The Notre Dame football program stumbled in 2013. After a trip to the BCS Championship in 2012, the Irish produced a 9-4 season.
Notre Dame had a number good looking wins last season, but they were paired up with tough losses. They also lost a number of important players to the NFL including 11 starters.
The 2014 schedule is not all that forgiving either.
Notre Dame faces six teams that boasted a double digit win record last season. A few of those teams suffered some big losses (like Louisville losing QB Teddy Bridgewater to the NFL) but will still present a challenge.
Vegas odds currently have the Irish as underdogs in four games: Stanford, at Florida State, at Arizona State, and at USC. Not surprising that three of those games are on the road.
On paper, it is easy to look at this as another 8-4 season. Coach Brian Kelly thinks that this is the most talented team he has ever had at Notre Dame. Looking at the losses on the roster, it’s hard to agree with him. However, it does help that the Irish have the 11th ranked recruiting class heading into the fall.
One area that is likely to improve is quarterback play. For all Tommy Rees did for the Irish last season he was maddeningly inconsistent. The return of Everett Golson will help stabilize the position while also giving the team more dynamic options as well.
Rees wasn’t exactly a mobile option under center and with Golson the Irish can run option plays behind a very stout offensive line. Malik Zaire is also an option at the position, and while he lacks experience, he is more dangerous with the ball in his hands than Golson.
At wide receiver, the Irish will need DaVaris Daniels to step up in a big way. He has all the potential of an NFL player (and was compared to IU’s Cody Latimer who went in the second round last year) but needs to play with more intensity on every play.
The running back position is well stocked as well. Cam McDaniel will likely start and be a solid contributor all season long. But sophomore’s Tarean Folston and Greg Bryant are going to demand time on the field. Both have the ability to take the ball to the end zone on every carry.
Expect the Irish to run the ball more this season. It was clearly the team’s strength last season, despite Kelly’s best efforts to suggest otherwise. With Golson, the three headed monster at RB, and the solid offensive line, Notre Dame can run the ball at will with the read option.
There are lot of holes for Kelly to fill this season. The defensive line and linebacking corps have been decimated by the NFL Draft. This team has been built on defense for the past few seasons and now it will all depend on how well the team can replace these losses.
The Irish appear to be switching to a 4-3 defense this season with new coordinator Brian VanGorder taking over. In reality, it is easier to find players for a 4-3 scheme as opposed to the the old 3-4 the team ran.
VanGorder likes to blitz and has a pretty deep playbook for his pass rush. This will be key for the Irish who desperately need to find a way to pressure opposing QBs now that their biggest sack artists are gone. Right now, it looks like the defense will use creativity as opposed to raw talent to generate pressure.
It worked well in the spring game and it looks like they will use a sort of hybrid of the Tampa-2 defense. If the players can grasp the complex concepts that VanGorder is giving them, and execute, this defense could turn out to be pretty impressive.
Until this team plays some meaningful football (and I mean against Michigan, not the opener vs Rice) it will be hard to tell what kind of team Kelly has on his hands. Luckily, three of the first four games are cupcakes with the aforementioned Rice and neutral site games against Purdue and Syracuse. In fact, the Irish won’t face a true road game until October 18th against Florida State.
This looks like another 8-9 win season for the Irish. They’ll make a bowl game, and should get something better than the Pinstripe Bowl. They won’t be making the four team playoff, and really didn’t put together a difficult enough schedule to warrant consideration.
They’ll have to go undefeated to make the BCS Playoff and I just don’t see that happening with all the changes in South Bend.