Let the traditional offseason musings commence.
With college football at its driest point from a news perspective, the arenas of debate in all categories have been intensified, particularly in the realm of win totals for programs around the country.
After reaching the national championship for the first time in 24 seasons, the expectations for Notre Dame's 2013 season were astronomical prior to the news of incumbent starting quarterback Everett Golson's dismissal from the school due to "poor academic judgment."
Regardless, the Irish must trudge forward with the quarterbacks remaining on the roster—Tommy Rees, Andrew Hendrix and Malik Zaire.
No matter which of the trio head coach Brian Kelly tabs as his starter, expectations in the win column have certainly been scaled back, particularly considering the Irish's dismal final record of 8-5 to finish the 2011 season with Rees—himself a turnover waiting to happen—leading the offense.
Peering at Notre Dame's 2013 schedule, it seems a barrage of challenges await.
There are no "gimmes" on this slate.
However, if I were a betting man, I'd put my money on Irish victories in four contests—vs. Temple, at Purdue, at Air Force and vs. Navy.
Temple is an up-and-coming program led by first-year head coach Matt Rhule, though the Owls don't pose a serious threat to the Irish, especially in the season opener at Notre Dame Stadium. The same can be said for Purdue, which is also under the direction of a first-year head coach in Darrell Hazell, though Kelly and Co. will travel to Ross-Ade Stadium for that contest.
As for the service academies, the Irish defense has displayed a mastery of containing the triple-option offense, limiting Navy and Air Force to a combined 57 points in three contests since 2011, each of which ended with a Notre Dame victory.
The remaining eight games of the schedule are where predicting becomes an unenviable task.
Matchups with Michigan, Michigan State, Oklahoma, Arizona State, USC, Pittsburgh, BYU and Stanford have each become questionable at best.
Notre Dame's defense will allow the Irish opportunities to earn victories against those opponents, but meetings with strong defensive teams—Michigan State, BYU and Stanford—loom large because of the offense's now-perceived difficulty of putting points on the board.
However, Notre Dame gets both Michigan State and BYU at home, giving me the inclination to peg each game as an Irish victory, though Stanford should be considered a surefire loss at present.
Next, we have what I'm considering tossup games—Michigan, Oklahoma, Arizona State and USC.
Because Michigan has yet to lose a game at Michigan Stadium during the Brady Hoke era, the Wolverines should be the popular choice to defeat Notre Dame for the fourth time in five seasons.
The Sooners of Oklahoma will arrive at Notre Dame during the final weekend in September having suffered a defeat at the hands of the Irish in Norman, Okla., last season, and revenge will certainly be a storyline leading up to the game. Yet the ability of Notre Dame's defense to stifle the Sooners' high-octane offensive attack leads me to believe a similar outcome will ensue this season, and it helps that the Irish get this one at home.
Finally, we have two Pac-12 opponents—Arizona State and USC.
Notre Dame will meet Todd Graham and his Sun Devils at Cowboys Stadium in Dallas Oct. 5 for the annual Shamrock Series game. Graham has given Notre Dame fits two out of the last three seasons, as his Tulsa squad upset the Irish, 28-27, at Notre Dame Stadium in 2010. The following season, Graham's Pittsburgh team narrowly lost to Kelly and Co., 15-12 at Heinz Field.
Because Graham has been so ultra-competitive against Notre Dame in recent seasons, I'd typically be inclined to peg the Arizona State game as an upset, but the Irish are 4-0 in Shamrock Series games. I'm taking Notre Dame here.
USC will be quite a compelling matchup, as the Trojans' incumbent starting quarterback, Max Wittek, had the first start of his career against Notre Dame last season, which the Irish won, 22-13.
Wittek will likely be the starter once again this season and will be gunning for an upset. If he can guide the Trojans offense to enough scores, USC could walk away with its sixth consecutive victory at Notre Dame Stadium, which dates back to 2003.
My gut feeling is that the Trojans walk away with a notch in the win column following that contest, which brings Notre Dame's over/under for total victories to nine.
Of course, many occurrences will transpire between now and the beginning of the 2013 season, possibly altering this prediction, but as of now, my number stands at nine.
And may the debate commence.
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