It's Christmas come early for college football fans as the opening kickoff quickly approaches.
And for the Irish faithful, after tallying off four straight wins in convincing fashion to conclude the 2010 season, the countdown to September 3 began on New Year's Eve several months ago.
While most college football powerhouses are preoccupied with cupcake squads from the FCS (with a few exceptions the past few seasons), Notre Dame squares off against a tough USF team coming off an 8-5 season, and led by junior quarterback B.J. Daniels, one of the most experienced signal callers in the Big East Conference.
The Irish have several notable playmakers of their own on both offense and defense heading into the 2011 season. Senior quarterback Dayne Crist leads the Irish offense after suffering a season-ending knee injury for the second straight season, and will have one of the best receivers in all of college football as his primary target in senior wideout Michael Floyd. Junior linebacker Manti Te'o also returns to South Bend this fall after recording a team-high 133 tackles last season.
Many football pundits are predicting how the Irish will fare over the course of the season, and these same experts are intrigued by the first game of the season on Notre Dame's schedule.
To add to the already prevalent speculation, here's a breakdown of the Notre Dame matchup against USF, and which team has an advantage at each position...
In terms of depth, the Irish know that they have a unique mixture of talent and some playing experience if senior quarterback Dayne Crist struggles mightily in the season opener, or if he, God forbid, goes down with his third injury in just three seasons.
Crist’s cannon arm and Rees’ solid late-season performance in 2010, characterized by consistent play and four straight wins to end the year, give Notre Dame a slight edge in this department. Add to the formula the raw athleticism of backups Everett Golson and Andrew Hendrix, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see second-year Irish head coach Brian Kelly utilize his offensive weapons in convincing fashion early in the year.
All of the previous praises over the Notre Dame quarterback unit should not take any focus away from USF junior quarterback B.J. Daniels.
Although Daniels’ statistics would lead one to conclude that the junior is inconsistent and often makes questionable decisions, as evident by his 13 interceptions just a year ago, he showed substantial progress over the latter half of the 2010 season, throwing seven touchdowns and just three interceptions during the last six games, including a 31-26 win over Clemson in the Meineke Bowl.
Daniels’ 22 games as a starter also gives him an advantage against most opponents with regards to playing experience.
Nonetheless, the Irish quarterbacks will prove to be better coached and more reliable during the first game.
On paper, neither the Irish nor the Bulls have a distinct advantage at the running back position.
South Florida’s returning rushing leader, junior Demetris Murray, ran for 542 yards and 4 touchdowns in 2010.
On a similar note, the returning rushing leader for Notre Dame, junior Cierre Wood, ran for 603 yards and 3 touchdowns last season. Both tailbacks carried the ball 121 and 119 times, respectively, in 2010, and both hope to see their numbers increase significantly in 2011.
For Murray, however, such high aspirations may prove difficult to achieve.
Also vying for the starting position is junior Darrell Scott, who transferred from Colorado and was forced to sit out last season due to NCAA rules. Scott, who was considered by many to be the top running back prospect in the Class of 2007, ran for 343 yards and one touchdown as a freshman at Colorado in 2008, and hasn’t seen much action on the field since.
There is much depth and potential for the Bulls at this position, but it has yet to be seen whether or not that equates into productivity.
A similar story could be told about Notre Dame’s offensive backfield. Wood came out of high school as a highly sought after recruit, and luckily chose South Bend over a myriad of other schools. However, Wood has yet to produce a compelling performance, having never eclipsed the 100-yard mark in a single game.
That being said, there are several signs that may foreshadow a breakout season for the young back. For example, in 2010, Wood recorded 15 plays of 20 yards or more, accumulated 1,073 all-purpose yards, and averaged just over 5 yards per carry on his 119 touches.
Wood’s backup, senior Jonas Gray, who has had a relatively disappointing career thus far, has a massive amount of potential, similar to Darrell Scott from USF.
Although both schools averaged less than 150 yards per game on the ground in 2010, and it seems difficult to see this matchup as being won on the ground, there is plenty of comparable talent on each team at this position.
Candidly put, South Florida does not have anyone comparable to Irish wideout Michael Floyd in their receiving corps.
