Notre Dame opens its season against Temple on Saturday (3:30 p.m. ET, NBC), its first chance for redemption after last year's embarrassing BCS National Championship Game defeat.
The Irish's offense and defense both, arguably, lost their most important player this offseason—linebacker Manti Te'o to the NFL and quarterback Everett Golson to academic suspension. Second-leading tackler Zeke Motta also decamped South Bend, as did tight end Tyler Eifert and lead backs Theo Riddick and Cierre Wood.
Which is all to say, there are definitely a few questions that need to be answered.
Temple, fortunately, is expected to look more like last year's 4-7 club than 2011's 9-4 one. But it's still (for now) a BCS-conference foe, so even if its not a genuine threat to win, the Irish can learn a lot from how they play.
But what, exactly, are Brian Kelly and Co. hoping to see?
Competence Under Center
That's all. No need to run the air raid and test out Tommy Rees' arm. Irish fans already know what that looks like. All they want to see is competence and confidence.
Notre Dame's formula in 2013 will be similar to 2012's. The defense is the unit it will hang its hat on, so the offense doesn't have to be great. But it also needs to move the ball and—at the very least—get enough first downs to keep the defense rested.
Rees has mixed dizzying highs with ugly lows since coming to South Bend. Coach Kelly (and the student body) know what he's capable of in a good way—but they also know the not-so-good reciprocal.
Which Rees will show up on Saturday? And whatever the answer, is that the Rees fans can expect to see all year?
Someone Take the Lead at Running Back
The two-deep lists George Atkinson as the starter at running back, with Amir Carlisle, Cam McDaniel and freshman Greg Bryant all listed as co-backups behind him.
And while Atkinson's first-team status does provide a little bit of clarity, the lead-back situation in South Bend is still a little murky.
Kelly appears to be using (at least in part) a trial-by-fire approach to his tailback conundrum. You can learn some meaningful stuff in practice, but not everything you need to make a decision. Sometimes you have to let four talented guys compete in a live setting and see who makes the biggest statement.
Kelly tried and tried to make the cream rise this fall, but his sample is still jumbled. This will always be a bit of a time-share, but hopefully someone can start his ascent to true lead-back status.
Effective Play From Jaylon Smith
Manti Te'o isn't the only big loss from Notre Dame's linebacking corps (as he was expected to be). Senior Danny Spond was forced to retire from football (because of migraines) during fall camp, leaving another hole on the Irish defense's second level.
Breaking in the new spots are senior Carlo Calabrese and blue-chip true freshman Jaylon Smith. The former, Calabrese, is a proven (though merely solid) commodity. But the latter, Smith, could land just about anywhere on the map.
Ranked No. 2 in 247Sports' composite, Smith—obviously—has the potential to become special. But will he realize that potential? And is it fair to expect so much so soon? He's not replacing Te'o's position of inside linebacker, but he is replacing his role of "blue-chip" linebacker.
Smith is a giant part of Notre Dame's future and, after Spond's retirement, also a relevant part of its present. But how much of an impact can he really make in Year 1?
Dominant Performance From the Defensive Line
Of the few (legitimate) concerns for Notre Dame this season, defensive line play is not one of them. The question isn't "if" they'll be dominant up front, but just how dominant they'll be.
That question will get a preliminary answer against Temple, a team whose offensive line has experience but not much talent. The Irish will almost certainly outplay them in the trenches, but that won't be enough. They need to destroy them.
Why? To set the tone for the rest of the season. If other preseason concerns—things like consistently moving the ball or quality play from the linebackers—prove founded, the defensive line will be the unit that carries this team.
This is their chance to remind people why.