College Football 2011: Would Notre Dame, Could Notre Dame Win It All?

Mike MuratoreCorrespondent IMay 16, 2011

College Football 2011: Would Notre Dame, Could Notre Dame Win It All?

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    LOS ANGELES, CA - NOVEMBER 27:  Head coach Brian Kelly and quarterback Tommy Rees #13 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish embrace after the game against the USC Trojans at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on November 27, 2010 in Los Angeles, California.  No
    Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

    This is quite premature. It's May. There is a lockout in the NFL. I'm boycotting the NBA. We're still two months away from training camps opening. Baseball is just getting started. There simply isn't a lot going on.

    College football is the beast that never sleeps these days. Recruiting is a 12-month-a-year endeavor, and there are endless polls, draft projections, bowl projections and coaches doing stupid things this time of year.

    A few years ago I'd be gearing up for another big NFL Europe matchup between the Scottish Claymores and the Amsterdam Admirals (I defy most of you to name two NFL Europe teams...yeah...I'm that football nuts). However, being that the Arena Football League is the only football going at the moment, why not take a look at the Irish, their schedule and wonder "what if?"

    Most are talking nine or 10 wins...and those are the haters. This team has promise and promises to be good. Defense is back, so is Michael Floyd and the Irish should be better in each phase of the game.

    So why not ask the question:

    Could they win it all?

    (Sorry about the title—I've been reading Dr. Seuss to my daughter a little too often lately.)

September 3: South Florida Bulls

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    CHARLOTTE, NC - DECEMBER 31:  Head coach Skip Holtz of the USF Bulls celebrates after a 31-26 victory over the Clemson Tigers at Bank of America Stadium on December 31, 2010 in Charlotte, North Carolina.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
    Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

    On the first Saturday in September Skip Holtz will bring his South Florida Bulls calling to open the season as double-digit underdogs at Notre Dame Stadium.

    Make no mistake: This isn't your father's South Florida. Come to think of it, unless you are very young, your father didn't HAVE a South Florida...they have yet to have their 20th anniversary. Still, this is a young team that made a little noise in the Big East a year ago, earning a win in the Meineke Car Car Bowl en route to an 8-5 finish.

    They will run an option-based spread that will challenge the corners of the Irish defense, and if Notre Dame doesn't protect the ball, it could end all title dreams early.

    What South Florida cannot do is match Notre Dame's size up front or speed at the skilled positions.

    Without the Irish sustaining self-inflicted wounds, this one should be remembered for the debut (at some point) of Andrew Hendrix rather than a fantastic finish.

September 10: At Michigan Wolverines

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    ANN ARBOR, MI - APRIL 16:  Head football coach Brady Hoke talks with Denard Robinson #16 during the annual Spring Game at Michigan Stadium on April 16, 2011 in Ann Arbor, Michigan.  (Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images)
    Leon Halip/Getty Images

    It's Michigan. In Ann Arbor. In prime time.

    Other than that and seeing Denard Robinson carry the ball about 35 times, no one knows exactly what to expect.

    Everything else about the program will look different as Brady Hoke tries to right the Wolverine ship.

    If the growth shown down the stretch last year continues through the offseason and into 2011, this should be an Irish romp.

    Limit Robinson and you slay the victors. Michigan still has little defense to speak of, and if the Irish offense is as advertised, the prime time debut of the redesigned and yet again expanded Big House should be spoiled.

September 17: Michigan State Spartans

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    ORLANDO, FL - JANUARY 01:  Andrew Maxwell #10 of the Michigan State Spartans passes the ball during the Capitol One Bowl against the Alabama Crimson Tide at the Florida Citrus Bowl on January 1, 2011 in Orlando, Florida.  (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Imag
    Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

    Always in perfect position for a letdown, in comes Sparty.

    All the attention always goes to the ND-Michigan tilt, but for me this one is most anticipated. Since 2005, has there been a more hotly contested series? Comebacks, overtime, fake field goals...

    I think this one goes down to the wire as well. Michigan State returns the core of its team from a year ago that saw Sparty roll to an 11-1 mark before absorbing a beating in the Capital One Bowl.

    Sparty always plays the Irish tough, and despite Notre Dame seeking revenge this year, I think this is one of the tougher games on the schedule.

