2013 Notre Dame football's 10 things to know: The Irish aren't going away

Mark L. Baer-US PRESSWIRE

Notre Dame was a Top 15 team on paper in 2011, then played like it in 2012. Can the Irish manage a fourth straight year of steady improvement under Brian Kelly? And can they get enough breaks to reach the national title game again? For more on Irish football, visit Notre Dame community One Foot Down.

Note: This preview was written before Everett Golson's dismissal. A video update:


Confused? Check out the glossary here.

1. Nailed it (sort of)

Just as the folks whose opinions tend to create conventional wisdom give up on the Irish, the numbers conspire to prop them up. And the reason should be obvious for anybody who watched Notre Dame in 2011: turnovers. Surely they cannot go against the Irish to the same degree in 2012, right? Surely, if Tommy Rees is even the starting quarterback, he won't have quite the same red zone interception tendencies, right? Surely Notre Dame opponents won't do quite as much damage with the turnovers they receive, right? […]

It is difficult to ignore just how well Notre Dame has recruited recently, just how much the stats like them, and just how much turnovers -- a notoriously fickle statistic from year to year -- conspired against what might have otherwise been a 10- or 11-win season last year. However, it is almost good, in my case, that the schedule is so difficult because it allows me to hedge my bets.

That's from last year's Notre Dame preview. That last-second hedge ruined it.

Last year, I talked myself into Notre Dame to what I figured was a dangerous degree. The Irish were so unlucky in 2011 and so close to something greater, with a No. 13 F/+ ranking and a potentially outstanding defense. They returned so many interesting players, and the depth chart was going to be further plumped up by young blue-chippers. I was ready to go all-in on Notre Dame at the same time that everybody else was cashing out, but I was cowed a bit by the schedule. I figured that even a top-10 performance would still result in a couple of losses along the way. I wasn't really counting on the Irish going 5-0 in one-possession games after losing three heart-breakers the year before.

Really, Notre Dame in 2011 was more like a nine- or 10-win team, and Notre Dame in 2012 was more like a 10- or 11-win team. Regardless, last year's trip to the BCS title game wasn't much of a fluke. This was an elite team, one that simply took one more step in its blue-blood reclamation and got a few of the lucky breaks it very much did not get the year before.

2. This is how it's supposed to go

When you hire a new coach, what you're hoping for is a guy who can make the most of the talent on hand and build onto the foundation, brick by brick, with each passing year. It rarely actually works out that way. There are surges and setbacks, senior classes that cannot be immediately replaced, lulls in development, et cetera. It rarely works out as smoothly as you hope. And to be sure, with some of the turnovers luck and other factors, it wasn't an incredibly smooth first couple of seasons for Brian Kelly in South Bend.

But on paper, the growth has been clear and steady. The defense surged to 16th in Def. F/+, and the offense regressed to 37th in Off. F/+ in Kelly's first season, then both units improved in 2011 (14th and 22nd, respectively) and did so again in 2012 (13th and ninth). An incredible front seven masked deficiencies in the defensive backfield, and a new quarterback helped to create an underrated, efficient offense after a rough first month.

So can Notre Dame improve again in Kelly's fourth year? Don't rule it out. The defense will have to craft a new personality without last year's senior leader, but the front seven is still terrifying, and some blue-chippers (recruiting has just been so damn strong) could help fill out a deeper, more confident secondary. And while sophomore quarterback Everett Golson's go-tos (tight end Tyler Eifert, running back Theo Riddick) have been taken away, the offensive upside might be quite a bit higher this year overall.

We'll see if schedule and bad luck interfere with another run at the national title, but on paper there is a good chance that Kelly's fourth year sees a fourth straight year of improvement.

