuracy in short, intermediate, and long throws, and is lightning quick on his feet.
Still he is a pass first quarterback that makes him much more Robert Griffen III than Denard Robinson.
The only concern is Golson's slight frame, which makes durability a question.
Still, if he can remain healthy and avoid the play-clock based issues that have plagued him in camp he could be an RGIII type trancendant player. He has that kind of tools.
With what promises to be a solid offensive line, Cierre Wood, Theo Riddick, Amir Carlisle, and Geoge Atkinson III to hand off to, and Tyler Eifert to keep safeties occupied, Golson could literally explode onto the national radar.
There is a very simple truth at any level of football.
New quarterback = higher blood pressure.
One of the challenges of Kelly's offense is that it is fluid. The team will break the huddle and line up in a base formation. Based upon how the defense reacts, the QB must move players to adjust to what he's seeing from the defense.
If there is confusion from the QB, there will be penalties.
If there are penalties, there will be anger.
If there is anger, there will be screaming.
If there is screaming, there will be blood.
Apparently, in order to recruit today's youth, a university will have to adorn themselves with a garish Las Vegas strip-worthy "alternate" uniform at least once a year.
While Notre Dame's shamrock-adorned brushed gold-leaf look was much more tasteful than what their opponent Maryland did to the college football uniform, what's wrong with just being who you are?
You don't see the New York Yankees trotting out "special" uniforms to increase jersey sales, do you?
Because they are the New York Yankees.
Notre Dame's gold lids and blue jerseys are equally iconic as the pinstripes, yet in order for Adidas to keep pace with Nike, expect another oddity to roll out of the Notre Dame equipment room this season.
Apart from quarterback, the defensive backfield is the most often discussed unit on the team.
The secondary was often gashed last year, and that it has lost most of its starters is expected to be one of the weaker points of the team.
However, Bennett Jackson and Lo Wood are each having outstanding camps at the corner position, with newcomer Jalen Brown and RB transfer Cam McDaniel along with Josh Atkinson providing what looks more and more like quality depth.
At safety, returning seniors Jamoris Slaughter and Zeke Motta will provide leadership to a young group that also includes freshmen Mathias Farley and Eilar Hardy, seniors Dan McCarthy and Chris Salvi and special teams standout Austin Collinsworth, who is recovering from injury.
The inexperienced unit has a chance to gel and produce a fast and formidable coverage group that can also support a stout run-stopping front seven.
There are benefits to transitioning wide receivers into cover corners.
They can run. They can catch. They understand how to open the hips and change direction. They can find the football and make a play on it.
Bennett Jackson is doing all of those things as he completes his transformation from aspiring receiver to cover corner.
He has secured a starting position and has his defensive coaches "excited".
He has a chance to emerge as not only a leader on a unit seen as potentially disastrous, but he could emerge as the anchor that turns that unit into a weapon.
The Notre Dame secondary has speed and size, but lacks experience. If Jackson can emerge and continue on the trajectory he is currently on, Notre Dame may be more difficult to throw against than most pundits think.
A year ago, Manti Te'o recorded 114 tackles and five sacks, and he felt unfulfilled.
He could be the starting inside linebacker for an NFL team this season, projecting as the top linebacking prospect had he come out a year ago.
Yet he returns saying that he doesn't feel his job at Notre Dame is "finished yet."
He is a sideline-to-sideline player, heart and soul of the defense and the sweetest bad man you'll ever meet.
If you have a football in your hand and are running with it, simply put, he will bring you down.
If the secondary continues to improve and no serious injuries are sustained, the defense has a chance to be simply hurtful.
Anchored in the middle by big Louis Nix, the biggest man you'll ever see wear a single digit, the Irish interior is fearsome.
Despite the loss of young pass-rushing phenom Aaron Lynch, the Irish linebacking corps is still stout. Secured in the center by Te'o and reinforced with experienced lettermen Dan Fox and Carlo Calabrese, the group has strong leadership.
From the outside, Prince Shembo has the chance for a breakout season, as does highly-touted sophomore Ishaq Williams.
The defense last year was the nation's 24th-ranked unit. The Irish defense is expected to be improved this season.
A season ago, Cierre Wood carried for over 1,100 yards, while Jonas Gray tallied more than 700 before missing two-and-a-half games with a torn ACL.
