The Irish prepare to kick off the season against South Florida
For the third time in four years, the Irish will start their season against a team they've never faced before in the school's storied history. Notre Dame defeated San Diego State in 2008 and Nevada in 2009, and this year the Bulls of South Florida will invade South Bend for the season opener.
The game will feature two head coaches trying to launch the second season with their respective teams on the right foot. With the Bulls considered a contender for the Big East conference title and Notre Dame starting the season ranked No. 16, the stakes will be relatively high for both sides.
To break down this unfamiliar face, here are the top 10 things to know about South Florida before Saturday's kickoff.
One of the biggest reasons that Notre Dame has never played South Florida is that the Bulls have only been a Division 1-A (or FBS or whatever) team since 2001. The program was a conference independent for its first two years before joining Conference USA. That stay was short as well; South Florida joined the Big East two years later and has been there ever since.
The relatively short existence has been a successful one. The Bulls football team has only endured one losing season of those 10 with a 4-7 record in 2004. The program has three nine win seasons to its record with four wins in six bowl appearances. The team finished 8-5 each of the last three years.
Bottom Line for ND: By almost all accounts, the Bulls have had a much better decade than the Irish.
South Florida finished the 2010 season with an 8-5 record, capping the year with an impressive 31-26 victory over Clemson in the Meineke Car Care Bowl behind first-year head coach Skip Holtz (yes, THAT Holz; more on that later).
The Bulls finished fifth in the lowly Big East with a 3-4 conference record, representative of the team's up-and-down season. Tough road wins at Louisville and local rival Miami were matched by home losses to Syracuse on homecoming weekend, to Pittsburgh and to Connecticut.
Bottom Line for ND: The team's inconsistency makes it difficult to get an accurate read on the 2011 version and how they will fare against the Irish.
South Florida has a relatively older team in terms of juniors and seniors, with a lot of redshirts as well, but those years don't necessarily translate into game experience. The Bulls only return around 10 starters combined for offense and defense.
Many of the new starters are upperclassmen but have yet to see many meaningful minutes on the field.
Bottom Line for ND: The first game of the season is always the toughest so if the Irish can cause confusion with their formations and attacks, they could induce the Bulls into more mistakes than usual.
The Bulls' bench goes much deeper on defense than it does on offense. All of the two deep in both the linebacking corps and secondary have at least two years of experience on the team, several with redshirt years.
The offense isn't as deep with experience, but there are no true freshmen on the two deep. Plus it never hurts when most of your lineup hails from talent rich Florida, where recruiting stars grow on trees.
Bottom Line for ND: South Florida may be less susceptible to being scared by The Echoes. There aren't any positions of obvious weakness to attack based on depth.
If there is one area of weakness for South Florida, it may be the offensive line. The Bulls have to replace three starters, including the right tackle position which will be manned by redshirt freshman Quinterrius Eatmon.
A road game at Notre Dame Stadium to open the season is a tough place to start developing chemistry.
Bottom Line for ND: This may present a good first opportunity to get the vaunted freshman defenders in a game to see what they can do.
The Bulls ranked in the Top 25 for run defense during 2010 and return much of the same linebacking corps that helped get them there.
The team did have to replace some players along the defensive line, but redshirt sophomore end Ryne Giddins is expected to be a big contributor. The secondary is experienced enough to lend run support in the Bulls traditional 4-3 scheme.
Bottom Line for ND: This will be a great test of Kelly's commitment to run the ball. If results aren't there early, will he keep plugging away or abandon for the pass?
Bulls quarterback B.J. Daniels enters 2011 with a lot of hype. He has the skills to be a dynamic dual threat passing and running the ball, but his execution and decision making in 2010 were suspect.
Daniels finished the season with 11 touchdown passes against 13 interceptions and a 58 percent completion percentage—not exactly the model of accuracy.
Bottom Line for ND: If they can hit him early, he's likely to be rattled for the rest of the game. But a player of his skill set always creates fear from his ability to make a big gain, especially on broken plays.
The Bulls did have some solid performances in big games away from home last year, most notably their three-point wins at Miami and Louisville plus the bowl win against Clemson.
However, in their highest profile game last year against Florida, despite going into the half with a 7-7 draw, they fell apart in the second half to lose 38-14.
Bottom Line for ND: The Irish need to show they can take a punch and still land a hay-maker if this game is going to be in hand by the fourth quarter.
Yes, this will be the story the media clings to with a death grip this week, especially ESPN for certain reasons...
Skip Holtz, son of legendary Irish head coach Lou Holtz and former Notre Dame assistant coach, will return to South Bend this time on the opposing sideline. He knows what the stakes are for this game and what a win on national television would do for his program. He has had all offseason and fall camp to prepare for this game.
Bottom Line for ND: This game will be a test of Holtz's talent, not pedigree. The game should be a close one, but if Kelly can engineer a convincing win it will provide strong support to the large expectations of the Irish this fall.
It's the seemingly unthinkable—Notre Dame's most visible and ardent supporter, Lou Holtz, told NBCsports.com that he will be cheering against the Irish this Saturday. For the stars to align in such a rare occurrence, South Florida will never again know more positive karma than this, and there will be no better chance to take advantage of it.
Bottom Line for ND: Hope that this rare agreement with a certain bespectacled co-commentator stupefies that commentator into silence for the rest of eternity.