Notre Dame Football 2011: Top 10 Risks to a 9-Win Season or Better
Preseason predictions and expectations for college football teams are not unlike the beer goggles effect. Fans get buzzed listening to coaches and players talk about all the promise and potential shown in training camp and any dissenting voices on the echo chambers of fan message boards are abused into silence.
For Notre Dame, the possibility of winning nine or more games and appearing in a BCS bowl for the first time in five years is enough of a happy thought to plug the ears to any other possibility no matter how remote.
But Irish fans, more than about any other, should know a thing or two about disappointment. Each of the last four coaches duped them with a taste of success only to have a highly-regrettable walk of shame the next morning.
So at the risk of being a Debbie Downer and a complete buzz-kill to kick off game week, here are the top 10 potholes that could put a flat tire in Irish BCS bowl aspirations.
10. Inability of Defense to Get into Backfield
Notre Dame's defense finished the 2010 season on a positive note as the primary catalyst to the four-game winning streak to end the Irish season, averaging less than 10 points per game allowed over that stretch.
Yet, the defense still finished the season ranked 59th and 84th in sacks per game and tackles for loss per game respectively.
If the Irish are to maintain their defensive prowess for an entire season, those numbers will need to drastically improve.
The Notre Dame secondary is thin and will need as much help from the front seven as it can get.
9. Unimproved Special Teams Play
Few things were more predictable last season than the white flag of John Goodman's raised arm calling for a fair catch on a punt return. If the Irish are to make a serious run at a BCS bowl, they must improve their special teams play to be a weapon rather than just not-a-problem.
Place kicker David Ruffer needs to continue his field goal brilliance and iron out those missed extra point kinks (he missed three last year). All other facets of special teams—kick return, punt return, and punting—were anything but special. The Irish were in the 20 worst teams in average punting yardage and only recorded 10 touch backs on kickoffs the entire season.
Theo Riddick may inject some excitement to the return duties, but he will need to channel some Tom Zbikowski elusiveness as his lack of breakaway speed may produce only average results.
8. Underrated Opponents
What Notre Dame's schedule lacks in rankings punch (only Stanford and Michigan State are consensus preseason Top 25 teams) it makes up for in uncertainty.
Seven other teams—South Florida, Michigan, Pittsburgh, Air Force, Southern Cal, Navy and Maryland—went to a bowl game last season (oops, sorry Trojans) with all but Michigan winning at least eight games. Three of these teams—Michigan, Pittsburgh and Maryland—have new head coaches, making their performance even more difficult to predict.
Most of these teams could fall anywhere on the spectrum between amazing and awful, and Notre Dame has had a way in recent years of bringing out the best in other teams.
7. Lack of Player Leadership
One of the hallmarks of a great team is the presence of strong team leaders, not just from the coaches, but from the players.
It's always difficult to see the inner workings of a team, but it's unclear to the public who are the leaders on the team that will not just play at a high level themselves but bring their teammates along for the ride.
There are some obvious candidates on both sides of the ball, including Harrison Smith, Manti Te'o and Dayne Crist, but leadership is not something easily earned.
6. Dayne Crist's Knees
Last year, it was one knee. Now, it's both.
This risk would be a lot more important if the steady hand of Tommy Rees weren't waiting on the sidelines. Nevertheless, it still takes the wind out of a team's sails to see its starting quarterback go down, and any additional knee injury Crist might suffer would likely be a season-ending one.
Much of the responsibility for mitigating this risk falls on the offensive line and its ability to keep Crist's jersey clean and his knees untouched.
It will be a veteran line, but even one slip up could cost Crist another season.
5. Cornerback Injuries
Cornerback is the thinnest position on the team in terms of experience drop-off from the starters to the bench.
Gary Gray and Robert Blanton both showed great improvement last year, but behind them are the untested (sophomore Lo Wood) and the unfamiliar (converted wide receiver Bennett Jackson).
If either Gray or Blanton go down, it will be pretty obvious at which side of the field opposing quarterback will be looking. The defensive front seven can certainly help this situation (see risk No. 10), but the Irish can ill afford to have a banged up secondary.
4. Jonas Gray Fumbles
Few doubt Jonas Gray's physical abilities. At 5'10" and over 230 lbs.
Gray is built like a Hummer that can knock over a light pole and then hit the gas to flee the scene. The problem for Gray is his tendency to drop his important cargo during the getaway.
Too many fumbles have prevented Gray from showcasing more of his physical abilities, and if he expects to be the reliable backup to Cierre Wood that the Irish so desperately need that problem must be cured.
If he can't, the Irish have only two freshmen at the running back position, and the Irish can't afford to have that much inexperience at such a key position. The inability to pick up blitzes will greatly increase the probability of risk No. 6.
3. Michael Floyd Relapse
Few things are a greater distraction to a team than a star player in trouble with the law.
Following his drunk driving arrest this past offseason and near dismissal from the University, Floyd needs to be smart in several aspects this yearnot just on the field where he should excel, but his celebrations of those successes off the field.
If he does, he can redeem himself to his team with the wins that will follow and secure his place in the Notre Dame record books.
2. Forgetting the Lessons of 2010
Not kicking the field goal against Michigan.
The complete absence of toughness against Stanford.
Getting steamrolled by Navy.
The interception against Tulsa.
Brian Kelly learned the hard way what the formula for success looks like at Notre Dame—a stout defense and an effective running game.
Both of those things can coexist with his vaunted passing attack, but the passing game alone is not enough. These are the lessons Charlie Weis refused to learn, and if Kelly shows the same short term memory, the results will be familiar.
1. No Killer Instinct
The Irish no longer have the element of surprise on their side. They are back in the Top 25, and if that is where they want to stay, they need to hone their killer instinct.
This will take the form of convincing wins against the teams they should beat and taking advantage of opportunities against the better teams.
At the end of the season, if this has taken hold, the Irish will be in a BCS bowl with a point differential over 100 and no more than three losses.
If it doesn't take hold, there will be big questions to answer in South Bend.