With the loss of Michael Floyd and a running threat at quarterback, it is probable that the Irish offense will feature more edge-attacking run plays that will stretch the defense and open up more inside running lanes.
Wood, along with USC transfer Amir Carslile and last year's kickoff return specialist, George Atkinson III, will all have a chance to eclipse the 1,000-yard mark.
The largest hurdle to a pair of runners breaking the mark is that carries may be too spread out between the QB and the top four running backs.
A year ago, for the first time in a decade, a pair of Irish players were selected in the first round of the NFL draft.
This year, both Manti Te'o and Tyler Eifert project into the first round.
It is likely that another name will emerge to join them, making the most successful Notre Dame draft day in recent memory.
OK, so this isn't a bold prediction, but it has to be said.
Last season, Notre Dame averaged .6 yards per punt return.
Six-tenths of a yard per punt.
That's including a 35-yard return by Michael Floyd in the Champs Sports Bowl.
The Irish also lost a pair of fumbles on punts.
Truth be told, if Notre Dame catches EVERY punt they receive this year and don't fumble any, it would be an improvement.
If they actually fall forward and gain a half-yard every time, it will be a staggering improvement.
If they actually admit that punt returns are a necessary part of a football game and maybe practice them once or twice this summer, amazing things could happen!
Too much, too soon.
Landry Jones' senior year. Under the lights in Norman.
Oklahoma is a legitimate title contender and is fairly loaded at every position.
If the game is close and Oklahoma has to struggle to prevail, that is a win for Notre Dame.
This game will carry a 10-plus point spread.
I expect Notre Dame to cover and hopefully gain some respect in a tough loss.
Yea. Matt Barkley is still there.
This could be his coronation game en route to a Heisman trophy and a National Championship berth.
I would love to say that I thought the Irish could spoil that.
I just don't.
USC is really good, and, like Oklahoma, if late in the fourth quarter, the contest is still in doubt, it will demonstrate that Notre Dame has come a long way and has the talent to compete with the big boys.
It won't be long.
Stanford is going to be a tough opponent.
But losing Andrew Luck and playing in South Bend against an improved Notre Dame team that hopefully won't commit three turnovers will swing the game to the Irish.
Simply stated, last year, Notre Dame outplayed Michigan State in every facet of the game.
Two years ago, the teams were decidedly even, and the game was decided by a fake field goal in overtime.
Since last year, Michigan State lost more than Notre Dame did, and despite the game being played in East Lansing, expect Notre Dame to win at Michigan State for the first time in a long time.
So far, during the Brian Kelly era, one of the things that Notre Dame excels at doing is dominating a game, yet losing.
No contest is more evident of this fact than the first ever game under lights at the Big House a year ago.
For three-and-a-half quarters, the Irish dominated Michigan.
But throw in a couple of interceptions, a fumbled punt, a weird "I'm trying to throw, but dropped the ball behind me" fumble, a Michigan handoff exchange fumble that bounces directly to Denard Robinson on 4th-and-goal for a touchdown and a total lapse of attention to one half of the field by the Notre Dame defense, and Michigan wins.
To be fair, Notre Dame should have won that game by 10 plus points.
But it didn't.
That was they way it went for Brady Hoke and the Wolverines last year, where everything that could go right did.
This year may be more difficult for the Maize and Blue, and I expect the prime-time contest in South Bend to be very difficult for them as well.
It is a game Notre Dame has to win.
Predictions are in the eight to nine-win range.
Maybe this is the year that Notre Dame exceeds predictions.
Improved quarterback play, improved secondary play, improved special teams play and less turnovers.
With the same personnel, given those parameters, Notre Dame can win ten games.
I expect losses to USC and Oklahoma, and potentially a team that no one expects, like BYU or Pittsburgh, simply because that's what Notre Dame is good at recently.
Still, this team can be that good. The talent is there. Hopefully, it is time to live up to potential.
A nine win regular season will push Notre Dame into the top 12, and if eligible, Notre Dame will be selected as an at-large team into a BCS game.
In a rematch of last year's Champs Sports Bowl, Notre Dame will beat Florida State in the Orange Bowl to win its first BCS game.
Come on. It's bound to happen, right?
I'm not saying the National Championship; we'll start talking that way next year. I'm just saying A BCS game.
Admittedly, the stars have to align, and lots of things have to go right. But honestly, Notre Dame is due some good luck.
Maybe this is the year that the Irish get their luck back?