USA TODAY Sports' Paul Myerberg counts down to the start of the college football season team by team from No. 128 to No. 1.
Notre Dame will play seven of the top 36 teams in college football, according to the preseason Amway Coaches Poll. This list doesn't include Rice, last year's winner of Conference USA, or Navy, which has 17 wins during the last two years, or Northwestern, which notched double-digit wins in 2012 before last year's injury-caused snag.
Nor does the list include Syracuse, which meets the Irish in New Jersey and, if you recall, got the better of Notre Dame the last time out. Rounding out the schedule is Purdue, a heaping mess last fall – and a continued work in progress in 2014 – that nonetheless remained within a touchdown of the Irish.
Three opponents on Notre Dame's plate have legitimate and realistic hopes of winning the national championship: Stanford, Florida State and USC. Judged by last year's combined winning percentage – an inadequate marker, but partially useful – the Irish take on the nation's fourth-toughest schedule; only Arkansas, Tennessee and Virginia have it harder.
For now, and perhaps for the foreseeable future, the Irish will take on this schedule without four key pieces: On Friday, the university announced that four players have been removed from the program while it conducts an investigation into academic fraud, denying each had been suspended but saying the group would be held out of football activities until the matter was resolved.
Each loss stings, some worse than others. Wide receiver DaVaris Daniels is the Irish's leading returning pass-catcher. Cornerback KeiVarae Russell is the team's stopper on the outside; he's decidedly irreplaceable. After a sluggish start to his career, Ishaq Williams had been pegged as a starter at defensive end. Linebacker Kendall Moore was at worst a key reserve; at best, Moore had been eyeballed as a potential starter.
The start of the official investigation comes just days after one of the program's academic success stories, relatively speaking: Everett Golson, the once and future starting quarterback, regained his perch atop the team's two-deep after being ruled academically ineligible for his sophomore season.
This has become, in many ways, the story of Brian Kelly-coached Notre Dame. The Irish reach the championship game, ending a decade-plus of frustration, only to suffer one of the defining losses in program history. The stakes are raised; Golson is suspended. He returns; four key cogs depart.
Perhaps Friday's development hurts worse than most. It dings Notre Dame's image, if temporarily, and casts a shadow on Kelly's oversight of his football program. It knocks the Irish's hopes of a rebound, obviously: Trendy for months, this is now a team dipping precipitously during the final weeks of the offseason, perhaps to the point where each preseason poll, if redone, would ignore Notre Dame's name entirely.
LAST YEAR'S PREDICTION:
My projection: ND goes 9-3, losing three games from the group of Michigan, Michigan State, Oklahoma, Arizona State, USC, BYU and Stanford. That should be enough to put the Irish right in the mix for an at-large BCS bid.
In a nutshell: I'd call it the finest coaching job of Kelly's turn at Notre Dame even with the clear understanding that unlike in 2012, the Irish failed to make a dent in the title conversation. But consider the wins, for goodness sake: Michigan State, Arizona State and USC, among others. Then consider the nine-win fashion against the backdrop of personnel moves, losses and attrition on both sides of the ball, and consider how the Irish cobbled together three victories of immense value – and those nine wins altogether – despite clear flaws, weaknesses and weak links. In terms of the job done along the sidelines, I'd call it a banner season. It was still a failed follow-up in the general sense of the term: Notre Dame became the latest team to suffer a post-championship malaise, even if the discontent and disorder began long before the season opener.
High point: Michigan State.
Low point: Stanford. The Irish had a pair of late-game drives stymied by turnovers.
Tidbit: Notre Dame has won 21 games during the past two seasons, the program's best two-year stretch since going 21-2-1 from 1992-93. Kelly is the third coach in program history to win at least eight games in each of his first four seasons, joining Dan Devine and Frank Leahy.
ARBITRARY TOP FIVE LIST:
College coaching jobs post-Notre Dame
1. Lou Holtz, South Carolina
2. Gerry Faust, Akron
3. Ed McKeever, Cornell
4. Tom Barry, Wisconsin
5. Heartley Anderson, North Carolina State
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
Offense: The return of Everett Golson marks the return of a quarterback capable enough to exponentially widen the scope of Notre Dame's offense. Think of a football field, with its 160-foot width and so on, and then imagine last year's offense, which couldn't attack the fringes – was hammered within a box, basically, and suffered for the lack of dynamism. In every way, Golson recreates your typical Kelly-led offense, which is many things – powerful running game, pinpoint passing game, spread-based – but, boiled down, is one thing: This is an offense that will move and sway any which way in an effort to create and exploit mismatches. That's harder to do when your quarterback holds just a single threat, and even then only tenuously; it's easier when your quarterback is a dual-threat option, and easier still when your quarterback seems poised to make the most of a renewed opportunity.