The 6’3” senior, who hauled in 79 catches for 1,025 yards and 12 touchdowns in 2010, is a pre-season favorite for the Biletnikoff Award, and has only continued to show improvement in each of the past three seasons.
To make things even worse for the USF secondary in Week One, the Irish return a plethora of receivers who saw playing time last fall, including Theo Riddick, T.J. Jones, and junior tight end Tyler Eifert. These three sure-handed targets combined for 90 catches and 1,072 yards receiving in 2010, along with 8 touchdowns. Starting quarterback Dayne Crist will have plenty of downfield options to choose from during the opening game.
The Bulls, on the other hand, will start two receivers who did not record a single stat from the 2010 season due to injuries.
Sixth-year senior A.J. Love and sophomore Sterling Griffin both missed the entire duration of last season, as Love suffered an ACL tear and Griffin was recovering from a dislocated ankle.
The one player on this unit for USF that saw action last fall is junior tight end Evan Landi, who recorded 28 receptions for 390 yards and two touchdowns in 2010.
Michael Floyd alone is enough to give the Irish an enormous advantage at the receiver position. Unfortunately for USF, Floyd is further complemented by several players who will make a name for themselves by the time their careers are over in South Bend.
While Bulls head coach Skip Holtz has expressed some concern regarding the experience of his offensive line, the Irish have plenty of depth and talent on their front five.
The Irish return starters at both tackles and at center. Right guard Trevor Robinson is also back for his senior season.
Left guard Chris Watt, who spent the 2010 season as the backup for graduated lineman Chris Stewart, played in all 13 games last fall for the Irish. Watt holds much promise, especially after being one of the top lineman in the 2009 recruiting class, while earning many accolades along the way.
The junior from Glen Ellyn, IL should have little difficulty in adjusting to a starting role on an already solid offensive line unit.
The interior line for the Bulls has some experience, particularly seniors Jeremiah Warren and Chaz Hine.
The biggest question mark revolves around redshirt freshman Quinterrius Eatmon, the 6’6”, 301-pound right tackle who will make his first collegiate start on Saturday. Although Eatmon was a successful high school lineman, leading his high school team to the 5A state title in Alabama, he isn’t yet fully accustomed to the speed of the college game, and the Irish will surely try to exploit his lack of playing time.
Football games are often won in the trenches, and although the Bulls have some notable starters on the offensive line, the Irish are much deeper and more proven.
The 3-4 defense at Notre Dame became more solidified as the 2010 season progressed, in part due to the front three.
Seniors Ethan Johnson and Kapron Lewis-Moore return at the end positions, both of whom have established themselves as elite defensive players throughout their tenure in South Bend.
Junior defensive tackle Sean Cwynar will get the start in the first game against USF over freshman Louis Nix III. Cwynar started the final four games for Notre Dame in 2010, and recorded 33 tackles throughout the season.
Nix will certainly see the field, as his large 6’3”, 340 pound frame, if utilized appropriately, will plug up running lanes in a hurry.
Freshman Aaron Lynch, who was dominant in the Blue-Gold Spring Game back in April, will also more than likely see action during his first game in an Irish uniform.
Cory Grissom is the only returning starter on this unit for USF. The junior defensive tackle recorded 16 tackles and one sack in 2010, and hopes to improve now that he has some experience under his belt. The starters on the front four, all of whom saw time last fall, combined for 69 total tackles in 2010.
This unit will certainly not be the best defensive front the Irish offensive line will face all year.
One surprising headline out of South Bend was the emergence of junior linebacker Dan Fox over Carlo Calabrese atop the depth chart.
Calabrese, who recorded 60 tackles in 2010, was the favorite heading into training camp, but the coaches in South Bend clearly saw something in Fox over the course of the past several weeks.
Fox, who was primarily a special teams player last season, tallied 20 tackles as a sophomore, and will split time with Calabrese, as it seems this position battle will last well into the season.
The most intimidating individual on the Irish defense, however, is junior linebacker Manti Te’o, who managed to record an team-leading 133 tackles as a sophomore, and is considered by many as the best linebacker in college football.