September 24: Pittsburgh Panthers

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    PITTSBURGH, PA  - JANUARY 11:  The new University of Pittsburgh head football coach Todd Graham speaks to the media during a press conference at the University of Pittsburgh Panthers South Side training facility on January 11, 2011 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylv
    Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

    The University of Pittsburgh football program has recently concluded a rather surreal offseason following an 8-5 campaign that ended with a BBVA Compass Bowl appearance.

    Dave Wannstedt was fired, Mike Haywood hired and then fired following domestic violence charges.

    Todd Graham of Tulsa fame was then hired.

    Pittsburgh is not a program in shambles by any stretch. It did lose its best players to the NFL draft, unfortunately.

    Still, Graham is used to doing more with less. His Tulsa squads were consistent winners. It was only last year that he brought his Golden Hurricane to South Bend and walked away with a gift in the form of an interception-sealed victory.

    Don't think that he won't find more talent in Pittsburgh than he had in Tulsa.

    It is still quite likely that it is too early on in the rebuild and the offense will sputter without Tino Sunseri being able to lob it long for Jonathan Baldwin.

October 1: At Purdue Boilermakers

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    COLUMBUS, OH - OCTOBER 23:  Quarterback Sean Robinson #10 of the Purdue Boilermakers drops back to pass against the Ohio State Buckeyes at Ohio Stadium on October 23, 2010 in Columbus, Ohio.  (Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)
    Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

    The Purdue game should be Notre Dame's easiest of the season so far. The 2011 Boilermakers should find a greater talent disparity with the Irish than did the squad of a year ago that dropped an opening day contest at South Bend on the way to a 4-8 finish.

    Purdue is also the first team on the Irish schedule that did not appear in a bowl last season.

October 8: Air Force Falcons

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    LAS VEGAS - NOVEMBER 18:  The Air Force Falcons mascot The Bird performs during the team's game against the UNLV Rebels at Sam Boyd Stadium November 18, 2010 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Air Force won 35-20.  (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
    Ethan Miller/Getty Images

    What is it about military academies and the triple option?

    Notre Dame gets its first look in 2011 at the multiple-option offense when Air Force comes to wrap the first half of the season.

    This game should look much like the Army game of 2010. Air Force is talented, but the Irish are faster and stronger and should be able to wear out the Falcon defense and slow the offense enough to earn victory.

    Still, Notre Dame will have to play clean football, as field position will matter. Also, hopefully Brian Kelly has learned that against an effective wishbone attack, time of possession is key.

October 15: Open Date

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    NEW YORK - NOVEMBER 20: Robert Hughes #33 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish celebrates his touchdown with teammates agianst the Army Black Knights at Yankee Stadium on November 20, 2010 in the Bronx borough of New York City.  (Photo by Nick Laham/Getty Ima
    Nick Laham/Getty Images

    This year the "bye" date comes at the midpoint. Time to rest, time to heal and time to prepare for a second half that opens with a visit from USC.

    Of first-half opponents, on paper Notre Dame should be favored against all except for Michigan State. Of course, you could certainly say that about last season's Navy and Tulsa games.

    Only Purdue in the first half is a "gimmie" where Notre Dame should be in command from start to finish. The other five will at some point (even if early) be in doubt.

    At the midpoint, it will certainly be clear as to whether the Irish are in fact title contenders.

October 22: USC Trojans

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    LOS ANGELES - NOVEMBER 27:  Wide receiver Ronald Johnson #83 of the USC Trojans carries ball against safety Zeke Motta #17 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on November 27, 2010 in Los Angeles, California.   (Photo by S
    Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

    Sure, the Trojans are on suspension.

    Sure, Lane Kiffin is the coach.

    Sure, they were only 8-5 last year.

    BUT IT IS USC.

    Notre Dame (with a little help from a soggy ball and a butterfingered USC receiver) snapped the second-longest streak in the series last year and should be the favorite at home this year.

    BUT IT IS USC.

    If the stars align and Notre Dame comes into this game 6-0 and wins...it would be the most significant win since the 1993 win over Florida State.

    This year the Irish will have to contend with Matt Barkley under center, but if the defense can stymie the USC ground game as it did last year, an Irish victory is probable.

October 29: Naval Academy Midshipmen

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    EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ - OCTOBER 23: John Howell #33 of the Navy Midshipmen rushes against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish at New Meadowlands Stadium on October 23, 2010 in East Rutherford, New Jersey.  (Photo by Nick Laham/Getty Images)
    Nick Laham/Getty Images

    Navy is 3-1 over the last four years against Notre Dame.

    Let that sink in.