2012 Schedule & Results

Record: 12-1 | Adj. Record: 13-0 | Final F/+ Rk: 7
Date Opponent Score W-L Adj. Score Adj. W-L
1-Sep vs. Navy 50-10 W 38.7 - 25.5 W
8-Sep Purdue 20-17 W 24.1 - 18.6 W
15-Sep at Michigan State 20-3 W 29.3 - 12.8 W
22-Sep Michigan 13-6 W 25.0 - 19.5 W
6-Oct vs. Miami 41-3 W 41.2 - 18.3 W
13-Oct Stanford 20-13 W 34.4 - 22.0 W
20-Oct BYU 17-14 W 50.6 - 18.8 W
27-Oct at Oklahoma 30-13 W 34.2 - 19.6 W
3-Nov Pittsburgh 29-26 W 35.1 - 18.0 W
10-Nov at Boston College 21-6 W 35.4 - 24.3 W
17-Nov Wake Forest 38-0 W 44.3 - 17.1 W
24-Nov at USC 22-13 W 37.3 - 26.0 W
7-Jan vs. Alabama 14-42 L 42.2 - 32.7 W
Category Offense Rk Defense Rk
Points Per Game 25.8 80 12.8 2
Adj. Points Per Game 36.3 12 21.0 13

3. Blast off

That Notre Dame got through September undefeated was a minor miracle. The Irish won three straight games while never scoring more than 20 points; and despite starting Golson, then a redshirt freshman, behind center, they brought in closer Tommy Rees off the bench to save the day, first against Purdue (a Golson fumble set up a tying score for Purdue, but Rees drove the Irish 55 yards for the game-winning field goal), then against Michigan (Rees inherited a 3-0 lead late in the second quarter and engineered a couple of scores). But Kelly stuck with Golson, and over the long haul, that proved to be the right decision.

Adj. Points Per Game (first 4 games): Notre Dame 29.3, Opponent 19.1 (plus-10.2)
Adj. Points Per Game (next 8 games): Notre Dame 39.1, Opponent 20.5 (plus-18.6)

Over the first four games, Golson completed 50 of 89 passes (56 percent) for 641 yards, three touchdowns, and three interceptions. But in the week off between Michigan and Miami, things began to click. Against Miami and Stanford, he completed 29 of 46 passes (63 percent) for 327 yards and a score, and after missing the BYU game with a concussion, he would go on to finish the regular season by completing 87 of 147 (59 percent) for 1,167 yards, seven touchdowns, and two picks.

Golson's raw stats (59 percent completion rate, 7.0 yards per attempt) were not incredible to the naked eye, but taking into account how many good defenses he faced -- Alabama ranked first in Def. F/+, Michigan State ranked third, Stanford ranked eighth, Oklahoma ranked 23rd, and Michigan ranked 28th (and he missed out on No. 10 BYU) -- his efficiency numbers were actually quite strong. Notre Dame did rank third in Success Rate+, after all (see below). That Kelly stuck with him after his 3-for-8-with-two-picks performance against Michigan was rather incredible. But it paid off.

Offense

Category Yards/
Game Rk
S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 54 9 3 11
RUSHING 38 9 9 11
PASSING 72 5 2 11
Standard Downs 7 8 9
Passing Downs 13 7 21
Redzone 37 28 52
Q1 Rk 5 1st Down Rk 3
Q2 Rk 9 2nd Down Rk 1
Q3 Rk 3 3rd Down Rk 14
Q4 Rk 27

4. A few more big plays wouldn't hurt

In Tyler Eifert, T.J. Jones, Theo Riddick, and Robby Toma, Golson had four rather reliable efficiency guys. Eifert even found some nice gains up the seam from time to time. But if Notre Dame was lacking in one area, it was in the big-play department. The Irish still ranked 11th in PPP+, so clearly this wasn't an extreme weakness, but with Riddick carrying more than the explosive Cierre Wood and DaVaris Daniels missing part of the season with injury, the fast cars in the garage didn't get driven too often.

