Brian Kelly leads ND into a new year with lots of questions to be answered.
I have often been accused of being honest—but less than positive—about Notre Dame football over the past few years, to the point that one Irish friend calls me “Danny Downer” even though I do not pedal barbituates on street corners without a license.
I guess I’m just not a sales person.
What I will pedal this year is my true excitement going into 2012. I believe that this team could go 5-8, 8-5, or 11-2, and I would not be surprised.
OK, maybe 11-2 would surprise me, but it would be a pleasant surprise, not the “Your wife left with your bowling buddy and took the furniture with her” kind of surprise.
For good or for bad, this team has more talent than many South Beach night clubs, coupled with more issues than you find in, well, the talent in many South Beach night clubs.
The story lines for 2012 Notre Dame football team should make for great drama, possibly even better than the complicated story lines of such heart-rending reality classics as Ice Road Truckers.
There may even be some great football, and there are tons of things that you should watch for as you down a Guinness or two (20 for me) and watch the 2012 Irish season unfold.
Even NBC can’t screw this show up.
Here’s the reality TV you must see…
Many college football teams are a little light on their non-conference schedules.
There was a time—before the BCS—where college teams had the guts to play each other.
Now, the trick is to avoid teams with anything resembling helmets, to the point that perennial powerhouses like Houston can grind out close wins against 6-8 UCLA and 5-7 UTEP (pictured here) on the way to a 12-0 record and No. 6 ranking on November 25.
As it turned out, Conference USA juggernaught Southern Miss killed that sneaky rat 49-28 on December 3, staking its claim to its own football supremacy with a 12-2 record and No. 19 final ranking.
Of course, other than the Houston Charaders, Southern Miss didn’t play a single ranked team last year.
The 2012 ND schedule on the other hand, may have overshot the mark for brutal by about a solar system and a half.
What's on tap for 2012?
Here are a few preseason rankings for some of the Irish's opponents in 2012: No. 1 USC (road), No. 4 Oklahoma (road), No. 8 Michigan, No. 13 Michigan State (road), No. 21 Stanford, and unranked but technically No. 32 BYU (10-3 in 2011).
Rumor has it that Notre Dame AD Jack Swarbrick was on the phone with the SEC commissioner last week to see if he could switch to the SEC Western Division to soften the schedule some.
On the bright side, in his two years here, Kelly has beaten two of the five teams ranked at the time, plus a win against the unranked squad of probationary USC cheaters in 2010.
With more talent and more experience, and with a little bit of the luck which was virtually non-existent in 2011, it isn’t unreasonable to think that this team can compete every week with everybody they play, even the men of Troy and their pretty boy coach.
Win or lose, we are going to see some bullfights in 2012, and the first one that says ND is ducking anybody will get a swift kick in the nads by yours truly. And yes, when angered, I am a nad punter.
What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, and if we survive 2012, we should be able to lift Khloe Kardashian’s huge buttocks by 2013—or at least one of them.
At least to start the year, Tommy rees will not be explaining one of his turnovers to his sympathetic coach.
Since Tommy Rees cannot drink beer and run at the same time, the Fighting Irish will have a new starting QB in Dublin on September 1st.
Frankly, I don’t know whether Rees’ inability to escape police or any kind of rush forced Kelly’s hand to give Golson his shot, and I don’t care.
At least for the start of 2012, ND will game plan based on the QB’s inexperience, instead of his physical limitations, for the first time in almost two years.
I, for one, am willing to watch some rookie mistakes wrapped around some college quarterbacking, and will be doing a shot of Jameson the first time this year a Notre Dame QB sees the defense drop eight in coverage and takes off for 10-plus yards.
I will chug a full bottle of my good friend Jack when I see a ball drop over the top in stride into a receiver’s hands without the announcers taking a pee break and grabbing a quick smoke while the ball is still in the air.
Rees did as best he could with what he had, and that resulted in an 8-5 record against a relatively soft schedule while playing some truly ugly offensive football that featured more mistakes than an SEC lineman’s spelling test.
For 2012, we are likely to see some athleticism at QB and some tremendous goofs to go with it, but at least with athleticism comes hope.
If the learning curve is short, another Tony Rice or Jarius Jackson experience isn’t out of the question.
I can’t wait to see it and neither should you.
Notre Dame has the studs necessary to play yard-dog defense.
In the past two years, Notre Dame defensive coordinator Bob Diaco has coached some tremendous defenses against some pretty decent teams.
Lest we forget, in the final three games of the 2010 regular season, Diaco's defense limited teams averaging at least 31 points per game to 22 combined points—the fewest points allowed by a Notre Dame defense in three straight games since the 1993 season.
In the offseason following 2010, the campus was filled with reports of rocks and trees missing from the university, as a monster defense was rumored to be brewing in the bowels of the GUG.
And what happened in 2011?
Last year ND had decent numbers overall, with a scoring defense that only gave up 20.9 points and 349 yards a game.
On the dark side of those numbers, teams with winning records averaged 28.0 points and 449 yards per game against the Irish.
But the numbers weren’t the ugly part.
We painfully recall how USC ran over us in the fourth quarter eight straight times to run the game clock out, while Stanford called four plays all game and still beat us by two touchdowns.
