OVERVIEW: Coach Brian Kelly is a spread proponent and has overseen high-powered attacks wherever he has been. Notre Dame's offense features a boatload of returning starters but a big question at quarterback. Dayne Crist is the front-runner to open the season as the Irish's starter, but sophomore Tommy Rees went 4-0 as a starter last season. Andrew Hendrix and true freshman Everett Golson also have shown promise. The Irish are hoping Cierre Wood's late-season surge last year is evidence they can rejuvenate their long-dormant ground attack. Notre Dame ranked just 92nd nationally in rushing last season, but the running game showed signs of life in late-season victories over USC and Miami.
AN INSIDE LOOK
THE LINGERING QUESTION: Who's the quarterback? The Irish are better off not shuffling quarterbacks throughout the season, though coach Brian Kelly has made that work in the past. The problem is figuring out the best guy for the job. Dayne Crist has the experience, but his injuries and inconsistency raise concerns. The guys who may be the best fits for the spread - Everett Golson and Andrew Hendrix - have no experience. It's good to have a variety of options, since Kelly's starting quarterback has gotten hurt each of the past four seasons. But the Irish need to settle on a starter.
THE BEST-CASE SCENARIO: The defense continues to improve, TB Cierre Wood stays healthy and someone emerges as the clear-cut starting quarterback. Notre Dame earns a BCS bid after finishing the regular season with an 11-1 record.
THE WORST-CASE SCENARIO: Kelly never settles on a quarterback and the Irish continue to have problems establishing a ground attack. Injuries reveal the Irish's lack of depth at key spots. K David Ruffer fails to recapture his 2010 magic and misses key kicks that turn potential wins into close losses. The Irish slip to 6-6 and settle for an appearance in a minor bowl.
STAT TO KEEP AN EYE ON: Notre Dame's late-season surge in 2010 resulted from its improvement on defense. The Irish ranked 23rd in scoring defense, 25th in pass efficiency defense, 50th in run defense and 50th in total defense last season. They were 63rd in scoring defense, 82nd in pass efficiency defense, 89th in run defense and 86th in total defense while going 6-6 in 2009. The Irish's chances of contending for a BCS bid this season depend on whether they can continue to improve on defense, rather than regressing to their 2009 standards.
BACKFIELD: Crist arrived at Notre Dame as a five-star prospect ideally suited to run Charlie Weis' pro-style attack. Now he's coming back from a ruptured patellar tendon and attempting to prove he can engineer Kelly's spread. Crist threw for 369 yards and four touchdowns in an overtime loss to Michigan State, but he struggled with consistency. He finished the season with 2,033 passing yards, 15 touchdowns and seven interceptions. The Irish had better results under Rees, who replaced an injured Crist. But how much of that was Rees' doing? Rees threw for 1,106 yards with 12 touchdowns and eight interceptions. He may have the least upside of any Notre Dame quarterback, but it's hard to ignore that 4-0 record. Hendrix has a strong arm but no experience, while Golson ultimately seems like the best fit for Kelly's offense. Wood rushed for 603 yards and three touchdowns on 119 carries last season, and he gained at least 80 yards in each of Notre Dame's final three games. Wood must stay healthy because the Irish lack depth at the position.
RECEIVERS: On the surface, Notre Dame seems in good shape here. With senior Michael Floyd rejoining the team this week after a four-month suspension, he should give Notre Dame a legitimate shot at its second Biletnikoff Award winner in the past three seasons (Golden Tate won in 2009). Floyd (79 catches, 1,025 yards, 12 TDs last season), who was suspended indefinitely after a DUI arrest earlier this year, is on the verge of breaking all the major school receiving records he doesn't already own. Theo Riddick caught 40 passes for 414 yards and three touchdowns despite missing four games last season, and Tyler Eifert (27 catches, 352 yards, two TDs) is the latest in a long line of quality pass-catching tight ends for the Irish. The problem is that Notre Dame needs at least five quality receivers to run Kelly's spread attack effectively. Floyd and Riddick provide star power, but the Irish lack depth. Notre Dame needs a breakout season from sophomore TJ Jones (23-306-3) and continued steady production from junior Robby Toma (14-187-0). Perhaps true freshmen DaVaris Daniels and George Atkinson could make an immediate impact, though Atkinson could end up at running back.