In 2013, Golson loses his security blanket; Riddick, Eifert, and Toma are all gone. So is Wood, for that matter. But it does appear that explosive players like Daniels and George Atkinson III will get more touches. The question is whether increased explosiveness comes at the cost of decreased efficiency.

George Atkinson III. Matt Cashore, US Presswire.

Quarterback

Note: players in bold below are 2013 returnees. Players in italics are questionable with injury/suspension.

Player Ht, Wt 2013
Year
Rivals Comp Att Yards Comp
Rate
TD INT Sacks Sack Rate Yards/
Att.
Everett Golson 6'0, 185 So. *** (5.7) 187 318 2,405 58.8% 12 6 15 4.5% 7.0
Tommy Rees 6'2, 213 Sr. *** (5.7) 34 59 436 57.6% 2 2 1 1.7% 7.1
Andrew Hendrix 6'2, 226 Jr. **** (5.8) 5 7 55 71.4% 0 0 1 12.5% 6.8
Malik Zaire 6'0, 196 Fr. **** (5.9)






5. Removing the training wheels

Golson passed the tests he needed to pass.

Owen Field is one of the loudest venues in the country, and when Oklahoma came back to tie Notre Dame on October 27 and OU's Memorial Stadium hit fifth gear, Golson immediately made a series of big plays, including a bomb to Chris Brown, and won the game for Notre Dame. He helped to avert disaster against Pittsburgh, and in general, he improved decidedly as the season progressed.

He was stocked with reliable, experienced possession guys, and Notre Dame called a lot of runs on passing downs. It behooves you to keep a young quarterback out of must-pass situations as much as possible (especially when you have a great defense), and Notre Dame did that.

But without Eifert and company, without last year's top two running backs, and without a couple of key cogs from a great run-blocking line, there's a chance that Golson has to take on more responsibility to make plays when the Irish fall behind schedule. He might continue to meet the challenges he needs to meet, but he will certainly face a few more as he attempts to avert a sophomore slump of sorts.

Running Back

Player Pos. Ht, Wt 2013
Year
Rivals Rushes Yards Yards/
Carry
Hlt Yds/
Carry
TD Adj.
POE
Theo Riddick RB 190 917 4.8 3.5 5 +4.0
Cierre Wood RB 114 742 6.5 6.8 4 +18.5
Everett Golson QB 6'0, 185 So. *** (5.7) 79 388 4.9 4.1 6 +1.7
George Atkinson III RB 6'2, 217 Jr. **** (5.8) 51 361 7.1 8.5 5 +10.6
Cam McDaniel RB 5'10, 199 Jr. *** (5.6) 23 125 5.4 2.7 1 +0.9
Andrew Hendrix QB 6'2, 226 Jr. **** (5.8) 7 42 6.0 3.5 0 +0.9
Will Mahone RB 5'11, 214 RSFr. **** (5.8)





Greg Bryant RB 5'11, 197 Fr. ***** (6.1)





Tarean Folston RB 5'10, 195 Fr. **** (5.9)





William Fuller WR 6'1, 168 Fr. **** (5.8)





