Confused? Check out the advanced-stats glossary here. Below, a unique review of last year's team, a unit-by-unit breakdown of this year's roster, the full 2016 schedule with win projections for each game, and more.
1. Brian Kelly's best coaching job
Kelly's Fighting Irish suffered a little bit of bad turnover luck, lost their starting running back in the first week of the season, lost their quarterback in the second week and dealt with a secondary that was banged up all year. They were adapting on the fly, from fall camp through November.
But in the regular season, they lost only in the final minute, on the road, to the teams that finished second and third in the final AP poll.
That Clemson's Dabo Swinney won the AP's coach of the year award made sense -- he did, after all, lead the Tigers to the national title game. That Iowa's Kirk Ferentz, Michigan State's Mark Dantonio, Houston's Tom Herman, and Oklahoma's Bob Stoops got more votes than Kelly was fine. They did great jobs.
Kelly deserved more votes than the one of 60 he received. His squad took on more adversity than almost any other and handled it with aplomb.
With a redshirt freshman at quarterback and a wide receiver at running back, Notre Dame ranked seventh in Off. S&P+. And while the defense ranked only 35th in Def. S&P+ -- even with injuries in the secondary, a unit with this recruiting should produce better results -- it still held nine opponents under 30 points, typically good enough when you've got a top-10 offense. And even with iffy defense, Notre Dame had one of the most consistent teams in the country, which is remarkable considering the youth at quarterback.
This was Kelly's best coaching job; this might have been Kelly's best team, even better than the one that made the 2012 BCS Championship. (S&P+ says 2012 was slightly better, but only slightly.)
So how does he follow up? Notre Dame returns just enough talent to talk yourself into the Fighting Irish but has just enough "ifs" to give you pause.
With two returning starters for one spot, they must figure out their quarterback situation. They must replace uniquely explosive weapons in receiver Will Fuller and running back C.J. Prosise. Though there's a world of potential on both lines, they must replace two particularly disruptive defenders and three OL starters who had combined for 106 career starts. And they must replace a guy who was, according to the Butkus Award voters, the best linebacker in the country.
Still, Notre Dame features more exciting sophomores and juniors than almost any team in the country: quarterbacks DeShone Kizer and Malik Zaire, running back Josh Adams, tight end Alizé Jones, safety Drue Tranquill, etc. [Update: Jones has been suspended for the season due to academic reasons.] If Kelly can keep his troops rallied, Notre Dame will have a serious shot at a Playoff bid, especially considering the schedule might ease up. And if the defense plays to its recruiting rankings, this team's ceiling is as high as anyone's outside of Tuscaloosa.
|Record: 10-3 | Adj. Record: 12-1 | Final F/+ Rk: 7 | Final S&P+ Rk: 8|
|Date||Opponent||Opp. F/+ Rk||Score||W-L||Percentile
|21-Nov||vs. Boston College||70||19-16||W||83%||84%||-10.8||-13.5|
|1-Jan||vs. Ohio State||3||28-44||L||45%||2%||-11.6||-9.0|
|Points Per Game||34.2||34||24.1||39|
2. The epitome of consistency (till the bowl)
Even in the Fiesta Bowl loss to Ohio State, Notre Dame broke even, averaging and allowing 5.8 yards per play. That game turned on efficiency, turnovers, and field position, and the Irish were clearly the inferior team, but even in their worst moment they were still competitive. And before that, Notre Dame was one of the most consistent teams in the country.
- First 4 games
Average percentile performance: 88% | Yards per play: ND 7.6, Opp 5.1 (average S&P+ rank of opponent: 78)
- Next 4 games
Average percentile performance: 84% | Yards per play: ND 6.9, Opp 5.9 (average S&P+ rank of opponent: 21)
- Next 4 games
Average percentile performance: 82% | Yards per play: ND 6.8, Opp 5.6 (average S&P+ rank of opponent: 54)
The caliber of opponent changed, but Notre Dame's proficiency did not.
There were some unexpectedly close games. The Irish needed late heroics to beat Virginia because of iffy red zone execution (they created eight scoring chances to UVA's five but settled for three field goal attempts and turned the ball over on downs). They fell asleep against Georgia Tech (allowing two touchdowns in the final minute after going up 30-7) and Boston College (again allowing two fourth-quarter scores after going up 19-3).