    Navy will come to South Bend with its usual array of tight ends and fullbacks, but without Ricky Dobbs.

    If Note Dame doesn't beat Navy by at least 17, this article is pointless, and I am sorry for wasting everyone's time!

    Beating Navy is one of those things that Notre Dame shouldn't think about. It should just be.

November 5: At Wake Forrest Demon Deacons

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    30 Sep 1995:  Quarterback Rusty LaRue of Wake Forest hands the football off during a 35-17 loss to the University of Virginia at Scott Stadium in Virginia.  Mandatory Credit:  Doug Pensinger/Allsport
    Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

    The Wake Forest trip should be Notre Dame's second (and last) easy win of the year. Wake is simply not a very good football team at this point. It is a bottom-end ACC team that finished 3-9 last season.

    A year ago it lost games by 44, 31, 30, 38, 35 and 20 points.

    Should be academic after halftime. Tommy Rees and Andrew Hendrix should expect to get some on-field time.

Novermber 12: Maryland Terrapins at FedEx Field in Landover, MD

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    COLLEGE PARK, MD - JANUARY 3:  Randy Edsall speaks as he is introduced as the University of Maryland Terps new head football coach during a press conference on January 3, 2011 at the Byrd Stadium in College Park, Maryland.  (Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty
    Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

    The Irish's now annual "neutral" site game will be played in Landover, Maryland against a team that makes its home just 15 miles away in College Park.

    Randy Edsall, who earned an overtime victory the year before last at South Bend while at the helm of the Connecticut football program, is now in charge at Maryland.

    The Terps, or Terrapins, or Turtles feature a promising sophomore QB in Danny O'Brien. The team finished strong a year ago, winning the Military Bowl and ending 9-4.

    In what amounts to a home game, Maryland will be tough to tame in front of 90,000 at FedEx Field.

November 19: Boston College Eagles

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    SAN FRANCISCO, CA - JANUARY 09:  Chase Rettig #7 of Boston College in action against the Nevada Wolf Pack in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl at AT&T Park on January 9, 2011 in San Francisco, California.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
    Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

    Boston College rallied a year ago following the Notre Dame loss, scratching to a 7-5 mark before falling to Nevada in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl.

    The Eagles are young and improving, and only that keeps this one out of the easy win category.

    How much they will improve over the course of the next year is anyone's guess...

    But given history, if somehow Notre Dame enters this game 11-0 and ranked No. 1 or No. 2, how safe will any of us feel?

    Isn't it ALWAYS Boston College?

November 26: Stanford Cardinal

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    MIAMI, FL - JANUARY 03:  Andrew Luck #12 of the Stanford Cardinal throws pass against the Virginia Tech Hokies during the 2011 Discover Orange Bowl at Sun Life Stadium on January 3, 2011 in Miami, Florida. Stanford won 40-12. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty
    Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

    Palo Alto. At night. Andrew Luck's last game and finish to what could be a Heisman campaign.

    Stanford lost many key components to the NFL last year, most importantly head coach Jim Harbaugh. It is unknown if Stanford will be as physical as it was a year ago, when it wore the Irish down on the way to a 37-14 win.

    Stanford promises to be a solid unit, although maybe not as strong as a year ago. Improvement as expected from the Irish squad should narrow the gap and should make the game very exciting.

    Each team could enter the game with or looking for double-digit wins, and the game could punch a ticket to a BCS game, if not the national championship.

...Then?

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    SOUTH BEND, IN - NOVEMBER 13: Players from the Notre Dame Fighting Irish celebrate with fans after a win over the Utah Utes at Notre Dame Stadium on November 13, 2010 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame defeated Utah 28-3. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty I
    Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

    In all honesty, it is hard to place a true prediction on this team. How much will guys like Prince Shembo and Manti Te'o be able to improve? How much will Ishaq Williams and Aaron Lynch contribute?

    Michael Floyd will be back (believe me, he will), but who else can be a go-to receiver?

    Can Cierre Wood stay healthy? Running back is a little thin.

    Looking at what the team lost last year and what is coming back to replace them, one can't help but expect the Irish to build on last year's finish.

    With a tough but not terrible schedule ahead and more talent on the field (especially on defense) than at any time since Lou Holtz spit all over side judges at Notre Dame Stadium, the sky is the limit for this squad.

    So is it possible that Brian Kelly bucks the trend that each Notre Dame coach who has won a national title first did so in his third season?

    A quick look at next year's schedule gives the answer:

    I hope so!