The recent preseason rankings placed the Notre Dame football team in the Top 20, but the ceiling for this 2011 Irish team is much higher than that. In order for the team to live up to that hype, individual players will need to perform beyond their current expectations.
Think back to the most recent Irish team that surprised with great individual performers. (Okay, so it takes a lot of thinking.) In 2005, Brady Quinn, Maurice Stovall, Jeff Samardzija and Tom Zbikowski emerged as legitimate stars. There are similar examples of individual excellence on every great team.
In 2011, with lofty expectations in Brian Kelly's second year and dare-we-hope-for-it whispers of a BCS berth, these are the top 10 Irish players who need to elevate their games to make January bowling a reality.
Until the last few games of 2010, Harrison Smith was a long-time goat at the back of the Irish secondary (the dumb penalty against Pitt in 2008, the slip on the fake field goal against Michigan State and the near last-second touchdown against USC in 2010).
But in that same game against the Trojans, Smith turned it around, grabbing the game-clinching interception and then snagging three more against Miami in the Sun Bowl.
Notre Dame will need him to lead by example in a thin secondary this year, showing more of the good and less of the goat.
The Great Quarterback Battle of 2011 is over (for now), but Rees is by no means out of the picture. Starter Dayne Crist is playing on not one but two gimpy knees and his latest injury wasn't even on contact.
Rees showed very clearly the value of having a quality backup on-call, and he's good enough to keep Crist out of complacency and still checking his rear-view mirror. With the third- and fourth-string quarterbacks still too raw to see significant game action, the importance of Rees' development can't be understated.
Stephon Tuitt, Aaron Lynch, Ishaq Williams—these are the names opposing quarterbacks will have echoing in their ears in the next few years as they stagger back to the sideline.
None of them will have a starting position to open the season, but as the season goes on they will push for one. If they can make their presence felt when they do see the field, mostly likely in obvious passing downs, opposing offenses will have to deal with an entirely different wrinkle.
Riddick has the potential to be a poor man's Golden Tate with his ability to chew up yards from multiple positions, general elusiveness and the same "This is me jumping into your band" cajones.
Michael Floyd is going to see plenty of double teams this year and the Irish need another receiving weapon to keep defenses honest. Kelly turned Mardy Gilyard into a star at Cincinnati, and Riddick fits that exact same mold.
Gray is trying to avoid becoming yet another discarded 4-star recruit that litter the college football streets of disappointment. He has the potentially devastating physical qualities of a bruiser back with speed, but thus far has been held back by an inability to take care of the ball and poor blitz pickup.
Alabama showed just how effective two great tailbacks can be with Marc Ingram and Trent Richardson. While Cierre Wood and Gray aren't that talented, the Irish will need an effective backup running back, as the depth chart gets pretty green on the third and fourth strings.
"Aloha" means both "hello" and "goodbye," and that is a fitting mantra for Notre Dame's monster Hawaiian middle linebacker.
Te'o has shown increasing flashes of dominance over the last two years, and if he can realize consistency game-in and game-out, this will be his breakout season. Few things are more disruptive to an offense than a truly dominant middle linebacker, and if the Irish are going to continue the defensive dominance at the end of 2010, Te'o must be the cornerstone.
Will he do it? Is "humuhumunukunukuapua'a" hard to spell?
Who better to clear Te'o's path to the quarterback than the steamroller known as Louis Nix? Nix was a miracle recruit commitment as Charlie Weis was cleaning out his office, and this eclipse of a defensive tackle figures to make a big impact—assuming he doesn't eat his way out of the 2-deep.
Nix's biggest challenge to staying on the field and consuming offensive linemen will be to watch his equatorial belt size. If he starts to stray above the 330-pound mark, he won't have the stamina to see more than a few plays per game.
The heir apparent to Jimmy Clausen has a lot of hype in his ear. Like Clausen, Crist was a top quarterback recruit out of California and projected to be another Golden Boy. Following a season that saw him receiving more than a few earfuls from his head coach, this year is his chance for redemption.
Kelly's offense traditionally has leaned very heavily on its quarterback, and Kelly admitted that he put too much weight on Crist's shoulders last year. If Crist is up to the challenge this year, he could turn the Irish into BCS contenders.
There will be no shortage of redemption stories on the Notre Dame offense in 2011. Floyd nearly found himself dismissed from the football team and the University following a drunk driving arrest in the spring. He has since been reinstated, and he stated that he wants to be the best receiver in college football.
To make good on that goal, Floyd must find another gear in his play. Up to this point, he relied largely on his great hands and size to be a good receiver. Now he must find a way, make a way, to be the best. He's been largely quiet since his reinstatement, and it would be best for him and the Irish if he let his play do the talking.
Most of the talk during fall camp surrounded the quarterbacks, but the real key to Notre Dame's season is the progress of Cierre Wood. When the running game clicked at the end of 2010 like it did against USC and Miami, the Irish could still win with a true freshman quarterback.
The emergence of Wood as a consistent threat at tailback would make so many other things easier. It would take the pressure (both metaphorical and defensive) off of Crist. It would allow Floyd and Riddick to run unencumbered through the secondary. Wood is the key to the offense and Kelly should not forget the lessons learned at the end of 2010.
If the Irish are going to make noise in the BCS in 2011, Wood will be the one leading the charge.