LINE: Notre Dame returns four starters from a line that allowed 20 sacks last season. The best of the bunch may be LT Zack Martin, who had a breakthrough season as a sophomore after not playing a down in 2009. The Irish also feature senior G Trevor Robinson, who's heading into his third season as a starter. The other returning starters are senior C Braxston Cave and fifth-year senior RT Taylor Dever. Fifth-year senior Andrew Nuss is expected to take over for the departed Chris Stewart at left guard, though Chris Watt also is competing for that spot. This line seemed to come of age late last season, particularly when the Irish relied almost exclusively on their rushing attack in the winning drive against USC.
OVERVIEW: Notre Dame's lack of a defense got Weis fired at the end of the 2009 season. The improvement of this unit is the major reason the Irish head into this season with so much optimism. Kelly brought coordinator Bob Diaco with him from Cincinnati, and Diaco's 3-4 scheme worked well. Notre Dame allowed just one offensive touchdown in the last 15 quarters of the 2010 regular season. That lone touchdown came on a fourth-and-goal play after USC had recovered a fumble at the Irish's 2. Notre Dame returns eight starters from that defense and has two legitimate All-America candidates in LB Manti Te'o and FS Harrison Smith. The Irish have six defensive players who have made at least 20 career starts: Smith (34), E Ethan Johnson (28), OLB Darius Fleming (23), Te'o (23), E Kapron Lewis-Moore (22) and CB Gary Gray (20).
LINE: Johnson and Lewis-Moore are entering their third seasons in the starting lineup, yet the lineman who's garnering the majority of the attention around campus hasn't played a game. True freshman E Aaron Lynch enrolled in time for spring practice and showed that he already might be this team's best pure pass rusher. The Irish will use Lynch in obvious passing situations this season. Johnson had five sacks last season, while Lewis-Moore delivered 62 tackles. The Irish must find a new nose guard to replace Ian Williams, who completed his eligibility last season. Louis Nix, a sophomore who didn't play a down last year, will open the season as the starter if he holds off a challenge from Sean Cwynar.
LINEBACKERS: Notre Dame's fortunes on defense changed the day Te'o signed with the Irish over USC. Te'o, a former five-star prospect, has emerged as the face of Notre Dame's rapidly improving defense. Te'o finished the 2010 season with 133 tackles - 40 more than any of his teammates - and heads into his junior season as a Butkus Award candidate. Te'o missed part of spring practice while recovering from a knee injury he sustained in the Sun Bowl, but he should be at full strength for the start of the season. Carlo Calabrese moved into the starting lineup last season and made 60 tackles. Darius Fleming is a third-year starter who offers big-play potential at outside linebacker. Fleming had 11 tackles for loss and six sacks last season to lead the Irish in both categories. Prince Shembo likely will start at the other outside linebacker position, though Danny Spond also could challenge for that role. Shembo had 4.5 sacks as a freshman reserve last season.
SECONDARY: The Irish have solid starters here, though depth is a major concern. Smith is hoping to build on the momentum he established late last season. He made a game-clinching interception in the regular-season finale at USC and picked off three more passes in the Sun Bowl. He closed the 2010 season with 93 tackles and seven interceptions. Zeke Motta and Jamoris Slaughter are competing for the starting spot at strong safety. Each made at least six starts last season. The Irish have two experienced cornerbacks in seniors Gary Gray and Robert Blanton. Gray had 66 tackles, one interception and seven pass breakups last season, his second as a starter. Blanton has 13 career starts, though he started only once last season. He had 52 tackles and two interceptions to bounce back from a disappointing sophomore season. The Irish need Gray and Blanton to stay healthy because they lack other options. The top backup cornerback is sophomore Lo Wood, who played primarily on special teams last season.
