College Football

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COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2014 PRESEASON TOP 25

#13 Notre Dame Fighting Irish

NATIONAL FORECAST

#13

Independents PREDICTION

#1

HEAD COACH: Brian Kelly, 37-15 (4 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Mike Denbrock | DEF. COORDINATOR: Brian VanGorder

After reaching the BCS title game in 2012, Notre Dame took a step back in 2013, finishing 9-4 in Brian Kelly’s fourth year. The Fighting Irish return only nine starters for 2014 but regain the services of quarterback Everett Golson. With Golson’s return, along with a solid offensive line, Notre Dame’s offense should show improvement after averaging 27.2 points a game last year. The defense is in transition with a new coordinator and the loss of defensive linemen Louis Nix and Stephon Tuitt. As always, the schedule isn't easy at Notre Dame. However, games against Florida State, USC and Stanford allow for marquee wins for the Fighting Irish.

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Previewing Notre Dame’s Offense for 2014:

Notre Dame has yet to average 30 points per game in any of Brian Kelly’s four seasons in South Bend. The main culprit has been the offense’s inefficiency in the red zone, scoring just 53 touchdowns in 105 trips (.504) the last two seasons.

The Irish are loaded with offensive potential, beginning with quarterbacks Everett Golson and Malik Zaire and running backs Tarean Folston, Greg Bryant and Cam McDaniel. The receiving corps took a hit with the graduation of wideout TJ Jones and the early departure of tight end Troy Niklas. But DaVaris Daniels headlines a deep albeit inexperienced receiving corps, and Ben Koyack looks primed to follow in the long line of standout tight ends.

The Irish are without left tackle Zack Martin, who started an incredible 52 straight games from 2010-13, and his left guard running mate, Chris Watt. But Zack’s younger brother, Nick Martin, holds down the center job, and Ronnie Stanley has the skills to ably follow Zack Martin at left tackle with veteran Christian Lombard returning to the right side at guard.

Athlon's Cover 2 Podcast Previews the Notre Dame Fighting Irish for 2014:

 

Previewing Notre Dame’s Defense for 2014: 

 Order a copy of Athlon's 2014 Big Ten Preview, which includes an in-depth look at Notre Dame for the upcoming season.

Irish fans grew impatient with Bob Diaco’s bend-but-don’t-break, keep-the-football-in-front-of-you approach, because it seldom created turnovers. But it did keep points off the scoreboard. The Irish allowed an average of 17.9 points per game from 2010-12. In ’13, the worst under Diaco, they still allowed just 22.4 points per game and held five of 13 opponents to 13 points or less.

Diaco is now the head coach at Connecticut. Enter Brian VanGorder, who has been plying his trade in the NFL after coordinating one of the best defenses at Georgia a decade ago.

The Irish lose five starters on the front seven, led by nose guard Louis Nix III and defensive end Stephon Tuitt. Inside linebacker Jarrett Grace may have to skip the 2014 season as he continues a slow recovery from a nasty leg injury. That would leave the Irish with a former walk-on, undersized Joe Schmidt, lining up next to the team’s most dynamic defensive player, Jaylon Smith, who moves from Sam to Will linebacker.
KeiVarae Russell looks like one of the best cornerbacks in the nation. Sophomore Cole Luke will challenge fifth-year Florida transfer Cody Riggs for the starting job opposite Russell. Fifth-year senior Austin Collinsworth heads into ’14 on a three-game interception streak. Sophomore Max Redfield, a former five-star recruit, takes over at the other safety.

Previewing Notre Dame’s Specialists for 2014:

Kyle Brindza talks like a football player, not a kicker, and looks like a linebacker. He converted 23-of-31 field goals in 2012 and 20-of-26 in 2013 with half his games coming on Notre Dame’s treacherous old stadium turf. Brindza also took over punting duties last fall, averaging 41.1 yards per attempt.

Final Analysis 

Kelly took Cincinnati to BCS games in back-to-back seasons (2008-09) and Notre Dame to the national championship game in 2012. He did it with offense in Cincinnati and defense at Notre Dame.

With a defense that loses five of its front seven — a year after it bid farewell to Manti Te’o, the most decorated defensive football player in college football history — it’s imperative that Kelly and his new offensive coordinator, long-time assistant/first-time coordinator Mike Denbrock, carry the lion’s share of the burden in 2014 while the defense gets its bearings.