Let's not put too much stock into any work done in shorts – except my own, of course – but still recognize how Golson outplayed some of the nation's top returning quarterbacks on Nike's campus in July. If in shorts, he looked like a different quarterback: Golson was bigger, a bit stronger and miles more consistent in his footwork, vision and delivery, clearly benefiting as much as possible from the year spent away from the program. In the long run, perhaps we'll be able to state that his one-season hiatus was the turning point of his career; that's better said in hindsight, obviously, but Golson seems to have made the most out of a difficult situation. He changes everything: Notre Dame is different with Golson. If Kelly can find some receivers, I think Golson will be simply outstanding.
It's a fairly similar backfield cast: Cam McDaniel (704 yards) and Tarean Folston (470 yards) return, with Folston coming off a strong close to last season, while sophomore Greg Bryant seems ready to contribute in a heightened role after scuffling in the acclimation process as a rookie. In a dream world – and with all due respect to the Irish's leading returning rusher – the offense might be at its best with Folston leading the charge and McDaniel sitting in reserve; that would give the opportunity for more backfield explosiveness on the ground and through the air, though McDaniel would remain valuable for his between-the-tackles toughness. The wildcard is Bryant, who was overwhelmed last fall but has put together a strong offseason. Keep in mind the idea that Folston and Bryant are far stronger options if used alongside Golson in the zone-read scheme; also keep in mind that with Golson back, the Irish's ground attack in general will be far more productive.
There are some shoes to fill on the blind side without Zack Martin and Chris Watt, though the projected slide in production – if not overwhelming – is tempered in part by Golson's mobility; the Irish should remain among the nation's best at limiting sacks, though there's a difference between limiting sacks and providing adequate protection. Martin's spot at left tackle will go to Ronnie Stanley, who makes the move over from the right side. The Irish could go a few ways in terms of replacing Watt at left guard, though the simplest solution would move Matt Hegarty into the starting lineup. That would create an interior of Hegarty, center Nick Martin and right guard Christian Lombard, which would be steady. Although Steve Elmer should start the opener at right tackle, there are enough options to create a trickle-down effect: Elmer could move inside should true freshman Quenton Nelson develop, which could move Hegarty into a reserve role, which could create more competition all along the interior among Hegarty, Elmer, Connor Hanratty and Colin McGovern, among others. The two basic facts: one, the line is unproven today but will improve daily, and two, Kelly's never had this much depth.
Defense: New defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder brings along a predilection for an aggressive, attacking, complex 4-3 scheme. That's a shift, obviously: Notre Dame went with the 3-4 under Bob Diaco, now at Connecticut, and faces a bit of an uphill climb in grasping VanGorder's system before the opener – but can ease into things in September, which bears noting. At the same time, Ishaq Williams' potential departure robs the Irish of a starting end on the strong side, forcing the staff to drop a little deeper down the pecking order to find a new starter; this hurts the starting foursome and impacts Notre Dame's depth, which was otherwise a strength heading into fall camp.
Three factors to keep in mind: one, it's far easier to slide from the 3-4 to the 4-3 than vice versa; two, solid recruiting has yielded an impressive core of talent across the board; and three, this front has wholly embraced the more attacking, beat-your-mean mentality inherent to VanGorder's scheme. The inside looks solid, with Jarron Jones and Sheldon Day as the starters and freshman Jonathan Bonner, senior Chase Hounshell – if healthy – and Jacob Matuska, among one or two others, pegged as the top reserves. On the weak side, Andrew Trumbetti has leapfrogged Romeo Okwara, a projected starter, and will be the first true freshman to start up front for the Irish since 1998; he's a future star. That leaves the strong side, and it's hard to peg where Notre Dame goes in Williams' stead. But here's one thing the move to a four-man front does for this defense: Notre Dame will have pure pass-rush packages, leaning heavily on the difference-making talent in February's signing class, and should be very dangerous by midseason if VanGorder can find the right mixture.
Another true freshman, Nyles Morgan, will eventually move into the starting role at middle linebacker. For now, however, with Morgan behind the curve in his grasp of the system and Jarrett Grace's availability still in doubt, Notre Dame will start senior Joe Schmidt, a former walk-on who makes up for any physical liabilities with instincts and better-than-average overall speed. Another contributor working his way back from injury, senior Ben Councell, could be a nice fit on the strong side on early downs; he could anchor the run defense before ceding way to James Onwualu and John Turner on passing downs. Then there's the star: Jaylon Smith (67 tackles, 6.5 for loss) is going to be everything we thought he'd be as a five-star recruit – and perhaps even in 2014, when Notre Dame plans to place the sophomore on the weak side and let him go to work.