Still, despite youth and a tumultuous two-deep, Notre Dame was solid. That's a good sign.
|FIVE FACTORS -- OFFENSE|
|Raw Category||Rk||Opp. Adj. Category||Rk|
|EFFICIENCY||Succ. Rt.||45.7%||23||Succ. Rt. +||126.4||4|
|FIELD POSITION||Def. Avg. FP||26.6||9||Def. FP+||25.0||6|
|FINISHING DRIVES||Pts. Per Scoring Opportunity||4.8||35||Redzone S&P+||123.2||7|
|Q1 Rk||13||1st Down Rk||1|
|Q2 Rk||21||2nd Down Rk||18|
|Q3 Rk||1||3rd Down Rk||1|
Note: players in bold below are 2016 returnees. Players in italics are questionable with injury/suspension.
|DeShone Kizer||6'4, 230||So.||4 stars (5.8)||0.9073||210||334||2880||21||10||62.9%||21||5.9%||7.7|
|Malik Zaire||6'0, 225||Jr.||4 stars (5.9)||0.9268||26||40||428||4||0||65.0%||2||4.8%||9.8|
|Brandon Wimbush||6'1, 216||So.||4 stars (6.0)||0.9784||3||5||17||0||0||60.0%||1||16.7%||0.8|
3. Now what?
Kizer was fearless in 2015. Zaire looked the part of a Heisman contender against Texas, then broke his ankle against Virginia. Kizer entered, and Notre Dame immediately punted twice. But after UVA scored to take a surprising 27-26 lead, Kizer completed five of seven passes for 75 yards, lobbed a gorgeous touchdown pass to Will Fuller with 12 seconds left, then completed a two-point conversion to Torii Hunter Jr. for good measure.
The next week against Georgia Tech, he completed 70 percent of his passes. And against Notre Dame's toughest stretch -- Clemson, Navy, USC, Temple, Pitt -- hits passer rating only once dipped below 148. That was in the Temple game, and even then, in crunch time, he completed four straight passes for 69 yards, including the game-winning score. He faded, completing only 52 percent with three picks against BC and Stanford.
But Kizer enters 2016 as one of the most proven returning quarterbacks in the country, an explosive passer and timely runner.
And he might not even be the best quarterback on his own team. He was more efficient than Zaire in the spring game, but the two split reps almost equally in March and April and will likely do so again in fall camp.
Knowing what we now know about Kizer, if Zaire wins the job back, he'll have proven himself improved. And unless chemistry issues form (there are no signs of that yet), Notre Dame is going to be set at quarterback no matter who wins the job.
|RB||5'9, 214||Jr.||4 stars (5.9)||0.9497||175||889||6||5.1||3.5||42.9%||1||0|
|Josh Adams||RB||6'2, 219||So.||3 stars (5.7)||0.8973||116||838||6||7.2||7.8||46.6%||2||1|
|DeShone Kizer||QB||6'4, 230||So.||4 stars (5.8)||0.9073||113||654||10||5.8||5.5||43.4%||5||2|
|Dexter Williams||RB||5'11, 210||So.||4 stars (5.9)||0.9551||21||81||1||3.9||2.0||38.1%||0||0|
|Malik Zaire||QB||6'0, 225||Jr.||4 stars (5.9)||0.9268||17||118||0||6.9||8.2||47.1%||0||0|
|Brandon Wimbush||QB||6'1, 216||So.||4 stars (6.0)||0.9784||6||108||1||18.0||19.8||66.7%||1||1|
|Torii Hunter Jr.||WR||6'0, 195||Jr.||4 stars (5.8)||0.9156||5||16||0||3.2||2.4||20.0%||1||1|
|Justin Brent||RB||6'2, 220||So.||4 stars (5.9)||0.9537|
|Tony Jones Jr.||RB||5'10, 219||Fr.||3 stars (5.7)||0.8926|
|Rivals||247 Comp.||Targets||Catches||Yards||Catch Rate||Target
