Notre Dame has found stability and plenty of success under Brian Kelly, winning 37 games over the last four years and making an appearance in the BCS national championship after the 2012 season.
The Fighting Irish navigated conference realignment without many changes in its long-term outlook, but the program joined the ACC as a partial member and will play four opponents from that league in 2014. But beginning in 2015, the ACC and Notre Dame will play five conference games a year.
Although joining the ACC as a partial member doesn’t change a ton for its football outlook, Notre Dame has an improved bowl situation with a potential bid in the Orange Bowl at the end of this season.
But as college football’s postseason format is changing, so is the personnel in South Behind. The Fighting Irish return only nine starters for 2014 but regain the services of quarterback Everett Golson.
Notre Dame’s schedule isn’t particularly overwhelming, but Brian Kelly’s team has a lot of transition in the lineup and must play 10 bowl teams from 2013.
Athlon Sports’ preseason magazines are set to hit the newsstands in late May/early June, and it’s time to settle some of the biggest debates for 2014. Over the next few weeks, AthlonSports.com will dive into some of the key topics by conference and some of the debates that will shape preseason predictions for this year.
How Many Games Will the Fighting Irish Win in 2014?: Over/Under on 9.5
Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
I will take the under and say Notre Dame wins nine games in 2014. The Fighting Irish weren’t able to repeat their success from 2012 last season, largely due to quarterback Everett Golson’s suspension. Golson is back in 2014 to lead the offense, and once he knocks off the rust, he could be one of college football’s top 10-15 quarterbacks. And Golson has no shortage of skill players at his disposal, as the backfield has three players that rushed for at least 200 yards last year, while redshirt freshman Greg Bryant is ready to contribute. Provided DaVaris Daniels returns to the team as expected, Notre Dame also has a good group of receivers for Golson, and the offensive line is solid with three starters back. My biggest concern for the Fighting Irish is a defense that returns only five starters and must replace end Stephon Tuitt and nose tackle Louis Nix. Despite the concerns on defense, there are enough winnable games on the schedule to get to 10 victories. I’m giving Notre Dame losses against Florida State and USC and there’s another likely to come against Stanford or Arizona State. But if the new pieces and coordinator mesh on defense, swing games against the Cardinal and Sun Devils suddenly become more manageable. I like the under, but this one will be right on the edge.
Braden Gall (@BradenGall)
The state of the Irish program in is great shape despite the heavy departures along both lines of scrimmage over the last two seasons. Brian Kelly has recruited extremely well, more than a few young stars should step into bigger roles and the quarterback situation — be it Everett Golson or Malik Zaire — should be a major upgrade. But can the 2014 Notre Dame squad return to playoff contention — i.e., 10 or more wins? It's really difficult to say yes to 10 wins with the nasty slate the Irish must face this fall. A three-game round robin with Pac-12 powers Stanford, USC and Arizona State — with the latter two coming on the road — already makes 10 wins a tall order but add in a road trip to Florida State and it's darn near impossible. This speaks nothing of must-win battles against Michigan, North Carolina, Louisville and Northwestern as well. There is no doubt this Notre Dame squad should be improved from a year ago, and, certainly will be more fun to watch, but getting to 10 regular season wins seems like a reach. Even for Brian Kelly.
I'll take the under, but barely. Notre Dame lost quite a bit of experience and talent, especially along both the offensive and defensive lines, from last year's team which went 9-4. However, head coach Brian Kelly has done a good job keeping the cupboard pretty well stocked, and the Fighting Irish offense should get a huge boost from the return of 2012 starting quarterback Everett Golson. Remember Golson was the signal-caller for the team that went undefeated in the regular season before losing to Alabama in the BCS National Championship Game. Golson and company won't go 12-0 again, not with road games at defending national champion Florida State and historic rival USC on the slate. However, outside of these two tough tests, the only other really difficult matchups I see is an Oct. 4 home date with Stanford and a Nov. 8 trip out to Tempe to face Arizona State. The Irish should be able to handle the ACC-centric (FSU, Louisville, North Carolina and Syracuse) aspect of their schedule with just the one loss, and the rest of the schedule is made up of the likes of Michigan, Purdue, Northwestern, Rice and Navy. There's nary a preseason Top 25 team in that group. In fact, Notre Dame plays just three true road games (at FSU, Arizona State and USC) all season with neutral site matchups against Syracuse (MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford N.J.) and Navy (FedEx Field in Landover, Md.). Even with a schedule that gets tougher as the season develops, I think Kelly's team will find a way to match last season's win total before any bowl bids or playoff berths are decided.
David Fox (@DavidFox615)
Double-digit wins is a pretty high bar for a team with only nine returning starters and some pretty major departures. Give Notre Dame credit for winning nine games despite losing quarterback Everett Golson for the season in 2013. His return will be one of the most intriguing storylines of the season, but remember who Golson was in 2012. He was a solid quarterback on an undefeated team. He completed 57 percent of his passes against nine winning teams on his schedule that year with six touchdowns and five interceptions. And on defense, Notre Dame is regrouping without Louis Nix III and Stephon Tuitt. That’s not easy. Certainly, Notre Dame is capable of defeating every opponent on its schedule, save for perhaps Florida State. But it’s tough to expect Notre Dame to win three of its four swing games against Michigan, Stanford, Arizona State and USC while staying perfect for the rest of the season.