I am still at a loss as to how Denard Robinson can throw passes that have more hang time than our punter’s best moonballs and still light us up for 338 yards and four TD’s in the air.
To this day I still cannot watch a replay of the fourth quarter of that game without random thoughts of suicide and a quick shot and a sedative.
But there is hope. Lots of it. Cases and cases of it in my opinion. Look at the roster and you can make a good argument there is a beer truck full of hope.
The offense gave up the ball 13 more times than the D got it back, mostly due to poor QB play but in many cases we just got too damn close to the goal line so we just gave it away.
Every college football team lives and dies by the turnover margin every year, and the Irish were not the worst in the country by far.
They were 118th out of 120. Horribly and unjustifiably terrible, but not the worst.
Half the teams in the country were breakeven or better, so it's not unreasonable to think that it's humanly possible not to drop the ball or throw a pick every other time down the field.
That's 13 more times the offense scores or pins the other team deep. If the Irish just get to breakeven with turnovers, that’s 13 less times the D is on the field cleaning up the O’s constant screw ups.
Here's an old football adage to live by: One good way of not screwing up on defense is to be on offense.
That’s not a lot to ask of a college football team.
To compound matters, the Irish D had a lot of injuries across the board, which made them play talented but less experienced freshman damn near everywhere but the food truck.
This year that same liability is now an opportunity, as talented players like Stephon Tuitt and Ishaq Williams will get to play with a little bit more edge and experience, and a host of other underclassmen saw meaningful playing time that can only benefit the 2012 version of the Irish Wall.
And yes, we all know the secondary was torched consistently last year and lost both corners to boot.
Still, despite the fact the secondary is going to have new faces, they are talented faces that could not do much worse than last year’s group which only had eight interceptions all year in soft coverage. They had a no frills no blitz approach that took great care not to hit anyone too hard after the catch.
My 90-year-old mom kept close to a passing beer truck for a good three blocks just on the off chance a bottle might shake loose, and was rewarded when he stopped at a light long enough for her to get her shot.
She took the driver out with a flying Nelson followed by a deafening knee drop before making off with a month's worth of Coors Light that lasted her the better part of a week with enough left over to sell to the local high school kids and fund her Bingo group for the next three Sundays.
I'm just saying with the right motivation, great things can be accomplished.
With two reasonable opponents to start the year, and a pass-happy Purdue as the second test, the new secondary has a chance to grow into their roles before the Oklahoma's and USC's show us their endless stable of All-American receivers and QB's.
Baby steps are good things.
If the D-Line comes into its own enough to keep the focus off the back four, the defense has the overall talent to form a pretty solid unit.
At a minimum, we’ll see if Diaco really has any idea how to coach, so if we don’t get decent football, at least we’ll finally get some answers about this staff.
Either way it will be a lot of fun for everyone to see what happens.
Look for Cierre Wood to have a big season.
Many of us don’t know how special ND’s running game was last year.
More often than not, with Tommy Rees struggling to find a receiver and making it all of four feet before chucking it wildly at the tuba section, ND basically had to hold up a big “WE ARE RUNNING IT THIS PLAY - HINT: IT WON'T BE THE QB” sign on the sideline to signal in the next play.
Despite the subtleness, ND ran often—and ran well—until Jonas Gray went down and ND was even more one-dimensional than their previous one-dimensionalness.
Fear not my Irish brethren; the offensive line returns a boatload of solid and athletic players, and is even bigger and meaner than last year, to the point they only eat raw meat, and only if it’s still attached to a linebacker or defensive tackle.
Cierre Wood is the real deal, and Theo Riddick is explosive and a much better fit at running back as well as coming out of the backfield. Despite some butter fingers, George Atkinson had some solid flashes in the spring game, and early reports are that true freshman Will Mahone seems to show some speed and wiggle to go with his size.
There are other backs with varying degrees of size and speed that could also step in if needed, to the point my 210 pounds and 8.4 second 40-yard dash time is not likely to make the three-deep yet again, damn the politics.
With a new QB, expect the early going to feature lots of counters, zone runs and a real zone read from Golson, a staple of Kelly's offense that was unavailable with Tommy's hourglass 40 times.
It should be a beautiful thing to watch in slo-mo high definition.
Kelly will have lots of quandaries in 2012, but some of them should be good quandaries.
Notre Dame has issues at QB, in the secondary, and throughout a revamped and (so far) under-performing coaching staff.
The 2012 schedule will test the new QB and secondary early and often, and no one on this planet knows how they will respond, so we all get to watch and learn together with them.
A strong running game will be tested, as Notre Dame tries to break in their new QB and keep a young secondary off the field as much as possible.
Kelly and Co. will also have their resolve tested, as this schedule will give you night sweats if you think too much about it.
These are some of the best programs that the team has faced in years, and many of them hope to have their own best years.
Most of the established programs have seasoned coordinators on both sides of the ball ready to do the battle of X’s and O’s—battles that Kelly and his staff have lost more often than not in his first two years under the Golden Dome.
If Kelly and his boys can take this still young team by the horns and come out of this year with eight or more wins, he will have proven that he’s capable of winning on the bigger stage that ND is and will always be.
Eight or more wins with this schedule is also something this team can build on toward BCS contention in 2013 and beyond.
Eight wins will prevent me from launching my remote through another 60" screen this year.
I can’t wait to get started.