|Torii Hunter Jr.||WR||6'0, 195||Jr.||4 stars (5.8)||0.9156||42||28||363||66.7%||11.4%||8.6||66.7%||61.9%||1.21|
|Corey Robinson||WR||6'4, 215||Sr.||4 stars (5.8)||0.8822||29||16||200||55.2%||7.9%||6.9||55.2%||48.3%||1.34|
|Alizé Jones||TE||6'4, 240||So.||4 stars (5.9)||0.9685||18||13||190||72.2%||4.9%||10.6||77.8%||61.1%||1.59|
|Nic Weishar||TE||6'4, 245||So.||4 stars (5.8)||0.9037||8||3||19||37.5%||2.2%||2.4||50.0%||25.0%||0.86|
|Josh Adams||RB||6'2, 219||So.||3 stars (5.7)||0.8973||7||7||42||100.0%||1.9%||6.0||71.4%||57.1%||0.94|
|Durham Smythe||TE||6'5, 245||Jr.||3 stars (5.7)||0.9057||5||3||18||60.0%||1.4%||3.6||40.0%||40.0%||1.00|
|Jacob Matuska||TE||6'5, 275||Sr.||3 stars (5.7)||0.8801|
|Corey Holmes||WR||6'1, 190||Jr.||4 stars (5.8)||0.9233|
|Equanimeous St. Brown||WR||6'4, 205||So.||4 stars (5.9)||0.9287|
|C.J. Sanders||WR||5'8, 185||So.||4 stars (5.8)||0.8997|
|Miles Boykin||WR||6'4, 225||RSFr.||4 stars (5.9)||0.9177|
|Javon McKinley||WR||6'3, 205||Fr.||4 stars (6.0)||0.9465|
|Chase Claypool||WR||6'4, 215||Fr.||4 stars (5.9)||0.9258|
|Kevin Stepherson||WR||6'0, 181||Fr.||3 stars (5.7)||0.8615|
4. A couple of young WRs will need to thrive
Notre Dame's offense was the best in the country after halftime. Despite youth, Kizer's passer rating rose to 175.4 in the fourth quarter, and as coordinator Mike Sanford got a read on defenses, he tended to make devastating adjustments.
Granted, he made those adjustments knowing he had Fuller, Prosise, Chris Brown, and Amir Carlisle. This foursome combined for 12.3 carries per game for 80.6 yards and 12.9 catches per game for 194.7 yards. Prosise converted from WR to RB and immediately boosted the run game from solid to fantastic. The combination of Kizer's legs and Fuller's ability to get open deep made Notre Dame one of the best passing-downs offenses in the country.
The QB will certainly still have weapons. Tarean Folston returns after essentially missing 2015 with an ACL injury, and sophomore Josh Adams is back after showing monstrous potential. He picked up a heavier load down the stretch and thrived, averaging 16.4 carries per game and 7 yards per carry over the final five games. He had 18 carries for 168 yards in the loss to Stanford.
At receiver, losing four of your top five targets is alarming, but at least there are four-stars galore. Hunter is back after averaging 8.6 yards per target, and Alizé Jones could be ready to star. Student body president Corey Robinson is possibly back, too (he's been dealing with concussion issues).
Still, for Notre Dame to become a title contender, a couple of highly touted youngsters will have to break out. Wonderfully named sophomore Equanimeous St. Brown is likely to join Hunter in the starting lineup, and former star recruits vie for time, be they redshirt freshman Miles Boykin, incoming freshmen Javon McKinley, Chase Claypool, or Kevin Stepherson (who reported early and held his own in spring ball), or slot receivers Corey Homes or C.J. Sanders.
There are lots of options, but someone has to step up. Running back isn't much of a concern, but receiver could be.