If the offense can average 30-plus points per game — which means producing against good defenses, too — and VanGorder can create a productive, up-tempo defensive attack to mask some of the unit’s deficiencies, the Irish could make a run at a spot in the initial College Football Playoff.

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Five Reasons Why Athlon Sports is Picking Notre Dame No. 13:

1. Everett Golson’s return
After throwing for 2,405 yards and 12 touchdowns in 2012, Golson appeared to be on his way to emerging as one of the top quarterbacks in college football. However, he was suspended for a season due to academics. Golson might be a little rusty from missing all of last year, but his return should provide a boost for Notre Dame’s offense.

2. The schedule
With 10 bowl teams from 2013 on the slate, Notre Dame’s 2014 schedule is among the toughest in the nation. The Fighting Irish have trips to Florida State, Arizona State and USC, while Stanford, North Carolina, Louisville and Michigan visit South Bend. While a tough schedule could help with playoff chances, there are several swing games on this schedule. And with Notre Dame’s transition on both sides of the ball, will the Fighting Irish match last year’s win total?

3. Transition on defense
New coordinator Brian VanGorder plans on adding a few tweaks to Notre Dame’s defense, which will be a challenge with the departure of linemen Stephon Tuitt and Louis Nix III. The back seven should be the strength of the defense, as linebacker Jaylon Smith, cornerback KeiVarae Russell are expected to be in contention for All-American honors. How quickly can VanGorder blend the new starters together on defense?

4. Potential at the skill positions
With DaVaris Daniels back in the mix this fall, Notre Dame’s skill positions will help ease Golson’s transition to the starting role. Tight end Ben Koyack is a rising star, and the ground game will have additional help from redshirt freshman Greg Bryant. TJ Jones will be missed at receiver, but there’s also a lot to like about the potential at receiver and in the backfield.

5. Strength on the offensive line
Despite losing left tackle Zack Martin and guard Chris Watt, Notre Dame could have one of the top 15-20 offensive lines in college football in 2014. Ronnie Stanley could slide to left tackle to replace Martin, while the guard spots are anchored by veterans Christian Lombard and Matt Hegarty. Nick Martin is back after starting 11 games last season, and sophomore Steve Elmer is expected to claim the right tackle job. Notre Dame allowed only eight sacks last year, and this unit should open up more holes for its running backs after averaging only 4.5 yards per carry in 2013.

The Debate

How Many Games Will Notre Dame Win in 2014?

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COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2014 PRESEASON TOP 25

#14 USC Trojans

NATIONAL FORECAST

#14

Pac-12 South PREDICTION

#2

HEAD COACH: Steve Sarkisian, First Year | OFF. COORDINATOR: Clay Helton | DEF. COORDINATOR: Justin Wilcox

USC opens the Steve Sarkisian era with plenty of optimism. The Trojans return 14 starters from a team that went 10-4 last year, and the coaching staff has stability after a season of uncertainty. Sarkisian hired a good staff and inherits a team capable of winning the Pac-12 South. Quarterback Cody Kessler improved as 2013 progressed, and receiver Nelson Agholor should be an All-American in 2014. Eight starters return from a defense that limited Pac-12 opponents to 25.4 points a game last year.

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Previewing USC’s Offense for 2014:

New Trojans coach Steve Sarkisian brings the up-tempo, no-huddle offense to USC, where the old, pro-style, I-formation set wasn’t just merely a staple — it was almost a religion. It will take Trojans boosters a while to adjust to the change, but the weapons are there to make it interesting. Quarterback Cody Kessler is coming off a solid first year as a starter, capped off by an MVP performance in the Las Vegas Bowl.
Javorius “Buck” Allen was the big surprise of 2014 at tailback, and wide receiver Nelson Agholor has the talent to follow in the cleat marks of All-Americans Robert Woods and the sure-to-be-missed Marqise Lee. Randall Telfer, a gifted tight end, is likely to be utilized much more in Sarkisian’s new scheme.

The key will be an offensive line that remains a work in progress. Three important contributors have departed, and several potential starters were held out of spring practice with injuries, leaving the situation slightly muddled heading into fall camp. Max Tuerk, the team’s most versatile linemen, will be asked to replace All-Pac-12 center Marcus Martin.