Notre Dame's secondary would be in serious trouble without Russell on the outside. This would leave two voids at cornerback: Russell's irreplaceable, for one, but Notre Dame was already crossing its fingers that Florida transfer Cody Riggs would be able to handle a starting role – he's a good athlete, obviously, but needs to relearn the position after spending his final season in Gainesville at safety. Now, look for the Irish to fill Russell's shoes with some combination of Cole Luke and Devin Butler, two sophomores worthy of increased roles but not up to Russell's quality, obviously. It'll be sophomore Max Redfield – sublimely gifted – and senior Austin Collinsworth along the back end, with Elijah Shumate the top reserve, while Matthias Farley slides in at nickel back. For this unit, the saving grace might be an aggressive pass rush.
Special teams: Specialist Kyle Brindza is the saving grace for Notre Dame's otherwise puzzlingly inept special teams. Brindza could continue to handle all three kicking tasks, which he does ably, or hand either punts or kickoffs to true freshman Tyler Newsome. Everything else is a mess: Notre Dame gets absolutely nothing out of its return game and has struggled maintaining field position in coverage.
POSITION(S) TO WATCH:
Wide receiver: If ineligible for part or all of the season, Daniels' departure robs Notre Dame of its lone wide receiver of proven consequence. That's painful, particularly given another crucial fact: Daniels is the only receiving holdover from Golson's previous run as the starter; no member of the new-look cast played a role two seasons ago. Having said that, Golson still worked with several key cogs in the rotation during the spring and again this month, obviously – so it's not all doom and gloom, if a little troubling.
With Daniels gone, the Irish will lean on sophomores Corey Robinson and Chris Brown, the latter fresh off a terrific offseason; junior Amir Carlisle, who moves outside from running back; sophomore William Fuller, who made the most of his limited opportunities a year ago; sophomore Torii Hunter, another member of last February's impressive recruiting haul; and incoming freshmen Justin Brent and Corey Holmes, two rookies already making a charge into the two-deep. And then there's the tight end: Ben Koyack will step in for Troy Niklas and, most believe, make a charge at All-American honors. Golson has options, from the sophomores through a talented tight end – he just won't have his favorite target, let alone any receiver poised to near T.J. Jones' senior-year production.
GAME(S) TO WATCH:
Michigan: It's a key early game for both teams, but only one of the two – guess which one – then goes on to face Stanford, North Carolina, Florida State, Arizona State, Louisville and USC. There are winnable games, sure-loss games and must-have games; Michigan is one of the latter, perhaps joined by Rice, Syracuse, Purdue, Navy and Northwestern. Essentially, Notre Dame has no time to breathe and little room for error.
SEASON BREAKDOWN & PREDICTION:
In a nutshell: This won't be easy, but it's survivable. As players leave – for an indeterminate amount of time, remember – one key cog returns: Golson is going to change the entire makeup of the Irish's offense, leaving last year's meat-and-potatoes style in the dust in favor of a more frenetic, electric and ultimately productive attack. Even if Notre Dame moves forward without Daniels, it's easy to see this offense playing at a far higher level, keeping the Irish in line for a nine-win season even as the defense undergoes the transition into VanGorder's scheme. For now, it's the offense that must do the heavy lifting; the defense is going to need time.
I like what the offense can achieve in the running game and through the air. The backfield will be substantially more productive in a zone-read scheme, due in part to the three solid backs and Golson's ability to keep defenses honest. The Irish need to find a new go-to target, but there seems to be better overall talent – if unproven – than at any point during Kelly's tenure. My biggest concern, in fact, is the left side of the line; Stanley needs to anchor the blind side. On the plus side, Notre Dame has very nice depth across the board up front. If push comes to shove, this offense might be able to score enough points to hang around with the majority of teams on this schedule – perhaps all but Stanford and Florida State, which will put the clamps on this attack.
I don't completely buy the doom and gloom, basically. It stinks: Notre Dame is again playing from behind, personnel-wise, and the refrain is getting old. But there's enough talent on offense and enough speed along the front seven on defense to make this work, I'd say, even if there'll be speed bumps along the way. It's all about seven factors in particular: protecting Golson, finding a lead receiver, anchoring the left side, finding a pass rush, getting steady play in the middle, finding production at cornerback and locating consistency on special teams. This team will lose to Stanford and Florida State, struggle against USC and Arizona State, lose one game it shouldn't and end the year with eight or nine wins. Adding Russell and Daniels would have – and still could – given Notre Dame an extra win.
Dream season: Notre Dame rallies to an 11-1 season, losing just to Florida State, and stands very much in the playoff conversation in December.
Nightmare season: The Irish lose six games: Michigan, Stanford, Florida State, Arizona State, Louisville and USC.
Who's No. 17? A former coach at this program went on to reach three Rose Bowls at a later stop.