Receiving Corps

Player Pos. Ht, Wt 2013
Year
Rivals Targets Catches Yards Catch Rate Yds/
Target
Target
Rate
%SD Real Yds/
Target
RYPR
Tyler Eifert TE 84 50 685 59.5% 8.2 23.1% 59.5% 8.2 115.6
T.J. Jones WR 5'11, 192 Sr. **** (5.8) 82 50 649 61.0% 7.9 22.5% 69.5% 8.1 109.5
Theo Riddick RB 53 36 370 67.9% 7.0 14.6% 52.8% 6.7 62.4
DaVaris Daniels WR 6'2, 192 So. **** (5.8) 46 31 490 67.4% 10.7 12.6% 65.2% 10.6 82.7
Robby Toma WR 38 24 252 63.2% 6.6 10.4% 63.2% 6.6 42.5
Troy Niklas TE 6'7, 259 Jr. **** (5.8) 11 5 75 45.5% 6.8 3.0% 63.6% 6.9 12.7
Daniel Smith WR 6'4, 213 Sr. *** (5.6) 11 7 47 63.6% 4.3 3.0% 18.2% 5.2 7.9
Chris Brown WR 6'2, 191 So. *** (5.7) 10 2 56 20.0% 5.6 2.7% 80.0% 4.2 9.4
John Goodman WR 9 7 159 77.8% 17.7 2.5% 44.4% 19.4 26.8
Ben Koyack TE 6'5, 261 Jr. **** (5.9) 6 3 39 50.0% 6.5 1.6% 50.0% 5.9 6.6
Cierre Wood RB 6 5 25 83.3% 4.2 1.6% 83.3% 5.5 4.2
George Atkinson III RB 6'2, 217 Jr. **** (5.8) 3 2 4 66.7% 1.3 0.8% 100.0% 0.8 0.7
Cam McDaniel RB 5'10, 199 Jr. *** (5.6) 2 2 41 100.0% 20.5 0.5% 100.0% 12.4 6.9
Corey Robinson WR 6'4, 195 Fr. **** (5.8)








Mike Heuerman TE 6'4, 220 Fr. **** (5.8)








Torii Hunter, Jr. WR 6'0, 172 Fr. **** (5.8)








6. Potential vs. production

The Irish have just so damn many blue-chippers at this point. Of the five returning or incoming running backs above, three are former four-star recruits and one is a former five-star. Of the nine returning or incoming receivers and tight ends above, five are former four-star recruits.

The problem is, few have either proven their potential or gotten a chance to do so yet. George Atkinson looked incredible in the open field but got fewer than four carries per game. DaVaris Daniels looked the part of a big-time No. 1 receiver against Purdue, Pitt, and Alabama but disappeared in other games and got hurt late in the year. Blue-chip tight ends Troy Niklas and Ben Koyack combined for 17 targets. And incoming star freshmen like Greg Bryant, Tarean Folston, and Corey Robinson are, indeed, freshmen.

The potential here is ridiculous, but really, only T.J. Jones is a proven commodity at this point. Until you prove your potential, there's a chance you won't.

Offensive Line

Category Adj.
Line Yds
Std.
Downs
LY/carry
Pass.
Downs
LY/carry
Opp.
Rate
Power
Success
Rate
Stuff
Rate
Adj.
Sack Rate
Std.
Downs
Sack Rt.
Pass.
Downs
Sack Rt.
Team 118.4 3.19 3.28 43.2% 81.8% 18.2% 121.2 4.6% 4.4%
Rank 7 23 58 22 3 51 43 60 27
Player Pos. Ht, Wt 2013
Year
Rivals Career Starts/Honors/Notes
Zack Martin LT 6'4, 308 Sr. **** (5.8) 39 career starts
Braxston Cave C 37 career starts
Chris Watt LG 6'3, 321 Sr. **** (6.0) 26 career starts
Mike Golic, Jr. RG 15 career starts
Christian Lombard RT 6'5, 322 Jr. **** (5.8) 13 career starts
Bruce Heggie RG 6'5, 286 Jr. ** (5.2)
Conor Hanratty LG 6'5, 309 So. *** (5.6)
Nick Martin RT 6'5, 284 So. *** (5.6)
Ronnie Stanley LT 6'6, 318 RSFr. **** (5.8)
Steve Elmer OL 6'6, 305 Fr. **** (6.0)
John Montelus OL 6'5, 295 Fr. **** (6.0)
Hunter Bivin OL 6'7, 288 Fr. **** (5.8)
Mike McGlinchey OL 6'9, 280 Fr. **** (5.8)

