With a 12-1 record, the Fighting Irish had a magical run last season until they were blown out by Alabama in the BCS National Championship game, 42-14. Even though Notre Dame failed to win its first BCS bowl game in school history, the program is back where it needs to be.
But will head coach Brian Kelly be able to work the same magic again this year?
Starting quarterback Everett Golson is gone for at least a season after being suspended for academic reasons, and it’s almost a blessing that All-American linebacker Manti Te’o is in the NFL now, after the whole fake girlfriend scandal. There is still a lot of talent on the defense, but the offense could be questionable.
Will a second consecutive BCS bowl game be reachable? Let's take a look at the offense, defense/special teams and schedule.
With Golson out, the Irish will go back to quarterback Tommy Rees, who closed games out last season against Purdue, Michigan and Stanford. He also started one game against BYU when Golson was out with a concussion. It’s not a matter of talent for Rees; it’s more about him staying focused and taking care of the football.
The running game will hurt without Theo Riddick, who rushed for 917 yards and five touchdowns last season, as well as Cierre Wood. The backfield will now rely on junior George Atkinson III, sophomore USC transfer Amir Carlisle and freshman Greg Bryant.
The receiving corps will be without one of its best weapons from last season in tight end Tyler Eifert. The Irish do return many of their targets, though. Four-year starter T.J. Jones, who had 649 receiving yards and four touchdowns last season, will lead a receiving corps that consists of junior DaVaris Daniels and junior tight end Troy Niklas.
If the Irish want to get better offensively, the passing game has to be better than it was last season, especially with the loss of Eifert and two strong backs in the running game.
The offensive line will be the best part of the Notre Dame offense this season with left tackle Zack Martin returning for his final year. The line also includes left guard Chris Watt and right tackle Christian Lombard, but they will need replacements at center and right guard.
Defense and Special Teams
The Notre Dame defense was one of the best in the country last season. The Irish gave up just 12.8 points per game and held opponents to 305.5 yards per game. With eight returning players back from last season, the defense should be just as talented, if not better.
There are questions on the offensive side going into the season, meaning the defense may have a lot of the weight put on its shoulders again this season.
The defensive line will be the greatest aspect of the Irish defense. Senior nose guard Louis Nix III and junior defensive end Stephon Tuitt are two of the best players in the nation at their positions. Nix had 50 tackles last season, while Tuitt recorded 12 sacks.
The linebacking corps will be without Te’o, but look for junior Jarrett Grace to make a big impact with his speed and run-stopping ability. Grace will be surrounded by returning starters Dan Fox, Prince Shembo and Danny Spond.
The secondary will basically stay intact and have depth this season. Cornerback Bennett Jackson returns after recording 65 tackles and four interceptions last season. The secondary also consists of cornerback KeiVarae Russell and free safety Matthias Farley.
Like last season, Notre Dame will have another challenging schedule. The game at Michigan in Week 2 will be the usual nail-biter. The following three weeks will consist of two home games against Michigan State and Oklahoma, as well as a game in Arlington, Texas against Arizona State. A bye week before a home game against bitter rival USC on Oct. 19 will be much needed.
The end of the schedule cools down a bit, but the Irish will still be tested and their BCS bowl fate could be determined when they play at Stanford on Nov. 30.