Kickoff is almost here
The wait is almost over. Notre Dame's chase for a BCS berth and South Florida's quest for national validation all start Saturday afternoon in South Bend.
A lot of ink has been spilled about these teams and their potential, but it's time to put pencils down, heads up and let the play on the field do the talking.
Here are the key items to know heading in the Bulls-Irish clash.
There are plenty of new faces on both sides of the ball to take the first snap of the game for the Bulls, but key returnees at quarterback and linebacker will maintain core stability.
QB: B.J. Daniels (red-shirt junior)
RB: Demetrius Murray (red-shirt junior)
WR: A.J. Love (red shirt senior), Sterling Griffin (red-shirt sophomore), Joel Miller (senior)
TE: Evan Landri (junior)
OL (left to right): Mark Popek (red-shirt junior), Jeremiah Warren (red-shirt senior), Chaz Hine (red-shirt senior), Danous Estenor (junior), Quinterrius Eatmon (red-shirt freshman)
DL: Ryne Giddins (red-shirt sophomore), Cory Grissom (red-shirt junior), Keith McCaskill (red-shirt senior), Patrick Hampton (red-shirt senior)
LB: Reshard Cliett (red-shirt freshman), Sam Barrington (junior), DeDe Lattimore (red-shirt sophomore)
S: Jon Lejiste (red-shirt junior), Jerrell Young (red-shirt senior)
CB: Kayvon Webster (junior), Quenton Washington (red-shirt senior)
PK: Maikon Bonani
P: Justin Brockhaus-Kann
A few new names are sprinkled through out the list of starters, but this is largely the same group from 2010, including most key positions. The team boasts a wealth of experience, with only one underclassman starter each on offense and defense. The only question is just how much growth they will show in year two under head coach Brian Kelly.
QB: Dayne Crist (senior)
RB: Cierre Wood (junior)
WR: Michael Floyd (senior), T.J. Jones (sophomore), Theo Riddick (junior)
TE: Tyler Eifert (junior)
OL (left to right): Zack Martin (junior), Chris Watt (junior), Braxton Cave (senior), Trevor Robinson (senior), Taylor Dever (senior)
DL: Ethan Johnson (senior), Sean Cwynar (senior), Kapron Lewis-Moore (senior)
LB: Darius Fleming (senior), Dan Fox (junior), Manti Te'o (junior), Prince Shembo (sophomore)
S: Harrison Smith (senior), Jamoris Slaughter (senior)
CB: Gary Gray (senior), Robert Blanton (senior)
PK: David Ruffer
P: Ben Turk
South Florida was not known for its offensive firepower in 2010, but dual-threat quarterback B.J Daniels finally will be more familiar with the offense he operates. Of course, the last time the Irish defense saw this type of mobile-but-inaccurate quarterback, safety Harrison Smith had a field day to the tune of three interceptions in the Sun Bowl against Jacory Harris and Miami.
The rest of the Bulls offense is an unknown quantity. One of the many Bulls newcomers includes backup running back Darrell Scott, formerly a top-rated running back recruit who just became eligible following his transfer from Colorado. Scott and Murray will likely be running left as the entire right side of the South Florida offensive line is rebuilt.
The Irish defense appeared to gel in the 3-4 scheme at the end of last year, and as long as the 2011 defense hasn't regressed, the Bulls will find the going fairly tough. Fans will know when mountainous sophomore nose guard Louis Nix is in the game by the eclipse cast over the stadium.
Daniels will be a good test for the Irish opponent the following week, Michigan and its slippery eel of a quarterback Denard Robinson. The Irish need to limit Daniels' damage on broken plays as the Bulls should not generate any other kind of consistent offensive production.
Advantage: Notre Dame
The Irish offense will be either unstoppable or mediocre depending on two factors—Dayne Crist's accuracy and running game effectiveness. The biggest problem for Notre Dame over the last five years has not been the lack of talent. Poor execution has undermined performance, and these two factors speak to that issue.
