By Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven on Twitter)
When the preseason magazines and polls are released every year, no team generates as much discussion as Notre Dame. The Irish are one of the most polarizing teams in college football, and the hype for 2011 has already started - Athlon Sports has projected the Irish to finish No. 6 in the nation.
When Athlon released it’s pick of Notre Dame at No. 6, there was certainly a lot of “It’s the same old Irish team. Always overrated” talk. The last BCS bowl appearance for the Irish came in the 2007 Sugar Bowl, and they have not won more than eight games in a season over the last four years.
But that’s all in the past and 2011 is a different year. Despite the recent history, it’s time to buy into the hype – the Irish will win 10 games and play in a BCS bowl this year.
Sure, there’s a little bit of uncertainty about the quarterback position, but wide receiver Michael Floyd appears to have avoided a major suspension with his off-the-field issues and ranks among the best in college football at his position when he’s healthy.
Although Floyd’s return and the quarterback battle deserve some preseason hype, here are the five real reasons to buy into Notre Dame for 2011 –
Improvement on Defense
The biggest reason for optimism in South Bend has to be the defense. Although the offense produced big numbers under Charlie Weis, the defense lagged behind in production. The Irish have finished in the top 25 of scoring defense only twice in the last 10 years - with one of those coming last season.
Under the direction of Bob Diaco, the defense showed significant improvement last season, allowing on average 9.8 points over the final four contests. The Irish also allowed only one rushing touchdown over the final five games. The defense didn’t face the most prolific offenses over the last four games, but it’s clear there was progress.
Linebacker Manti Te’o should contend for All-America honors this year, after collecting 133 tackles in 2010. Te’o will team with Darius Fleming, Carlo Calabrese and likely Prince Shembo to form a talented starting linebacker corps that should be one of the top 10 in the nation.
The linebackers will be getting a lot of help from the three starters up front. Seniors Ethan Johnson and Kapron Lewis-Moore will anchor the line, but it’s the young players that were the talk of spring practice. Redshirt freshman Louis Nix III will likely start at nose guard, while true freshman Aaron Lynch dominated in the spring game and could emerge as the team’s top pass rusher.
With eight starters back and one of college football’s top defensive line recruiting classes, the Irish should take another step forward on defense in 2011. Diaco has another spring practice to implement his 3-4 scheme, and the Irish appear deeper and more talented on defense than in recent memory.
Notre Dame’s schedule isn’t easy. However, it’s not particularly difficult or something that should stand in the way of a BCS bowl run. In Athlon’s 120 rankings for 2011, only two opponents rank outside of the top 60 – Purdue and Wake Forest.
The first four contests of the season will be critical, with South Florida, Michigan State and Pittsburgh visiting South Bend. A road date at Michigan is probably Notre Dame’s toughest away game on the schedule outside of the season finale against Stanford. Air Force is a tricky team to prepare for and a top 25 contender. USC has won eight of the last nine games against the Irish, but its suspect defense will be put to the test against Notre Dame’s aerial attack. With the exception of Michigan and Stanford, the Irish will likely be favored in every game.
Although there are certainly plenty of landmines and potential defeats on the schedule, the Irish should be able to finish with a 10-2 record.
An Improved Rushing Attack
Whether it was at Grand Valley State, Cincinnati or Central Michigan, Brian Kelly’s offenses have produce,d and this unit was solid last year, despite losing quarterback Dayne Crist to a knee injury in late October. The quarterback situation needs to be settled, but as Kelly displayed at Cincinnati, he can get production from seemingly anyone he puts under center.
The real key to the offense will be establishing the ground attack with Cierre Wood, who led the team with 603 yards last season and averaged a solid 5.1 yards per carry. With one of the nation’s top receiving corps returning and a potentially explosive passing attack ready to breakout, the Irish need Wood to emerge and add more balance to the offense. Notre Dame doesn’t need 100 yards from Wood every week, but assuming he picks up where he left off in 2010, he should be one of college football’s breakout running backs in 2011.
The Offensive Line
This unit was a source of concern going into last season, but finished as a strength. Despite having four new starters, the line allowed only 20 sacks and cleared the way for the offense to average 143.4 yards per game on the ground over the final seven contests.
Four starters are back this year, including All-America candidate Zack Martin leading the way at left tackle. Three senior starters return and along with Martin, have 63 combined starts. Right guard Trevor Robinson is the most experienced player on the unit, with 27 starts over three seasons.
There’s no shortage of experience and promising talent returning up front. Having another offseason to learn under Kelly and offensive line coach Ed Warinner should make this unit even better this year. The Irish just missed the cut in Athlon’s top 10 offensive lines for 2011, but if they improve their run blocking, this unit could play their way into elite company.
Kelly’s first season in South Bend had its head-scratching moments, most notably defeats to Tulsa and Navy. However, losses to Michigan and Michigan State were by a combined seven points, and the Irish started to click over the final four games of the season.
Kelly’s track record suggests his second year at a school will produce better results than year one. At Central Michigan (2005), the Chippewas improved their win total by two games and earned their first winning season since 1998. At Cincinnati (2008), the Bearcats claimed the Big East title and played in their first BCS bowl.
At each of his coaching stops, Kelly seems to pull all of the right strings at the right time. During his second year at Cincinnati, Kelly went through multiple quarterbacks, and still won the Big East title for a second year. Kelly used a redshirt freshman quarterback (Dan LeFevour) in 2006 to win Central Michigan’s first MAC title since 1994.
Although Kelly’s first year wasn’t perfect, there is little doubt Notre Dame is on the right track. Kelly is among the nation’s elite coaches and any doubts about his ability to recruit were erased with a top-15 class.
Considering the improvement the Irish showed at the end of 2010 and the natural jump most programs get with a second-year coach, the preseason projection of a 10-win season and a BCS bowl are well within Notre Dame's reach.
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