K David Ruffer was one of the best stories of the 2010 season, as the former walk-on made each of his first 18 field-goal attempts before finally missing his last kick of the season in the Sun Bowl. The performance made Ruffer a Lou Groza Award finalist and earned him a scholarship for the 2011 season. If Ruffer slumps or gets hurt, the Irish also have a quality backup in Nick Tausch, the 2009 starter who has gone 15-of-18 on career field-goal attempts. Ben Turk averaged 38.3 yards per punt last season as Notre Dame ranked 64th nationally in net punting. Turk could face a challenge from true freshman Kyle Brindza. Notre Dame ranked just 75th nationally in kickoff returns and 100th in punt returns last season. But the Irish also were 17th in kickoff coverage and 20th in punt coverage.
THE RECRUITING SIDE
Average national ranking past five years: 11th
Buzz: Coach Brian Kelly showed he could recruit nationally, finishing with the No. 10 class in the country; the group is led by DEs Stephon Tuitt and Aaron Lynch and LB/DE Ishaq Williams. So far in the 2012 cycle, the Irish are hitting the skill positions hard with California cousins Deontay Greenberry and Tee Shepard to go along with Maryland DB Ronald Darby. Two knocks against Notre Dame in recent years have been overall team speed and the defense, and both are being addressed well in recruiting. - MIKE FARRELL
Lynch, from Cape Coral (Fla.) Island Coast, was an interesting guy to follow on the recruiting trail. He could prove even more fun to watch on the field. Lynch originally committed to Notre Dame, switched to Florida State, then switched back to the Irish just before enrolling for the spring semester. He showed in spring practice why he was worth all the fuss. Lynch constantly got into the backfield while making seven tackles in the Blue-Gold Game. Rated as the No. 3 strongside defensive end and No. 28 overall prospect in the 2011 recruiting class, Lynch had a combined 26.5 sacks in his final two prep seasons. Although Lynch will back up Johnson and Lewis-Moore in his freshman season, don't be surprised if he leads the Irish in sacks.
We have Notre Dame ranked higher than any opponent on its schedule other than Stanford, but the Irish's path to a BCS invitation still has plenty of potential potholes. The Irish face nine teams that played in bowls last season (not including USC, which would have earned a bowl bid if it weren't on probation). Four of those bowl opponents come in the first four games of the season: Sept. 3 vs. USF, Sept. 10 at Michigan, Sept. 17 vs. Michigan State, Sept. 24 at Pitt. The Irish realistically could lose any of those four games. The prime-time game at Michigan looks particularly tricky, though the matchup with USF coach Skip Holtz (a former Notre Dame player and the son of Lou) should offer plenty of intrigue. The Irish have a rare prime-time home game Oct. 22 against USC. The Irish better not have a letdown after the USC game because they next face Navy, which has won three of its past four meetings with Notre Dame. After shutting down Army's triple-option attack late last season, will Diaco's defense have a better grasp on how to handle Navy's superior version of that offense this time? One quirk in the schedule: The Irish face three consecutive ACC opponents - Wake Forest, Maryland and Boston College - before closing the regular season at Stanford.
Notre Dame certainly has reason for optimism. The Irish have as much experience in their starting lineup as just about any team in our top 25. Their offensive line could develop into one of the best in the country, and they finally have a quality defense. But there also are plenty of concerns, and they aren't limited to quarterback. Wood must prove he's ready to handle the task of being a feature back for a full season. If Te'o gets hurt, the Irish don't have anyone who can replace him effectively. The receiving corps becomes particularly weak if it loses Floyd, who has a history of injuries. Notre Dame also can't afford any injuries in the secondary. But if the Irish stay healthy at key positions, they have a shot at delivering a special season. Kelly led Cincinnati to a BCS bid in his second season there. Can he do the same thing in his second season at Notre Dame? We wouldn't bet against him. This team certainly is capable of going 10-2, which probably would be good enough for a BCS bid. If the Irish fall short of that, we could see them going 9-3 and earning a 10th win in the Champs Sports Bowl.