No matter what the situation at Notre Dame, expectations for the Fighting Irish are always “BCS or Bust.” Even with the team losing some key pieces, 2012 sets up well for Notre Dame to make a run to the BCS.
The Irish will undoubtedly miss Michael Floyd, Jonas Gray and the rest of the departing seniors, but there are players at each position that have the potential to grow into those newly vacated roles.
T.J. Jones, Robby Toma, Ben Koyack and a crew of untested players including Davaris Daniels and Daniel Smith have enough skill between them to fill most of the void left by Floyd in the passing game. All-American tight end Tyler Eifert (assuming that he returns), can pick up the remainder of the slack and assume the role of go-to guy in the passing game.
On the ground, the combination of Theo Riddick and George Atkinson III will be able to spell Cierre Wood often enough. After taking a big step forward this season, Wood is poised to continue his growth as a senior.
On defense, Manti Te’o returns to fill the role that only he can occupy. He’ll continue to be the emotional leader of the Notre Dame defense and should come back even better (and healthier) in 2012.
Up front, Notre Dame will be improved. Injuries forced younger players like Aaron Lynch, Stephon Tuitt and Louis Nix to play big roles this season. With another year of experience under their belts, the defensive line will only get better in 2012.
Seniors Harrison Smith and Robert Blanton will be missed in the secondary. Notre Dame has plenty of depth at safety, but youngsters Lo Wood and Bennett Jackson will have to step into larger roles at corner next season.
All in all, the Irish look a bit thinner heading into 2012, but Notre Dame has enough talent (though it may be unproven) to fill out the roster very nicely.
An Infusion of Speed
On top of the returning players, an already strong 2012 recruiting class will bring a perennially necessary infusion of speed to South Bend. Players like Ronald Darby, Tee Shepard and Justin Ferguson give the Irish college-ready, dynamic athletes, capable of turning mundane plays into game-changers.
Notre Dame has already added a fair amount of speed to its roster in recent years, but still the Irish struggled to pop off the big play.
Notre Dame ranked 18th in the FBS this season with 207 plays from scrimmage that went for 10 yards or more. That kind of production is the hallmark of an offense that gets the ball to its playmakers in positions where they can succeed.
However, those players weren’t always capable of making the most out of those positions. The Irish finished the regular season 98th in the nation with only 16 plays for 30 yards or more.
Part of this probably comes from Tommy Rees’ inability to stretch defenses with his arm, but part of it comes from a lack of game-breaking speed on the outside.
On defense, the same trend holds. Notre Dame was able to break up 38 passes this season, but converted only eight into interceptions.
A couple of extra steps on both offense and defense could make all the difference for the Irish, and a strong recruiting class can provide it.
Better at Quarterback
To me, Andrew Hendrix seems like the man for 2012, but at this point, nobody, not even Brian Kelly, knows who his quarterback will be next year.
Regardless, it’s reasonable to expect an upgrade in production. Even if Tommy Rees ends up back as the starter, he’ll have to win the job over two players (Hendrix and Everett Golson) with outstanding physical tools and more than one year of experience with Kelly’s offense.
Quarterback may not be a huge strength for Notre Dame in 2012, but it won’t be the weakness it was in big spots this season. The Irish threw 14 interceptions this season, 25th-worst in the country. Some of those picks were the result of bad decisions or poor throws, but a few (one against South Florida comes to mind) were just bad luck.
Add that to the fact that Notre Dame recovered less than half of the fumbles in its games and it paints a picture of a season in which the Irish were a bit unlucky.
Given those trends, Notre Dame’s turnover margin is likely to improve, regardless of who ends up as the starting quarterback next season.
With Andrew Hendrix or Everett Golson at the helm, the Irish can add a running element to the position. Hendrix showed against Stanford that he has the ability to both make and extend plays with his legs.
He’s capable of running some option and scampering for the occasional first down, but perhaps more importantly, Hendrix showed excellent awareness of the rush and did his best to keep himself in a position to get the ball downfield to his playmakers.
Even if neither Hendrix, nor Golson ends up as the starter, one of the two will almost certainly be in a position to play a role in the offense in every game.
If Rees is the starter, I expect the offense to run much like it did in Kelly’s final year at Cincinnati, when Tony Pike and Zach Collaros shared time at quarterback. The Bearcats finished that year fourth in the nation in scoring, and secured a Big East Championship and a BCS bowl berth.
In this case, “favorable” does not equate to easy. Rather, it means that Notre Dame’s 2012 schedule sets up well for Notre Dame to reach a BCS bowl.
Generally, the schedules and results for BCS at-large qualifiers fall into two categories. Teams either put up a gaudy record against a relatively easy slate (think 2006 Boise State), or finish with two or three losses against a tough schedule (think 2010 Arkansas).
Lesser known teams can only succeed by running the table, but traditional powers like Notre Dame have the advantage of being able to sneak in the back door with two or even three losses.
Going into 2012, Notre Dame’s slate is well-balanced between games the Irish have no business losing (Navy, Purdue, Pittsburgh, Boston College and Wake Forest), games they are fully capable of winning (Michigan State, Michigan, Miami, Stanford, BYU), and games that can be resume builders, regardless of the outcome (Oklahoma and USC).
Even if the Irish end up at 10-2 or 9-3, the schedule ensures that their resume will feature enough quality wins to warrant BCS consideration.
A trip to Norman, Okla. will be a huge test for Notre Dame, but the USC game will be the season’s biggest turning point. If Notre Dame enters that game with just one loss, the Irish have a good chance at the BCS, regardless of what happens at the Coliseum.
However, if Notre Dame comes in twice, or even thrice beaten, a late-season win over a probable national title contender could propel the Irish into the BCS.
Heading into 2012, the talent is there and the schedule presents an opportunity for Notre Dame to reach its BCS goal.