|Rivals||247 Comp.||2015 Starts||Career Starts||Honors/Notes|
|Ronnie Stanley||LT||13||39||2015 All-American|
|Mike McGlinchey||LT||6'8, 310||Jr.||4 stars (5.8)||0.9280||13||13|
|Quenton Nelson||LG||6'5, 325||Jr.||5 stars (6.1)||0.9678||11||11|
|Alex Bars||RT||6'6, 320||So.||4 stars (5.9)||0.9471||2||2|
|Hunter Bivin||RT||6'6, 308||Jr.||4 stars (5.8)||0.9531||0||0|
|Colin McGovern||RG||6'5, 315||Jr.||3 stars (5.7)||0.9188||0||0|
|Sam Mustipher||C||6'2, 305||So.||4 stars (5.8)||0.9123||0||0|
|Mark Harrell||RG||6'4, 306||Sr.||3 stars (5.7)||0.8762||0||0|
|Jimmy Byrne||LT||6'4, 300||So.||4 stars (5.8)||0.8927||0||0|
|Tristen Hoge||C||6'4, 300||RSFr.||4 stars (5.9)||0.9563|
|Trevor Ruhland||LG||6'3, 300||RSFr.||3 stars (5.7)||0.8697|
|Tommy Kraemer||OL||6'5, 310||Fr.||4 stars (6.0)||0.9819|
|Liam Eichenberg||OL||6'6, 280||Fr.||4 stars (5.8)||0.9603|
|Parker Boudreaux||OL||6'3, 300||Fr.||4 stars (5.8)||0.8803|
5. An awesome line reloads
While Prosise and Adams played a significant role in Notre Dame's rushing improvement -- from 27th in Rushing S&P+ to first, from 32nd in Adj. Line yards to second -- the line did, too. Tackle Ronnie Stanley turned into an All-American and top-10 pick, and sophomores Mike McGlinchey and Quenton Nelson joined three experienced pieces to form a wonderful unit.
Now it's McGlinchey and Nelson who need help. Some combination of juniors Hunter Bivin and Colin McGovern, sophomores Alex Bars, Sam Mustipher, and Jimmy Byrne, and redshirt freshmen Tristen Hoge and Trevor Ruhland will need to quickly live up to recruiting rankings. Bars was solid as a spot starter for Nelson last year, and offensive line coach Harry Hiestand's presence makes it hard for me to worry too much. Still, the line has to prove itself.
|FIVE FACTORS -- DEFENSE|
|Raw Category||Rk||Opp. Adj. Category||Rk|
|EFFICIENCY||Succ. Rt.||40.0%||56||Succ. Rt. +||110.0||33|
|FIELD POSITION||Off. Avg. FP||28.7||97||Off. FP+||29.7||74|
|FINISHING DRIVES||Pts. Per Scoring Opportunity||4.3||54||Redzone S&P+||115.5||19|
|Q1 Rk||57||1st Down Rk||55|
|Q2 Rk||53||2nd Down Rk||69|
|Q3 Rk||39||3rd Down Rk||48|
6. Opponents knew to run
Georgia Tech and Navy on the schedule assured Notre Dame's defensive run-pass rates would skew a bit toward the ground. Still, opponents ran 6 percentage points more than the national average on standard downs and 3 more on passing downs. That's not all on the option offenses. Despite the shuffling secondary, the Irish ranked 39th in Passing S&P+ but only 56th in Rushing S&P+.
The Fighting Irish were good in the redzone and made plays on passing downs, but run defense was a definite issue, and that was with end Romeo Okwara, tackle Sheldon Day, and linebackers Jaylon Smith and Joe Schmidt involved. They're gone, as are safeties Elijah Shumate and Matthias Farley and ace corner KeiVarae Russell.
There are plenty of reasons to talk yourself into this defense improving. For one thing, it did take a little bit of a step forward, from 43rd in Def. S&P+ to 35th, in coordinator Brian VanGorder's second year. For another, the return from injury of players like tackle Jarron Jones and safety Drue Tranquill will alleviate some lost depth.
Still, the defense was a weak link, and now it might need to improve just to offset offensive regression. If you feel like doubting Notre Dame, that gives you reason.