Defense

Category Yards/
Game Rk
S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 7 12 22 7
RUSHING 11 17 21 19
PASSING 25 12 28 8
Standard Downs 13 24 8
Passing Downs 17 26 12
Redzone 3 11 1
Q1 Rk 28 1st Down Rk 15
Q2 Rk 12 2nd Down Rk 16
Q3 Rk 27 3rd Down Rk 12
Q4 Rk 4

7. Time for a new identity

I'll say this: I'm not really worried about the loss of Manti Te'o. He was the quarterback of the Notre Dame defense, and while I didn't really think he should have been a Heisman finalist, that Notre Dame was able to build its entire defense around him quite obviously says something. As I wrote many times last year, the Irish were basically able to form an umbrella with their young, ridiculously thin secondary, allow Te'o to patrol the middle of the field, and rely on a four-man pass rush (the absurdly talented line and OLB Prince Shembo) to generate pressure without much risk.

And it worked. Notre Dame didn't have a Top 5 defense in 2012, but it was an excellent one; the Irish were elite in preventing big plays, seemingly always made stops in the red zone, and played a unique version of the bend-don't-break defense with a high level of success.

Te'o and Kapron Lewis-Moore are the only two losses from the front seven, and with depth and star power, the Irish should be able to absorb those departures without a drop-off. But the personality will change without Te'o, and it will be interesting to see how defensive coordinator Bob Diaco re-calibrates. Will he blitz more? Will he utilize a more experienced secondary more aggressively? He hasn't done much of that in South Bend, but he also hasn't ever coached an Irish defense without Te'o yet.

Stephon Tuitt and Louis Nix III. Mike Carter, US Presswire.

Defensive Line

Category Adj.
Line Yds
Std.
Downs
LY/carry
Pass.
Downs
LY/carry
Opp.
Rate
Power
Success
Rate
Stuff
Rate
Adj.
Sack Rate
Std.
Downs
Sack Rt.
Pass.
Downs
Sack Rt.
Team 103.6 2.81 3.35 37.9% 48.5% 19.0% 133.5 5.0% 9.4%
Rank 45 44 75 52 2 69 19 49 19
Name Pos Ht, Wt 2013
Year
Rivals GP Tackles % of Team TFL Sacks Int PBU FF FR
Stephon Tuitt DE 6'6, 322 Jr. ***** (6.1) 13 35.5 5.4% 13 12 0 1 3 1
Louis Nix III NG 6'3, 347 Jr. **** (5.9) 13 35.0 5.3% 7.5 2 0 5 1 0
Kapron Lewis-Moore DE 13 28.5 4.3% 8.5 6 0 2 2 0
Sheldon Day DE 6'2, 286 So. **** (5.8) 13 18.0 2.7% 3.5 2 0 1 0 0
Tony Springman DE 6'6, 284 So. *** (5.7) 13 7.5 1.1% 2 1 0 0 0 0
Kona Schwenke NG 6'4, 297 Sr. *** (5.7) 11 3.0 0.5% 1 0.5 0 0 0 0
Jarron Jones NG 6'5, 295 RSFr. **** (5.8)

Isaac Rochell DE 6'5, 260 Fr. **** (5.9)

Eddie Vanderdoes NG 6'3, 310 Fr. ***** (6.1)






