2011 Football Predictions: Notre Dame

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Does Notre Dame deserve to be a preseason top five team?

Does Notre Dame deserve to be a preseason top five team?

For the 45th year in a row, Athlon Sports will release its in-depth preseason preview annual complete with coaching changes, behind the scenes features, scouting reports from within the locker room, pages of recruiting rankings, and most importantly, in-depth predictions and previews.

Each year, we order some pizza and lock ourselves in a room until all 120 teams have been hammered into place. And every year, there are some seriously heated discussions that result in not-so-cordial commentary.

The 2011 preseason top-25 countdown will begin with No. 25 on Monday May 2. But every day until then, we will offer the college football fan a peek behind the curtain at some of the most heated debates that we the editors at Athlon had to work through.

Check out all the debates linked below.

The Debate: Does Notre Dame deserve to be a preseason top five team?

Mitch Light (@AthlonMitch)
Notre Dame should be a top-10 team. Not sure about top 5. The Irish should be better on both sides of the ball, but in particular, I believe the offense will be vastly improved. It is the second season under Brian Kelly, and there is solid talent at the skill positions and a very good offensive line. The defense got a lot better as the 2010 season progressed and there is no reason to believe this group won't continue to get better. The Irish's talent level isn't elite, but it's very good. You combine that with a manageable schedule and a great coach — the result is a preseason top 10 ranking.

Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
I wouldn't put Notre Dame as a preseason top five team, but the 6-10 range seems to be where it should be ranked. The Irish seemed to find their stride under Brian Kelly late last year by winning the final four games. Although the final four wins were huge, the Irish finally seemed to figure things out on the offensive line and on defense - both areas of concern in recent years. With a loaded recruiting class coming to restock the cupboard on defense, the Irish have a chance to be even better in 2011. The offense didn't quite live up to the numbers Kelly produced at Grand Valley State, Central Michigan or Cincinnati, but I'd expect that to change this year. Dayne Crist needs to stay healthy at quarterback, but Tommy Rees is a capable backup and there's plenty of weapons, notably Cierre Wood at running back and Michael Floyd at receiver. The schedule isn't easy, but it's not the most difficult either. Dates at Michigan and Stanford will be the most difficult road tests, while hosting Michigan State, USC and South Florida will be swing games. If the Irish pickup where they left off last season, along with a semi-favorable schedule in Brian Kelly's second year, a trip to a BCS game and a 10-win season is well within reach.

Nathan Rush
Giving Notre Dame a preseason Top 10 ranking — and by that, I mean somewhere between Nos. 6-10 — is fair. Let the Fighting Irish play their way into the Top 5, which is a possibility in Brian Kelly’s second season in South Bend. Big-hitting backer Manti Te’o and high-flying receiver Michael Floyd (pending possible DUI punishment) lead a stacked ND team. If quarterback Dayne Crist can bounce back from knee surgery, these Irish could be a national title contender. Then again, the Golden Domers were supposed to turn the corner under Charlie Weis, and Ty Willingham before that. Let’s not anoint Notre Dame as a preseason Top 5 team just yet. The Fighting Irish — more than any other team with a BCS deal — should have to earn their spot at the big table.

Braden Gall (@AthlonBraden)
In Brian Kelly I believe. Certainly, settling the quarterback position as quickly as possible is key. And off-the-field legal issues are swirling around star receiver Michael Floyd as well as the University as a whole. But what makes this Notre Dame team different than Irish squad's of the past is the defense. The four-game winning streak that ended 2010 was because of the defense not the Mad Scientist's preferred side of the ball. The Irish faced 126 rushing attempts over that span and surrendered a measly 2.9 yards per carry - allowing 39 total points during the winning streak. This unit is only getting better with an elite group of front-seven freshman enrolling this season to go with established stars like Manti Te'o. The schedule isn't easy and is chalked full of swing games, but every contest is a winnable one. Does 11-2 put the Irish in the top five? Maybe not, but 12-1 definitely would - and one loss is not that far out of reach.

Patrick Snow (@AthlonSnowman)
I think top 5 may be a little high for the improved Irish, but Brian Kelly's team is now to the point where they can feel confident about beating any team on their schedule. The offense should be quite potent with a bevy of weapons and a solid line. Whether Dayne Crist or Tommy Rees is under center, they will have All-America receiver Michael Floyd as the prime target. I also believe sophomore running back Cierre Wood is an emerging star. On defense, All-America linebacker Manti Te'o will lead an experienced unit that played very well at the end of last season. I see Notre Dame going either 10-2 or 9-3, and that they should be rated in the 9-12 range in the preseason.

Debate: Can LSU win a national title with Jordan Jefferson under center? 
Debate: Who is the top challenger Oklahoma in the Big 12? 

Debate: What will Nebraska's conference record be in the Big Ten?

Debate: Will the Oregon Ducks repeat as Pac-12 Champions?

Debate: Who will win the SEC East in 2011?

Debate: Who is the top challenger to West Virginia in the Big East?

Debate: What is Ohio State's record after five games in 2011?

Debate: Who is the first-team All-Big 12 quarterback this year?

Debate: Who will finish second in the ACC Atlantic?

Debate: How far will Auburn fall in 2011?

Pre-order your team’s Athlon Sports cover here (athlonsports.com/store) and find out where Athlon has your team picked when the 2011 Top 25 countdown begins on Monday, May 2.

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