Can the Irish defense knock down an undefeated season?
We have until April until spring ball gives us a meaningful glimpse of college football again, so I am going to go ahead and start the ridiculous speculation: Is Notre Dame back, or is it too early in Kelly’s regime to expect a great year, even 12-0?
Notre Dame returns 16 starters, two QB’s with game experience, a good kicking game and signed several 4- and 5-star recruits that could provide significant depth, if not quality minutes from day one. There are probably too many potential landmines in the schedule and the new recruits are too raw to put ND over the top, but somebody (me) has to put forth the proposition that ND could be undefeated in 2011 so the rest of college football can ask what I’m smoking.
So, although I more honestly think ND is likely to stumble at least twice, I've had enough green Koolaid to think there’s a reasonable chance they could win out with good health and enough breaks (see Michigan State 2010).
Although far fetched in the reality of a long college football season, ND’s path to 12-0 actually makes sense on paper when you breakdown each game.
B. J. Daniels
B.J. Daniels is back at QB from an 8-5 squad that beat Miami in OT, lost a close one to Pitt and beat Clemson in the Meineke Bowl. Daniels wasn’t lighting any fires statistically, but did get the Bulls to eight wins with a mostly veteran team.
Unfortunately, the 2011 Bulls return only four starters on offense and worse, lose most of their offensive and defensive lines.
With new troops in the trenches on both sides of the ball, Skip Holtz won’t have the horses to pull off the upset. ND 1-0
Denard Robinson gets to try a new offense
Despite last year’s Michigan meltdown later in the year, if history has anything to say, this game is a toss up.
Michigan returns 18 starters, but fortunately for ND, nine of them played for their God-awful defense. New coach Brady Hoke has to put in his pro-style/West Coast offense using Rich Rodriguez’s spread players and hope Greg Mattison has time to install his shiny new defense before ND is in town. That’s a lot to ask.
Michigan will eventually improve under Hoke, but not in time to beat ND. ND 2-0
MSU will be without All-American linebacker Greg Jones
No need to recount the combination of luck and cajones Dantonio needed to beat ND last year with a 46-yard fake field goal at home in OT. Despite ND’s annual struggles against MSU, the year of the sun shining on Sparty’s butt is unlikely to repeat.
MSU loses six offensive starters, including both tackles and their center, plus five defensive starters, including All-American LB Greg Jones and underrated LB Eric Gordon.
Although there is a good core returning for MSU, ND should be the Spartans’ only non-conference loss. ND 3-0
Dave Wannstadt is no longer at Pitt
Pitt’s offense was pretty pedestrian last year, as was their disappointing 8-5 record. So head coach Dave Wannstadt was given the boot and, through a series of unsavory events, Todd Graham (formerly of Tulsa fame) is the new coach.
As Graham scrambled to catch up, Pitt’s recruiting class was unimpressive, to say the least. However, the Pitt cupboard is not bare.
Although not a top talent, Tino Sunseri is back to quarterback a 53rd ranked scoring offense with eight returning starters, and the defense has eight men back from a 27th ranked scoring defense.
This is a tougher game than most expect, but a new coach isn’t ready to beat a more seasoned ND squad with a bad Pitt offense learning a new system. ND 4-0
Robert Mavre is returning from injury to lead Purdue
After getting decimated with injuries and trying to teach a very young secondary where to stand, Purdue limped to a 4-8 record in 2010. That downward spiral hit warp speed after starting QB Robert Mavre went down.
Mavre should be back, along with seven offensive starters and seven defensive starters. Unfortunately, one of the defensive starters moving on is All-American DE Ryan Kerrigan.
Purdue always plays well at Ross-Ade Stadium and Danny Hope is a solid coach, but it’s hard to see them pulling an upset if ND comes to play. ND 5-0.
QB Tim Jefferson, Jr. pilots the Air Force offense
This is a team that went 9-4 last year, finishing with an Independence Bowl win over Georgia Tech in a battle of option offenses.
They have a senior QB in Tim Jefferson, Jr. and the excellent discipline that a military academy brings to the gridiron. In 2011, they lose five starters on offense, including four out of five offensive linemen, as well as four defensive starters, which include both OLB’s.
After Navy and Army last year, Diaco should be able to figure out how to stop the Air Force’s version of the option, and the Air Force defense should have its hands full. ND 6-0
Matt Barkley will be back to lead USC in 2011
By recent USC standards, 2010’s 8-5 record with no bowl (courtesy of the NCAA) was an extreme disappointment for Trojan loyalists. The late season 37-6 beat down at Oregon State, followed by the rain-drenched loss at home to an Irish team with a freshman QB, didn’t help the mood.