Linebackers

Name Pos Ht, Wt 2013
Year
Rivals GP Tackles % of Team TFL Sacks Int PBU FF FR
Manti Te'o ILB 13 84.0 12.8% 5.5 1.5 7 4 0 2
Dan Fox ILB 6'3, 242 Sr. **** (5.8) 13 46.5 7.1% 2 1 0 2 0 0
Prince Shembo OLB 6'2, 258 Sr. **** (5.8) 13 36.5 5.6% 10.5 7.5 0 1 0 1
Carlo Calabrese ILB 6'1, 244 Sr. *** (5.7) 12 34.0 5.2% 3 0 0 0 1 0
Danny Spond OLB 6'2, 248 Sr. **** (5.8) 11 28.0 4.3% 1 0 1 3 0 0
Ishaq Williams OLB 6'5, 261 Jr. ***** (6.1) 13 16.5 2.5% 3.5 0 0 1 1 0
Jarrett Grace ILB 6'3, 248 So. *** (5.7) 13 9.5 1.4% 0 0 0 0 0 0
Ben Councell OLB 6'4, 248 So. **** (5.8) 13 7.5 1.1% 0 0 0 0 0 0
Kendall Moore ILB 6'1, 244 Jr. **** (5.8) 13 6.0 0.9% 0 0 0 0 0 0
Romeo Okwara OLB 6'4, 258 So. *** (5.7) 13 5.5 0.8% 1.5 0 0 0 1 0
Joe Schmidt ILB 6'0, 226 Jr. NR 10 4.0 0.6% 0 0 0 0 0 0
Anthony Rabasa OLB 6'3, 243 So. *** (5.7) 2 0.5 0.1% 0 0 0 0 0 0
Jaylon Smith LB 6'3, 212 Fr. ***** (6.1)

Doug Randolph LB 6'3, 237 Fr. **** (5.9)






8. Goodness, gracious

Te'o may have been the rock, but man oh man, does this unit have talent. And unlike the skill positions on offense, the front seven has guys who have already proven, or begun to prove, that their recruiting rankings were spot-on. There is nothing I enjoy more on defense than big, athletic linemen with big guts and straight-line speed. There was an abundance of them in 2012 -- Ziggy Ansah at BYU, Sheldon Richardson at Missouri, Sharrif Floyd at Florida -- but two of the most enjoyable will once again be lining up on the Notre Dame line: Stephon Tuitt and Louis Nix III. Nix, nearly 350 pounds, is both quick and a really fun quote (#MeatChicken); Tuitt, meanwhile, does things like this...

...at 322 pounds.

And now a pair of five-star freshmen (tackle Eddie Vanderdoes, linebacker Jaylon Smith), among other blue-chippers, join the rotation. The depth up wasn't spectacular in 2012 -- only about four linemen actually played; but a) that probably isn't a problem anymore, and b) the depth at linebacker was, and remains fantastic.

Secondary

Name Pos Ht, Wt 2013
Year
Rivals GP Tackles % of Team TFL Sacks Int PBU FF FR
Zeke Motta S 13 58.0 8.8% 2 0 0 3 0 1
Bennett Jackson CB 6'0, 183 Sr. *** (5.7) 13 55.0 8.4% 1.5 0 4 4 0 1
KeiVarae Russell CB 5'11, 190 So. **** (5.8) 13 47.5 7.2% 2 0.5 2 2 0 0
Matthias Farley S 5'11, 204 So. *** (5.5) 13 36.0 5.5% 2 0 1 0 0 0
Elijah Shumate S 6'0, 213 So. **** (5.8) 13 8.0 1.2% 0 0 0 3 0 0
Dan McCarthy S 13 6.5 1.0% 0 0 0 0 0 1
Nicky Baratti S 6'1, 201 So. *** (5.7) 13 6.5 1.0% 0 0 1 0 0 0
Jamoris Slaughter S 3 6.0 0.9% 0 0 0 1 0 0
Chris Salvi S 13 4.5 0.7% 0 0 0 0 0 0
Conor Cavalaris S 5'11, 190 Jr. NR 11 3.0 0.5% 0 0 0 0 0 0
Jalen Brown CB 6'1, 207 So. *** (5.5) 7 2.5 0.4% 0 0 0 1 0 0
Max Redfield DB 6'2, 195 Fr. ***** (6.1)

Cole Luke DB 6'0, 165 Fr. **** (5.9)






9. Wanted: Corner depth

The play of Te'o and the front seven was good enough to distract from the fact that the secondary, while certainly decent, was paper thin. The safety ranks took a hit when Jamoris Slaughter tore his Achilles in the third game of the year; then-freshman Matthias Farley was thrust into the limelight. Meanwhile, there were almost no corners deemed trustworthy. Bennett Jackson and then-freshman KeiVarae Russell played nearly every down, with converted receivers Josh Atkinson and Cam McDaniel forced to fill in at times.

