Notre Dame heads into 2013 with a team that retains some important pieces from one that was a game away from a perfect year.
Just a month after the season, that Notre Dame was 12-0 has nearly been forgotten. First, they were crushed by Alabama in the BCS National Championship Game, losing 42-14 in a game that wasn't that close. That rout made it seem like Notre Dame had no business in the title discussion, jogging memories of the triple-overtime squeaker over a Pitt team that finished 6-7 and a touchdown that wasn't against Stanford. Then the Manti Te'o scandal erupted, and all of a sudden Notre Dame's whole season feels fraudulent.
But Brian Kelly's squad is closer to a title this year than it was last spring. They'll lose Te'o -- who, it might be forgotten, is actually a football player -- but look at the returners on defense: eight starters from a team that finished the season with the No. 2 scoring defense in the country. Some offensive weapons are missing, but the Irish keep their flourishing quarterback.
Notre Dame should once again be a contender to finish in a BCS bowl, if not the championship again. Their schedule is much like last year's, as they'll once again have to contend with challenging teams in Oklahoma, Michigan, Michigan State, and Stanford.
Spring practice start date: March 20
Spring game date, location: April 20, Notre Dame Stadium
Approximate returning starters: Offense: 5. The notable guy is Everett Golson, who took the reins of an admittedly modest offense as a sophomore and produced, throwing for 2,405 yards and twice as many touchdowns as picks. His top wide receiver target, T.J. Jones, is back too. Three of his five linemen - Zack Martin, Christian Lombard, and Chris Watt - are back as well.
Defense: 8. Their line returns enormous nose tackle Louis Nix and great pass rusher Stephon Tuitt, both big for stopping runs out of the 3-4 defense. Also back: OLB Prince Shembo, ILB Dan Fox, OLB Danny Spond, CB KeiVarae Russell, CB Bennett Jackson, and S Matthias Farley.
Biggest addition: Notre Dame got five early enrollees in a top-5 recruiting class.
Biggest loss: Everyone will point to Te'o, and rightly so. He held the defense together from the middle, and had an unreal knack for takeaways. But that's not it: The Fighting Irish lost their top two running backs, Theo Riddick, who graduated, and Cierre Wood, who gave up his final year of eligibility for the NFL Draft. That will alter their running game severely, as third-stringer George Atkinson III is thrust into the spotlight after just 51 carries this past year. And Golson's favorite target was tight end Tyler Eifert, a possible first-round pick.
New players? One Foot Down profiled the early enrollees: dual-threat QB Malik Zaire might be the most intriguing prospect, but four-star tight end Mike Heuerman might be the one to make the quickest impact with Tyler Eifert leaving for the NFL. Here's a highlight video of Heuerman:
Also coming in for spring are a pair of wide receivers in Corey Robinson and James Onwualu, as well as offensive tackle Steve Elmer.
New coaches? The Irish maintain the same coaching staff that got them to the national championship in 2012.
New schemes? You don't change a lot after a national championship run, other than freeing up your emerging quarterback even more. Maybe less stints where the team randomly subs in Tommy Rees for Golson? Rees somehow ended up throwing a pass in nine games, and, I mean, sure, Notre Dame won all of them. It will be interesting to see if Golson continues to favor tight end targets without a clear pro prospect like Eifert.