College Football 2011: 10 Bold Predictions for Notre Dame Football in 2011
Let's be honest: It's easy to get in front of a keyboard, radio mic or television camera and spout out predictions like "Andrew Luck will be a Heisman contender" or "Oregon is going to have an explosive running game."
It takes a real man to go out on a limb and make the long-shot prognostications for the upcoming season without sounding like he's crazy.
It's May and the crystal ball is still pretty foggy, but excuses are unacceptable, so I've got 10 long-shot predictions that could happen this fall.
Are they likely? No. Could they happen? You better believe it.
No. 10: Aaron Lynch Leads the Team in Sacks
Everyone's favorite early enrollee has already been pegged by many Irish fans to displace Ross Browner atop the pantheon of great defensive linemen. While only time will tell if he can approach the downright staggering productivity and dominance of Browner, he could start off by sprinting out of the gate in year one and leading the team in sacks.
Aaron Lynch wreaked havoc on seemingly every single play he was in during the spring game. Whether he hit the quarterback or forced a rushed throw, big No. 19 routinely made his presence felt.
Stretch Meter (1-10, 1=Sturdy Limb, 10=Huge Stretch): 6.5
Lynch is going to be limited to clear passing downs for much of year one and will patiently have to wait behind upperclassmen Kapron Lewis-Moore (who will have a breakout season) and Ethan Johnson. Guys like KLM and Darius Fleming will have much more opportunity to win the sack title by sheer volume of plays.
No. 9: Notre Dame Pitches Shutouts Against 2 Opponents
The last time the Irish pulled off this feat? The "Return to Glory" season nine years ago in Willingham's initial campaign (ND blanked Maryland and Rutgers). This fall, Notre Dame returns 10 starters from a defense that was dominant down the stretch in 2010.
Prudence would dictate aiming for just one shutout, but we're throwing caution to the wind here. Any team can randomly pitch a shutout even if the defense is normally horrendous (see: Notre Dame's abhorrently terrible Tenuta-led squad beating Nevada 35-0).
Put it in the books: A pair of opponents will fail to register on the scoreboard this fall as Diaco's squad takes the next step.
Stretch Meter: 8
The 2002 defense was one of the most dominant and clutch units in recent Irish history. Even though this year's defense possesses the potential to be great, it takes a big leap of faith to reach the conclusion that ND will shutout two teams.
No. 8: Manti Te'o Wins the Dick Butkus Award (Best Linebacker)
Te'o arrived on campus as a freshman essentially preordained a legend. His stiff-arm of Southern Cal in the 11th hour on national signing day provided a thrilling offseason victory for the Irish Faithful and brought elite talent to the center of the Notre Dame defense.
The Hawaiian native is a very smart player who has a penchant for delivering bone-rattling hits. He'll be entering his third season as a starter and will be listed as one of the preseason favorites for the Butkus Award. If he proves to be the anchor for one of the nation's top defenses, then he'll probably have some individual hardware to bring home to the Pacific Islands.
Stretch Meter: 5
This kid is in prime position to win the award. While he's the clear-cut favorite to win, he has the name recognition and the necessary exposure readily available to make a run at it.
No. 7: Gary Gray Is a Finalist for the Jim Thorpe Award (Best Defensive Back)
Gray has been much-maligned in certain Irish fan circles, but he cashed in a stellar effort last fall and was hands down the most consistent member of the secondary week in and week out.
He's been very much under the radar on the national scene, but this season he'll bust out in a big way and play himself into the first couple rounds of the draft in the meantime.
Stretch Meter: 8.5
Gray is on the verge of breaking through, but it takes some big, highlight-reel plays to make a legitimate run at the Thorpe. He hasn't created many of those to date so if he's been saving them up it'll be time to cash them.
No. 6: Cierre Wood Rushes for 1,000 Yards
Here's the easiest one to forecast out of this entire lot. Wood is the featured back this year and frankly, there aren't many other options. When ND runs the ball it will likely be in Wood's hands and running behind a veteran offensive line should mean plenty of creases.
Notre Dame hasn't had a 1,000-yard rusher since Darius Walker in 2006, which is the longest drought in almost 20 years and Brian Kelly isn't known for producing running backs that routinely net a lot of yards. That won't stop Wood from averaging close to 100 yards per game and breaking the 1,000-yard barrier prior to the final week of the regular season
Stretch Meter: 4
Wood will have ample opportunity if he can stay healthy. That durability will be put to the test due to lack of depth, but should he survive, then Wood will break the streak of years without a 1,000-yard back.