The South Florida defense is certainly its strength and still has enough experience to make some good plays and avoid most foolish mistakes. The Bulls secondary in particular returns all four starters which should be interesting to see if they risk covering Michael Floyd one-on-one. But if the rebuilt defensive line (three new starters) can't get any penetration, it won't matter if they triple cover Floyd.
The Irish must avoid costly turnovers and mistakes as they have enough weapons to score at least 24 to 30 points in this game. The Bulls defense is good enough not to miss such opportunities, and if they are available, South Florida will be close late in the game for a shot at an upset on opening week.
Advantage: Notre Dame
Neither team has a particularly special special teams unit.
The Irish have standout placekicker Ruffer, but this is a game in which Notre Dame only wants to see Ruffer on PATs. The return game is still very much a question mark for the Irish, and the team is hoping to do more than just wave the fair catch white flag on every punt return.
South Florida has a reliable placekicker in Bonani, but the Bulls were one of the few teams worse than Notre Dame in punting average last season. In terms of what to expect, both teams get a decided 'meh.'
The matchup of two sophomore coaches will be the headline of this game as both Brian Kelly and Skip Holtz need a strong first game to continue momentum from identical 8-5 seasons that ended with a bowl victory last year.
Holtz likely will have spent much of the offseason thinking about and planning for this games, especially given that he is a former assistant coach for the Irish among other connections. He doesn't face a ton of pressure for his job given the newness of the program and the fact that the Bulls are still only the fourth most popular college football team in the state.
But make no mistake, this is a great chance for Holtz to make a name for himself on the college football landscape and get out from under a diminutive yet powerful shadow.
On the flip side, Kelly faces enormous pressure to meet expectations this year, which for most Irish followers include nine wins at a minimum and possibly a BCS bowl appearance. His track record is flawless at every college head coaching stop he's had, and that experience doesn't just evaporate overnight.
One could certainly make the case that the struggles early last year are the result of his acclimation to the new pressure cooker but that he's starting to figure it out. This will be his first chance to prove that he has.
Advantage: Notre Dame
With so many new names in the starting lineup, the second level of the two-deep is also going to be fairly raw. There are six freshmen or red-shirt freshmen on the two deep which is a healthy amount.
At key offensive skill positions, the Bulls will rely heavily on Daniels at quarterback, and if he goes down, they will be in trouble. Running back is better with Murray and Scott, and the Bulls have a decent corps of wide receivers. The offensive line has a lot of upperclassmen in the two deep, although most of them have yet to see significant minutes.
The defense is the better unit both from a skill and depth perspective, but there aren't any players who will change a game plan. The defensive line is much younger through the two-deep than the offensive line, and they are slightly undersized on the ends which will need an experienced secondary to provide coverage help.
Bottom Line: Depth is good, but good enough?
Interestingly, the Irish are perhaps deepest at the position where they most hope not to need depth— quarterback. Between Crist, backup Tommy Rees and specialists Andrew Hendrix and Everett Golson, there's a lot of talent for only one position.
There is also plenty of skill at running back with Wood and backup Jonas Gray, but the question around Gray is whether he has cured his fumble-itis. There are some green patches on the offensive line, especially at left tackle, so beware of too many injuries there.
Defensively, the Irish are putting their talented crop of freshmen linemen right into the mix. Stephon Tuitt, Aaron Lynch and outside linebacker Ishaq Williams all cracked the two deep and will need to show maturity beyond their age when called upon. The secondary is the biggest depth concern with few tested options behind the starters.
Bottom Line: First line talent should be enough to get by against South Florida, and hopefully have some garbage time to grow the young guns for the future.
Daniels tweaked his left hamstring during fall camp, but is back at full speed for Saturday.
There are no major injuries for the Bulls.
Third-string sophomore running back Cameron Roberson is out for the season after suffering a knee injury in the spring.
Senior tight end Mike Ragone suffered a quadriceps injury during fall practice. However, Kelly expects the injury-prone Ragone to be full speed for Saturday.
The big one player to watch will be Dayne Crist and see how he handles game speed on not one but two reconstructed knees. Without that red jersey protecting him, he will need to stay confident even after taking a hit.
There are no other major injuries for the Irish.