Notre Dame Football: Are the Irish a Top 25 Team in 2012?

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Manti Te'o hopes to lead the Irish to a BCS bowl in 2012.

<p> Will Notre Dame be a top 25 team in 2012?</p>

The college football season is a couple of months away, but the countdown to 2012 has officially begun. Athlon Sports’ 2012 preseason annuals will be hitting newsstands in early June and its official top 25 countdown will begin on May 1. Picking the order of finish in each conference and compiling the top 25 is no easy task. Each day leading up to the release of No. 25 on May 1, Athlon’s editors will tackle some of the top preseason debates and question marks facing the teams and conferences for 2012.

Will Notre Dame Be a Top 25 Team in 2012?

David Fox (@DavidFox615)
Notre Dame should flirt with the top 25 for most of the season, but the Irish may have trouble stringing together signature wins to have true staying power. This may be a team that wins eight games during the regular season and then has a chance to finish in the top 25 with a bowl victory. The easiest stretch of Notre Dame’s season will come in November with Pittsburgh, Boston College on the road and then Wake Forest, but those three games are sandwiched between road trips to Oklahoma (Oct. 27) and USC (Nov. 24), both of which should start the season in the top five. With eight starters returning on offense and playmakers likes Manti Te’o and Aaron Lynch on defense, Notre Dame has the ability to be a top 25, but if the Irish go on turnover binges like they did a year ago, all bets are off.

Braden Gall (@BradenGall)
Notre Dame is an interesting beast. They never play an easy schedule — you won't find any Sam Houston States or Montanas on this year's slate — but the Irish are consistently overrated by the pollsters. So an eight-win Notre Dame is most likely a Top 25 team over an eight-win Iowa or North Carolina or Cal. But getting to eight wins with this schedule won't be easy for a team that still needs to find a quarterback. Boston College and Navy are the two easiest games on the schedule. Home tests against Purdue, Wake Forest, Miami (in Chicago), BYU and Pitt all have to be wins if Brian Kelly wants to go bowling. Road games against USC and Oklahoma appear to be the only two guaranteed losses while Michigan State, Michigan and Stanford look like true swing games.

The amount of talent Kelly has stockpiled in the front seven should allow the Irish to match-up with more physical teams like Michigan State and Stanford. And the offense has plenty of depth along the line, and, despite losing Michael Floyd, loads of talent at the skill positions too. Should Kelly find a stabilizing force to run his offense, a 10-win season is well within reach. Otherwise, the NFL-esque front-seven and ground game should carry this team to eight wins...and a Top 25 ranking.

Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
I think Notre Dame is definitely one of the top 25 teams in college football. I was a little surprised the Irish did not win more than eight games last season, but turnovers and inconsistent quarterback play prevented this team from making a BCS bowl appearance. Brian Kelly is definitely the right coach to lead Notre Dame, but I think this team might be a year away from making a push to get 10 wins and a BCS bowl.

The biggest question mark facing the Irish in 2012 will be quarterback play. Tommy Rees is the team’s returning starter, but Andrew Hendrix, Everett Golson and Gunner Kiel will all get a chance to unseat him this spring. Rees can be productive, but he’s not a difference maker. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Golson or Hendrix take the first snap of the season. Outside of the quarterback position, the offense is in good shape. Cierre Wood is back after rushing for 1,000 yards last season, and tight end Tyler Eifert is likely a first-team All-American selection. The line also returns three starters.

While the offense has its question marks, the defense is starting to assemble some nice pieces. The line should be one of the best in college football, while linebacker Manti Te’o is back after recording 128 tackles last season. The secondary needs some work, especially at cornerback where Gary Gray and Robert Blanton depart.

The schedule is a key obstacle when examining Notre Dame’s chances of finishing in the top 25. The Irish play nine bowl teams, including USC, Michigan, Michigan State and Oklahoma. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Notre Dame pull off an upset or two, but 8-4 or 9-3 seems to be the most likely record, which places them anywhere in the 15-25 range of most preseason polls. 

Mitch Light (@AthlonMitch)
It’s fashionable at this time of year to talk about how overrated Notre Dame will be in the upcoming season, but I strongly believe the Fighting Irish will be a top-25 team in 2012. There are some issues to be resolved — who will be the starting quarterback is chief among them — but Brian Kelly has assembled a talented roster that is capable of winning nine games against a very difficult schedule.

The Irish will no doubt miss receiving Michael Floyd, but I believe the offense will be better this fall thanks to the return of 1,000-yard rusher Cierre Wood, outstanding tight end Tyler Eifert and a solid nucleus on the offensive line. The defense, led by All-America candidate Manti Te’o, should be strong once again.

A big key for Notre Dame will be cutting down on its turnovers. Last year, the Irish committed a total of 10 turnovers in their first two games, a three-point loss to South Florida and a four-point loss to Michigan. Some turnovers are bad luck and some are the result of poor play by the offense. Luck, even at Notre Dame, can’t be controlled, but you’d have to think Kelly, one of the game’s top offensive guys, will have his team taking better care of the ball in 2012. And if that’s the case, you can expect to find the Fighting Irish in the top 25 all season long.

Patrick Snow (@AthlonSnowman)
My answer would be barely. Notre Dame looks like an 8-4 team, but I see the Irish potential as closer to 9-3 than 7-5. Obviously the biggest ND question for the 2012 season involves another quarterback battle between Tommy Rees, Andrew Hendrix, and Everett Golson, and it could possibly include heralded freshman Gunner Kiel. There are plenty of solid skill players back (Cierre Wood, Theo Riddick, TJ Jones, Tyler Eifert), but Brian Kelly must get more out of his signal callers. The defense should be a strength, especially in the front seven. Senior linebacker Manti Te’o and sophomore end Aaron Lynch will lead a unit that should keep the Irish in most games, especially if an inexperienced but talented secondary develops. Notre Dame got off to a rough start last season, losing two games that it controlled and should have won. If Kelly's bunch can avoid the costly turnovers from a year ago and settle on a quarterback, the Irish will be a dangerous team. Despite road trips to Michigan State, Oklahoma and USC, I still think ND finishes in the lower half of the Top 25.

Where will Athlon predict Notre Dame to finish in the 2012 final standings? Check back on May 1 as the 2012 Top 25 countdown will be released one team a day. 

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