Clay Helton is the offensive coordinator, but Sarkisian, like his controversial predecessor Lane Kiffin, plans to call the plays.

Athlon's Cover 2 Podcast previews the USC Trojans for 2014:

 

Previewing USC’s Defense for 2014:

 Order a copy of Athlon's 2014 Pac-12 Preview, which includes an in-depth look at all 12 teams, features and predictions for the upcoming season.
Justin Wilcox, the new defensive coordinator, will run out of a 3-4 base defense, as opposed to last year’s 5-2. But because there will be multiple fronts, it will occasionally look the same. The trick will be to play as effectively as last year’s defense, which was often the strength of the team. It helps that All-American Leonard Williams returns to lead a defensive line that could be among the finest in the country. Aggressive Antwaun Woods was the team’s most active defensive player in spring practice at nose tackle. He will be flanked by Williams and either Texas Tech transfer Delvon Simmons or junior college transfer Claude Pelon.

Hayes Pullard, the leading tackler in 2013, will be a stabilizer at one inside linebacker, and the secondary is deeper and more experienced than the one that began the season a year ago. Look for sophomore safeties Su’a Cravens and Leon McQuay III to be future stars.

Previewing USC’s Specialists for 2014:

Punter Kris Albarado, who had a good year, and placekicker Andre Heidari, who was somewhat erratic, both return. Agholor is one of the country’s more exciting return specialists. He averaged 19.1 yards per return and scored two touchdowns on punts last season.

Final Analysis

Sarkisian is ecstatic to be back at talent-rich USC, where he served as an assistant in the Pete Carroll glory years. But his hiring drew a mixed reaction among Trojans boosters. Many felt Ed Orgeron, who turned the season around as interim coach after Kiffin was fired, should have been offered the job. Others thought Boise State’s highly successful Chris Petersen, who succeeded Sarkisian at Washington, would have been a stronger choice. It is up to Sarkisian to silence the doubters.

He has more than enough good players to do it, but much will depend on an uncertain offensive line and his ability to overcome the final season of NCAA sanctions that limit him to a 75-man roster. The schedule is generally favorable, although that shaky offensive front will receive a severe early test in the season’s second week at Stanford, and after two consecutive losses to Jim Mora-coached UCLA, the Trojans must travel to play the cross-town rival Bruins in the Rose Bowl.

A confident Sarkisian is talking titles already, but it might behoove him to simply match last year’s 10-victory season. Anything less and the pressure will be turned up considerably at USC.

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Five Reasons Why Athlon Sports is Picking USC No. 14:

1. Scholarship limitations…but also plenty of talent
USC is still dealing with scholarship limitations due to NCAA sanctions, so overall depth is a concern. However, according to the recruiting rankings, the Trojans have the No. 1 roster in the conference. While USC may not have a solid second unit on offense or defense, its starting 22 is as good as any team in the conference.

2. QB Cody Kessler’s development
Under the guidance of coordinator Clay Helton, Kessler gained confidence over the final half of the season. Kessler threw for 288 yards in a 20-17 win over Stanford and torched Fresno State for 344 yards and four touchdowns. Combine Sarkisian’s background on offense, along with the return of Helton, and it’s easy to see Kessler taking another step forward in 2014.

3. Loaded skill positions
There’s little doubt USC will miss receiver Marqise Lee. However, Nelson Agholor is poised for a big year, and George Farmer and Steven Mitchell are back after missing 2013 due to injuries. The running back stable is deep, headlined by Buck Allen and Tre Madden.

4. Concerns on the offensive line
This is where scholarship sanctions come into play. USC must replace center Marcus Martin and tackle Kevin Graf, leaving Chad Wheeler, Max Tuerk and Aundrey Walker as returning starters. Redshirt freshman Khaliel Rodgers could start at right guard, while true freshmen Jordan Austin and Toa Lobendahn are expected to factor into the two-deep. An injury could be a huge blow to the offensive line.

5. The Pac-12’s top defense?
With eight starters back, USC’s defense has a chance to be the best in the Pac-12. New coordinator Justin Wilcox is one of the top assistants in the conference and inherits four potential All-Americans in end Leonard Williams, linebacker Hayes Pullard, cornerback Josh Shaw and safety Su’a Cravens.

The Debate

UCLA, USC or Arizona State: Who Wins the Pac-12 South in 2014?

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