Assisting Te’o and Fox will be senior linebacker Darius Fleming, who had six sacks last fall, and sophomore outside linebacker Prince Shembo, who was primarily on the field in the nickel package in 2010.
Although the Bulls lack the big-name players such as Te’o and Fleming, the USF linebacker corps is loaded with talent, and was a major reason why the Bulls ranked 17th in total defense just one year ago.
Junior mike linebacker Sam Barrington started 11 games for USF last fall, and posted a career-high 65 tackles. Now that he is the undisputable starter in the middle of this defense, his numbers will more than likely improve this season once again.
Outside sophomore linebacker DeDe Lattimore started 12 games for the Bulls in 2010 as a freshman, and his 69 tackles led him to be named to the Rivals.com Freshman All-American team.
The depth chart for Week One at the linebacker position favors the Irish, but it is a lot closer than many people may assume.
The Irish faithful were relieved when learning that safety Harrison Smith would return for a fifth season after posting impressive numbers in 2010, when the current Irish captain made 93 tackles and seven interceptions, and became an Irish favorite when he picked off USC quarterback Mitch Mustain at the one-yard line with less than a minute to go in the game to give Notre Dame the win over the rival Trojans.
Cornerback Gary Gray, also a fifth-year senior on the Irish roster, started every game for Notre Dame in 2010, and brings even more experience to an Irish secondary already rich in that aspect.
Senior safety Jamoris Slaughter will get the nod over junior Zeke Motta in Week One, although the two will be virtually interchangeable on defense throughout the season.
The presence of senior cornerback Robert Blanton also adds an element of physical toughness to the Irish secondary, as Blanton, who stands at 6’1” and 200 pounds, was able to record 52 tackles and 7 tackles for loss in 2010.
The Bulls’ secondary is, like its linebacker unit, irrefutably solid, yet remains well under the radar, especially considering the fact that USF returns three starters to a secondary that helped the team rank 24th nationally in pass defense in 2010.
Senior safety Jerrell Young had a career-high 41 tackles last season, and was able to snag three interceptions, including a pick with five seconds remaining against Miami (FL) that would otherwise have given the Hurricanes a chance to win the game with a field goal.
Senior cornerback Quenton Washington also returns to the Bulls secondary after a breakthrough game against Clemson in the Meineke Car Care Bowl, where he recorded five tackles, an interception, and a blocked punt en route to a 31-26 win over the Tigers.
Both offenses will put the ball in the air, giving each secondary an opportunity to showcase its abilities early. The USF defensive backs have proven they can hang with almost anyone, but the amount of skills within the Irish receiving corps, coupled with the impressive arm of quarterback Dayne Crist, may serve as a learning experience for the Bulls.
On paper, the Irish boast a clear advantage over USF in almost every single category on both sides of the ball. The wonderful thing about sports, however, and in particular college football, is that the best team in theory does not always come out with on top.
This first matchup is indeed a statement game for the Irish, as it could potentially set the tone for the remainder of the season. It will also be an important game in terms of analyzing the decision-making capabilities of Irish head coach Brian Kelly.
Recent developments in South Bend show on the Week One depth chart, most notably at quarterback and linebacker, with Dayne Crist and Dan Fox getting the start in the first game of the season. While it will be easy to alternate between Fox and Carlo Calabrese at linebacker, all eyes will be on Crist and how he responds to two-straight seasons ending in knee injuries. The Bulls will test his durability early in the game.
Fortunately for the Irish, Michael Floyd was cleared to play after offseason incidents that almost jeopardized his return this fall. While USF had one of the top passing defenses in the country in 2010, they never saw a player with as much natural ability and increased skill that Floyd now possesses heading into his final season at Notre Dame.
The Irish defense, which made significant strides in the right direction towards the end of last season, will face one of the most athletic quarterbacks in the country in B.J. Daniels. This will be a great way for the defense to practice against a quarterback who can move around, and should prepare the Irish for their Week Two matchup against Michigan and lightning-fast quarterback Denard Robinson.
Because it is the first game of the 2011 season, both teams may struggle to establish an effective offense early on, but the talent of the Irish will eventually become manifest as the game progresses. And the Notre Dame defense will continue where it left off last season with physical, dominating play.
Make It: Notre Dame 34, USF 16