The top four defensive backs made a total of 196.5 tackles and 5.5 tackles for loss and defensed 13 passes. All other defensive backs combined for 37.0 tackles, none for loss, and defensed six passes.

Elijah Shumate showed some promise -- anytime you have almost half as many passes defensed (three) as tackles (8.0), it's a pretty good sign that you're making plays on the ball instead of on the player who has already caught the ball (of course, there's also a chance that you're just missing tackles altogether) -- but there is almost no proven depth here. There could be ample playing time waiting for blue-chip freshmen Max Redfield and Cole Luke if they're ready to claim some.

Special Teams

Punter Ht, Wt 2013
Year
Punts Avg TB FC I20 FC/I20
Ratio
Ben Turk 53 40.8 2 23 14 69.8%
Kicker Ht, Wt 2013
Year
Kickoffs Avg TB TB%
Kyle Brindza 6'1, 236 Jr. 71 62.6 26 36.6%
Place-Kicker Ht, Wt 2013
Year
PAT FG
(0-39)
Pct FG
(40+)
Pct
Kyle Brindza 6'1, 236 Jr. 28-29 19-23 82.6% 4-8 50.0%
Nick Tausch 6'0, 195 Sr. 5-6 1-1 100.0% 0-0 0.0%
Returner Pos. Ht, Wt 2013
Year
Returns Avg. TD
George Atkinson III KR 6'1, 217 Jr. 22 20.0 0
Cam McDaniel KR 5'10, 199 Jr. 7 19.3 0
Davonte' Neal PR 21 2.2 0
Category Rk
Special Teams F/+ 90
Net Punting 31
Net Kickoffs 55
Touchback Pct 58
Field Goal Pct 45
Kick Returns Avg 95
Punt Returns Avg 120

2013 Schedule & Projection Factors

2013 Schedule
Date Opponent Proj. Rk
31-Aug Temple 66
7-Sep at Michigan 22
14-Sep at Purdue 69
21-Sep Michigan State 18
28-Sep Oklahoma 7
5-Oct vs. Arizona State 34
19-Oct USC 17
26-Oct at Air Force 91
2-Nov Navy 95
9-Nov at Pittsburgh 31
23-Nov BYU 27
30-Nov at Stanford 5
Five-Year F/+ Rk 18
Two-Year Recruiting Rk 11
TO Margin/Adj. TO Margin* +8 / +5.5
TO Luck/Game +1.0
Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.) 14 (6, 8)
Yds/Pt Margin** -7.9

10. Great team, meet great schedule

One fun way to figure out where a team stands is to play the "How many ifs?" game. How many "Ifs" does it take to put a team at a certain level?

Top 15: If Golson avoids a serious slump, and if a young running back can provide some level of reliability, this should be a Top 15 team based solely on defensive potential and some decent big-play ability on offense.

Top 10: If Golson avoids a serious slump, if a young running back can provide some level of reliability, and if one of the freshman or sophomore DBs breaks through, this is likely a Top 10 team.

Top 5: If Golson avoids a serious slump, if a young running back can provide some level of reliability, if one of the freshman or sophomore DBs breaks through, and if one more receiver breaks through alongside Jones and Daniels, this is likely a Top 5 team.

This isn't an overt number of "ifs." Notre Dame broke into the Top 15 in 2011, then played like it in 2012. I think slight improvement is likely again, though another undefeated record in close games probably isn't. Against a slate the features seven teams projected in the Top 31 (four at home), the Irish will need a couple more breaks to again make the title game, but at this point one cannot question the program's trajectory: It's strong.

Really strong. Whether people saw it 12 months ago doesn't really matter; they see it now.

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