|Rivals||247 Comp.||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Isaac Rochell||DE||6'4, 290||Sr.||4 stars (5.9)||0.9459||13||47.0||6.7%||7.5||1.0||0||2||0||0|
|Jarron Jones (2014)||NG||6'6, 315||Sr.||4 stars (5.8)||0.9364||11||31.5||4.4%||7.5||1.5||0||0||1||0|
|Andrew Trumbetti||DE||6'4, 260||Jr.||3 stars (5.7)||0.9347||12||13.5||1.9%||2.5||1.0||1||0||0||0|
|Daniel Cage||NG||6'1, 315||Jr.||3 stars (5.7)||0.8924||11||13.0||1.8%||4.0||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Jerry Tillery||DT||6'7, 310||So.||4 stars (5.9)||0.9293||12||10.5||1.5%||2.0||1.0||0||0||0||0|
|Jonathan Bonner||DE||6'3, 286||So.||3 stars (5.6)||0.8600||10||2.0||0.3%||0.0||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|John Montelus||DT||6'4, 310||Jr.||4 stars (6.0)||0.9330|
|Grant Blankenship||DE||6'5, 278||Jr.||3 stars (5.7)||0.8982|
|Jay Hayes||DE||6'3, 285||So.||4 stars (5.8)||0.9060|
|Elijah Taylor||DT||6'3, 285||RSFr.||3 stars (5.7)||0.8945|
|Micah Dew-Treadway||DT||6'4, 300||RSFr.||3 stars (5.7)||0.8656|
|Brandon Tiassum||NG||6'4, 302||RSFr.||3 stars (5.7)||0.8665|
|Daelin Hayes||DE||6'4, 257||Fr.||5 stars (6.1)||0.9372|
|Khalid Kareem||DE||6'4, 270||Fr.||4 stars (5.8)||0.9208|
|Julian Okwara||DE||6'4, 216||Fr.||4 stars (5.8)||0.8976|
|Rivals||247 Comp.||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|James Onwualu||OLB||6'1, 232||Sr.||4 stars (5.8)||0.8950||11||29.5||4.2%||6.0||3.0||0||2||1||0|
|Greer Martini||OLB||6'3, 245||Jr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8833||13||27.0||3.8%||2.5||1.0||0||0||0||0|
|Nyles Morgan||ILB||6'1, 245||Jr.||4 stars (5.9)||0.9727||13||13.0||1.8%||0.0||0.0||0||0||1||0|
|Te'von Coney||OLB||6'1, 235||So.||4 stars (5.9)||0.8960||12||9.5||1.4%||0.5||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Josh Barajas||ILB||6'2, 240||RSFr.||4 stars (5.8)||0.9381|
|Asmar Bilal||OLB||6'2, 230||RSFr.||4 stars (5.8)||0.9200|
7. A lot back, a lot gone
Look in two directions when weighing the merits of a unit.
Losing Okwara, Day, and Smith means losing all three players who had at least nine tackles for loss in 2015, and that gives reason for concern.
But almost all of the rest of the two-deep returns in the front seven. So does Jones.
The senior missed 2015 with a knee injury (who didn't?), but the combination of Jones, junior Daniel Cage, sophomore Jerry Tillery, and former offensive lineman John Montelus should give Notre Dame some push in the middle. End Isaac Rochell is a keeper as well, and five-star freshman Daelin Hayes will be expected to contribute from day one. There is a load of redshirt freshman tackles trying to crack the rotation as well.
At linebacker, depth could be an issue with a poorly placed injury or two. But James Onwualu is a play-maker, and if either Nyles Morgan or Te'Von Coney sticks at inside linebacker, the starting three should be solid, at least.
With what returns, I don't see Notre Dame's run defense getting any worse, but with what the Irish lost, it's hard to imagine too much improvement.
|Rivals||247 Comp.||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Max Redfield||FS||6'1, 205||Sr.||5 stars (6.1)||0.9852||11||51.5||7.3%||2||1||1||2||0||0|
|Cole Luke||CB||5'11, 193||Sr.||4 stars (5.9)||0.9325||13||35.0||5.0%||1||0||2||5||0||0|
|Devin Butler||CB||6'1, 200||Sr.||3 stars (5.6)||0.8902||12||8.5||1.2%||0||0||0||2||0||0|
|Drue Tranquill||SS||6'2, 225||So.||3 stars (5.7)||0.8961||3||7.5||1.1%||2.5||0||0||2||0||0|
|Nick Watkins||CB||6'0, 200||Jr.||4 stars (5.8)||0.9237||12||6.5||0.9%||0||0||0||1||0||0|
|Nick Coleman||CB||6'0, 190||So.||3 stars (5.6)||0.8585||13||3.5||0.5%||0||0||0||2||0||0|
|Avery Sebastian||SS||5'10, 200||Sr.||NR||0.9060|
|Shaun Crawford||NB||5'9, 180||RSFr.||4 stars (5.9)||0.9456|
|Ashton White||CB||5'11, 190||RSFr.||3 stars (5.6)||0.8625|
|Troy Pride Jr.||CB||5'11, 175||Fr.||4 stars (5.8)||0.9089|
|Donte Vaughn||DB||6'3, 190||Fr.||4 stars (5.8)||0.8949|
|Julian Love||DB||5'11, 175||Fr.||4 stars (5.8)||0.8711|
|Jalen Elliott||DB||6'0, 189||Fr.||4 stars (5.8)||0.8721|
|D.J. Morgan||DB||6'2, 190||Fr.||4 stars (5.8)||0.8711|
|Devin Studstill||FS||6'0, 190||Fr.||3 stars (5.7)||0.8710|
|Spencer Perry||SS||6'2, 204||Fr.||3 stars (5.7)||0.8671|
8. This could be a young secondary
The Notre Dame secondary will feature a battle of old heads and newbies. Three seasoned seniors -- senior Max Redfield and corners Cole Luke and Devin Butler -- return, as does junior Nick Watkins. But the younger players might be hard to ignore.