No. 5: Notre Dame Stomps Navy
Navy has defeated Notre Dame three of the last four years and nearly pulled off a miraculous comeback in the year they lost. Last season, the Mids completely manhandled the Irish en route to a convincing 35-17 victory. So why, you ask, would I predict a Notre Dame romp?
There are a few reasons.
First of all, it appeared that Bob Diaco figured out how to attack and smother the option late in the year as evidenced by the sound beating of Army in Yankee Stadium.
Secondly, the Mids lose a lot of key players including the heart and soul of their offense, Ricky Dobbs.
Lastly, Notre Dame is going to be out for blood after last year's embarrassment. No overlooking Navy this season; it's payback time.
Stretch Meter: 3
The Irish whipped Navy 43 consecutive years for a reason: The talent gap is usually incredibly large and when the coaching gap isn't severely tipped in Navy's favor, the Midshipmen are in deep trouble.
Well the coaching gap has closed and the talent gap is widening. Combine that with the fact that Brian Kelly will be under pressure to make a statement after last year's debacle and you've got the makings of a blowout in South Bend.
No. 4: Notre Dame Holds Denard Robinson Under 250 Yards
Last year, Denard Robinson's national coming-out party occurred in South Bend the second Saturday of September. That day he lit up the Irish for 258 yards on the ground and 244 yards through the air, setting a slew of records along the way.
This season will be a different story though. Gone is the spread-option attack that was tailor-made for Robinson's skill set. New Michigan coach Brady Hoke is trying to get Robinson to play more under center, an experiment that may eventually pay dividends but will more than likely curtail Denard's rushing statistics.
Look for the 'Nard Dog to have serious issues transitioning to the new scheme and the Irish defense to take advantage, slicing Robinson's total yards in half from last year.
Stretch Meter: 7
Robinson is an unbelievable talent and you can't think that Hoke will let Shoelace's running ability go to waste by trying to mold him into a passer. If he wants Robinson to sling it around more, then the ND defense will have a field day. If he builds in plenty of runs, then the Irish—like most teams—will have a tough time containing him.
No. 3: The Irish Will Post 50-Plus Points in a Game
Notre Dame has only broken the 50-point barrier twice since Lou Holtz left town. The first time was in Bob Davie's first year when the Irish posted 52 points against Boston College and the last time was in Willingham's only return to Palo Alto when he beat up on Stanford to the tune of 58-7.
While it's become a rarity to even hit the 40-point mark, that wasn't the case under Holtz. From '86 through '96, ND scored 50 points in at least one game every season except '91 and in that year, they scored between 45 and 49 four times.
Kelly's offense may still be working out the kinks, but there will come a game this season where it functions like the well-oiled machine it's capable of being and rolls over an opponent. Charlie Weis and Brian Kelly are the only Notre Dame coaches since Ara arrived in 1964 to not have one game where the offense put up 50 points. Kelly will remove his name from that list this year.
Stretch Meter: 2
An improved offense and an improved defense add up to more possessions and more points. The Irish will tee off on one opponent and the eight-year hiatus from the 50s will come to a close.
No. 2: Notre Dame Reaches the Top 5 in a Poll
I'm in no way expecting the Irish to run the table nor am I expecting them to finish in the Top Five, but there may come a point midseason where they poke their head in the Top 10 and then flirt with the very top tier.
In Holtz's second year, Notre Dame shot up to No. 4 in the polls after after a 3-0 start with wins over Michigan, Michigan State and Purdue. Depending on where Notre Dame starts in the preseason, it's not too far-fetched to say ND could pull off a similar stunt in late September.
If they can escape the first month of the season unscathed—something they've failed to do in every year except one (2002) since 1993—then they'll quickly be knocking on the door and may even be in the Top Five heading into their showdown under the lights of Notre Dame Stadium on October 22.
Stretch Meter: 8
Recent history says that the Irish will slip up against someone in September, which will make it almost completely impossible to break into the Top Five unless they run the table (a monster stretch).
No. 1: Notre Dame Lands on the Cover of Sports Illustrated
Sports Illustrated loves to jump the gun on declaring "Notre Dame is back!" almost as much as Notre Dame fans like to do it.
Why? Because it sells boatloads of magazines and makes for an interesting story, one they don't want to hold off until later in the year because they're not convinced the Irish will still be relevant.
If Notre Dame gets off to a hot start this season, look for SI to pull out the "Return to Glory" angle once again by the first of October.
Stretch Meter: 8.5
This is contingent on finding a way to get out of September without a blemish and quickly climbing into the Top 10. It'll take substantial progress early in the year and a reversal of recent trends to make it happen, but if ND pulls it off, the powers that be at SI will have an itchy trigger finger ready to hit print on the "Kelly's Heroes" front-page story.