Although the loss of scholarships has yet to impact the Trojan roster, they lose five starters on offense, including three offensive linemen. They also lose four starters from a defense that was surprisingly vulnerable despite great athleticism.
USC returns one of the best QB’s in the country in Matt Barkley and as always, he’ll have a slew of great receivers and RB’s to spread the ball around.
In ND’s favor, Coach Lane Kiffin returns—probably the most overrated coach in the country. ND 7-0
QB Ricky Dobbs and four other offensive starters are gone in 2011
Navy went 9-4 last year, with their signature win an unmitigated ass kicking of ND. Defensive coordinator Diaco had no answer to Navy’s offense, and their defense had an easy time holding ND to 17 points.
Thankfully, the main architect of that disaster, Navy QB Ricky Dobbs, is gone, along with four other starters on offense and six on defense.
Coach Ken Niumatalolo and his staff have had ND's number recently, but the combination of Navy’s key losses and ND’s resurgence on defense after last year’s debacle should combine to put ND back on top. ND 8-0
Head Coach Jim Grobe had a tough 2010 at Wake Forest
If you’re a Demon Deacon, the good news is Wake Forest returns 16 starters from the 2010 squad.
The bad news is you return 16 starters from the 2010 squad that finished 3-9 and ranked 72nd in scoring offense and 94th in scoring defense.
Coach Jim Grobe is a career .508 coach that will have a team coming back that will be much improved, but not real good. It's doubtful these Demons will spawn an upset with this roster. ND 9-0
Randy Edsall is stepping in as the new coach for 2011
Maryland’s 2010 campaign ended with a 9-4 record and a 51-20 win in the Military Bowl, with seven starters on each side of the ball returning. So naturally, Maryland ditched Coach Ralph Friedgen for Connecticut’s Randy Edsall so they can start all over.
The 43rd ranked offense and 44th ranked defense were fairly respectable, and they did beat Navy.
It’s hard to tell if Edsall’s team will have enough talent and experience in his new system to make much noise in his first year, but probably not. ND 10-0
The Boston College defense will be good as always
Despite a crappy 7-6 season in 2010, Boston College still managed to field the 21st ranked defense in the country. Couple that with the 99th ranked scoring offense, and the problem is a bit obvious.
This year, the Eagles will get seven starters back on offense and seven on defense, but those offensive losses include a guard and two tackles which will require some rebuilding in the O-Line. QB Chase Rettig has potential, but all of the BC QB’s last year left much to be desired.
Second year coach Frank Spazianni has done little to show he’s the guy to get the Eagles back in the air.
As usual, expect Boston College to play good D, lousy O and ND to win an ugly game. ND 11-0
Andrew Luck came back to lead Stanford: Alone
No one needs to be reminded of the beat down Andrew Luck & Co gave ND on the way to a 12-1 record and a No. 4 National Rank. We also know Andrew Luck decided to wait on becoming a gubillionaire to return to do even better. Unfortunately for Andrew, the “& Co.” will not be coming back.
Despite the lofty praise for Luck and Stanford’s noble quest to win a national title, this team is a distant shell of the 2010 version. Head coaching God Jim Harbaugh bolted to the NFL with most of his staff. One remaining staff member, offensive coordinator David Shaw, will take over as coach. He has never coached a college game.
Adding to the concerns is that they lose six starters on offense, including three O-linemen, plus five defensive starters have to be replaced. That’s too many changes and too much turnover to expect to play at a national championship level.
For the Cardinal to even come close to what it did in 2010, they're going to need more than just Luck. ND 12-0
Brian Kelly is the key to ND's success
Notre Dame has a tough schedule with a boat load of quality teams in 2011, so expecting an undefeated season isn't all that reasonable, even I know that and I drink a lot of beer. That being said, on paper, no game in 2011 isn't winnable. In fact, if ND is off to a good start, they will probably be favored in all of them, depending on how USC's and Stanford's seasons are shaking out.
Now, I know I might get a little too high on Notre Dame football sometimes, but there is a small possibility that ND won't have any major injuries, the offense clicks, the defense picks up where it left off last year, and that ND catches the breaks that any undefeated team needs to win out.
None of these possibilities is unlikely in and of themselves, but the possibility of all of them happening in the same year takes something more.
Brian Kelly has to show he's a good enough coach to make these things happen. He'll have to get better at managing the game. He will have to show us that his offense is dramatically better with experience and that the development of the defense late last year was no fluke. Kelly will have to motivate his team week in and week out so that duds like Navy and Tulsa don't happen.
If Kelly can get this team to believe they're better than anyone on their schedule, they just might be.