Sophomore Tranquill, who suffered easily the most unnecessary injury of Notre Dame's 2015, appeared to solidify his spot in the starting lineup this spring, and out of nowhere, three-star freshman Devin Studstill was also earning reps with the first team in spring, ahead of Redfield. Plus, redshirt freshman Shaun Crawford could play a role at nickel back.
Kelly's 2016 recruiting class was DB-heavy, mostly because of the turonver when Redfield and company leave. But this year's freshmen could infiltrate the two-deep, giving this unit both higher upside and lower downside.
|Tyler Newsome||6'3, 210||So.||55||44.5||8||7||19||47.3%|
|Tyler Newsome||6'3, 210||So.||84||61.6||21||5||25.0%|
|Justin Yoon||5'10, 190||So.||50-52||12-13||92.3%||3-4||75.0%|
|C.J. Sanders||KR||5'8, 185||So.||28||22.9||1|
|C.J. Sanders||PR||5'8, 185||So.||25||7.3||1|
|Special Teams S&P+||46|
|Field Goal Efficiency||8|
|Punt Return Success Rate||83|
|Kick Return Success Rate||103|
|Punt Success Rate||95|
|Kickoff Success Rate||72|
9. Close-game recipe:
My colleague Bud Elliott has a theory that while close-game results are random to some degree, the combination of quarterback play and good place-kicking is kind of like having a really good bullpen in baseball: They won't save you from all randomness, but they can tilt a few tight games in your favor.
Notre Dame went 4-2 in one-possession games in 2015, so maybe there's reason to believe that*. Kizer was awesome, and Justin Yoon was mostly great. A good college kicker will hit 80 percent of his under-40 kicks and probably 50 percent or so of his over-40 kicks. Yoon was at 92 and 75 percent, respectively.
The rest of the special teams unit was sketchy -- the coverage units suffered breakdowns, and while Sanders scored two return touchdowns, he was also woefully inconsistent. Still, Yoon's presence made this unit a net positive for the Irish.
* Granted, two of the close wins were due to opponent comebacks that turned easy wins into tight ones.
|Date||Opponent||Proj. S&P+ Rk||Proj. Margin||Win Probability|
|8-Oct||at N.C. State||40||5.9||63%|
|Projected wins: 8.6|
|Five-Year F/+ Rk||34.9% (11)|
|2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk||10 / 8|
|2015 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin*||-6 / -1.5|
|2015 TO Luck/Game||-1.7|
|Returning Production (Off. / Def.)||53% (60%, 46%)|
|2015 Second-order wins (difference)||10.0 (0.0)|
10. If they're successful in close games again...
...then Kelly's Irish will be a national title contender in 2016.
With only one projected top-15 opponent on the schedule, thanks to projected regression for Stanford and Michigan State, the Irish could follow last year's "only lose to top-10 teams" recipe into the Playoff.
Still, the home-road splits and a conservative No. 11 projection suggest this will be another season of heartburn and close games. Five Notre Dame contests are projected to finish with a one-possession margin.
There isn't a sure loss on the schedule. In fact, there's only one game in which Notre Dame has a worse than 59 percent chance of winning. But operating in close games will be critical. That means finding go-to receivers for the quarterback in times of need, continued quality from Yoon, and a defense that improves up front despite turnover and holds steady in the back despite freshmen on the two-deep.
All of the "ifs" are realistic, and while the defense still has plenty to prove, I'm not going to doubt Kelly after last year. If I had a poll vote -- and thank goodness I don't -- I would seriously consider Notre Dame in the preseason top five.