Brian Kelly and the Notre Dame Fighting Irish have a rare opportunity to compete for another BCS National Championship.
Last season was Notre Dame's first legit shot at winning it all since 1993, and the Irish haven't finished on top since 1988.
Remaining in contention, however, won't be easy after finishing the regular season 12-0 and consistently winning in dramatic fashion. Include the Alabama Crimson Tide pulverizing Notre Dame, and every scheduled opponent will be chomping at the bit for Coach Kelly's squad.
The bulls' eye has gotten brighter, and the Irish's key players must respond by living up to increased expectations.
Everett Golson, QB
Although he's an obvious key player, it's imperative that Everett Golson enhances his passing ability this season.
The strong arm and mobility was established in 2012, as evidenced by Golson's consistency at extending plays and launching downfield. After all, he did rack up 298 rushing yards, and that forced a defense to honor his athleticism.
Getting more accurate and making smoother decisions from under center, though, will take him to the next level. He only completed 58.8 percent of his attempts and also had tight end Tyler Eifert as a safety outlet.
As Matt Fortuna of ESPN.com writes, Golson improved as 2012 continued, and it's reasonable to anticipate that being maintained in the future:
Notre Dame returns upward of six starters on offense, most notably quarterback Everett Golson. [ESPN Insider KC] Joyner cites Golson's 1.6 percent mark last year in the bad decision rate (BDR) metric — which measures mental errors that lead to turnover opportunities for the defense — as a sign that he has a very bright future ahead of him. Granted, the Irish did not unleash the entire playbook with Golson at the helm last season, but he threw downfield better and better down the stretch, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
In short, the Irish will depend on Golson more and more this season. Now that there are expectations in place, the pressure simply increases.
George Atkinson III, RB
Keeping defenses from totally focusing on Everett Golson is running back George Atkinson.
Last season he was only fed 51 carries, but Atkinson averaged 7.1 yards per attempt and scored five rushing touchdowns. Still developing into the position, coach Brian Kelly stated on his progression in an article by Colleen Kane of the Chicago Tribune on April 13:
"He's really turned himself into a guy we can throw the football to," Kelly said. "We were a little concerned last year when he was in there what kind of ball skills (he had)."
Kelly said Atkinson also needs to "continue to run the ball with lower pads. He has a tendency to rise up a little bit. We had a goal-line play where I talked to him about getting down. He gets that."
Notre Dame will need to feature a punishing attack in the trenches to move with consistency. It played a key role in Golson's quick impact because defenses could not strictly isolate his versatility.
Atkinson has that potential, and establishing it generates a strong balance.
By the same token, he has to produce on kickoff returns when needed. Obviously, taking a greater role in the backfield will limit Atkinson's special teams impact, but he did average 26.1 yards in 2011 and 20 yards in 2012.
That helps regarding field position, and Atkinson's vision transitions nicely for carrying the rock.
Bennett Jackson, CB
Bennett Jackson enjoyed a breakout performance in 2012 with eight defended passes (four picks) and 65 tackles.
Locking away half the field for Notre Dame's coverage, Jackson did so with immense pain in his shoulder. According to Tim Prister of IrishIllustrated.com, Jackson had a torn labrum:
If you weren’t on the team or a part of Notre Dame’s medical staff, you wouldn’t detect that Jackson was dealing with a torn labrum in his right shoulder.
“I felt like I needed it,” said Jackson of off-season surgery to repair the tear that kept him out of spring drills.
“Occasionally, it would pop out,” Jackson said. “I just got used to the feeling (to the point where) it really didn’t bother me too much anymore. It used to happen in practice all the time, but I just kind of got used to it. It was just part of the game to me.”
Considering he played with basically one arm last season, Jackson's 2013 production will reach uncharted territory. The toughness to fight through the pain, for one, makes him that much better in Cover 1 and 2, as well as providing perimeter run support.
Next fall won't be easy to match 2012's impact, though.
The Irish ranked No. 21 in pass defense and allowed a mere seven passing touchdowns. Therefore, with Manti Te'o and Zeke Motta out of the equation, opponents will attack them more downfield.
That puts added pressure on him to perform. But if his mentality last fall is any indication, Jackson will lead with a strong purpose next season.
Louis Nix, DT
The force of Louis Nix is the key to Notre Dame's defensive success in 2013.
Coming off a season where he recorded 50 tackles (7.5 for loss) and defended five passes, he must keep improving. Blocking schemes are going to try and double him up or attack with a zone to quickly seal Nix down the line.
A byproduct of Nix drawing attention, though, will free up the linebackers and defensive ends to make plays. It's when facing single-block situations and instantly dissecting a pulling guard where Nix has to crash the backfield.
Stephon Tuitt will also be attracting extra blockers since he collected 12 sacks and forced three fumbles last season. So any time Tuitt gets isolated, Nix must capitalize accordingly.
That allows the Irish to win the battle up front and thus, provide Bennett and Co. more turnover opportunities in coverage.
Plus, Kelly can use Nix like William "The Refrigerator" Perry when facing a short-yard situation.
As Nix put it according to Brian Hamilton of the Chicago Tribune, the rest of college football has been warned:
Louis Nix: "That's what all teams need to be scared of. All teams need to be scared of Irish Chocolate. Everyone. Including you." #NotreDame— Brian Hamilton (@ChiTribHamilton) April 20, 2013
Now getting it done on the field is all that remains.