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College Football Preview: What Sort of Year Will Notre Dame Have in 2012?

Notre Dame won 8 regular season games last year, losing only to three top 10 teams (Michigan USC & Stanford) and their season opener to USF. Can Brian Kelley take the Irish to the next level and a BCS-bowl? The oddsmakers don’t seem to think so. They have set Notre Dame’s 2012 college football win totals at over 8 (-115) and under 8 (-125).

Helping us preview the Irish and project their 2012 college football win totals is Steve Herring from the Notre Dame football website Herring Bone Sports.

New offensive philosophy

Head Coach Brian Kelly and new offensive coordinator Chuck Martin changed the structure of the offense this spring to take advantage of a stable of dynamic running backs, each of whom will be given every opportunity to make plays all over the field no matter who ends up starting at quarterback. The Irish were on pace to have two 1,000 yard backs before an injury in 2011 and it wouldn’t be a shock to see ND push toward 3,000 yards rushing as a team in 2012.

The offensive philosophy change combines the running back and slot wide receiver roles into a group that will be shifted in and out of the backfield to maximize match-ups for their playmakers. Senior Cierre Wood, 2012’s leading rusher with 1,042 yards at 5.2 YPC, headlines the new position and has established himself as a back that can beat opponents in space and get tough yards when needed.

The new attack will feature multiple 2 and 3 back sets with plenty of misdirection to create holes for Wood, Theo Riddick, George Atkinson III, Roby Toma, Davonte Neal & Amir Carlisle. There is more speed, savvy and ability here than Notre Dame’s seen in quite some time.

The offense will be steadied by a line returning 3 high quality starters at Center, Left Guard & Left Tackle. C Braxton Cave is a Remington candidate and the most experienced player on the entire offense. He anchors a unit that has shown dramatic improvement under Brian Kelly.

Two of the best players in the country

Notre Dame will be led by two players who project to be the best in America at their respective positions: Middle Linebacker Manti Te’o & Tight End Tyler Eifert. Both could have bolted to the NFL this past spring, but chose to bypass possible 1st round selections for one more shot at getting over the hump in South Bend.

Eifert returns at TE as the most established and dependable member of the receiving corps. At 6’6’’ with great speed and agility, he’s a match-up nightmare wherever Kelly lines him up. His natural skills and size are complemented by soft hands and the willingness to attack balls in traffic.

Solid front seven

All-American Manti Te’o headlines a massive, experienced front seven. Notre Dame should be extremely difficult to run against with two defensive ends, Kapron Lewis-Moore & Stephon Tuitt, averaging 6’6’’, 290 holding the edge while behemoth tackle, Louis Nix III, commands double teams on 1st & 2nd down. Nix can be as disruptive as any interior lineman in America and is another possible 1st Round pick in 2013. These large bodies should be re-establishing the line of scrimmage while Te’o and an athletic line backing corps clean up the mess.

Who’s the quarterback?

The Irish’s biggest concerns start at quarterback, where four players are still vying for snaps heading into Fall Camp. Kelly’s 20+ years as a head coach had him touted as a “QB guru”, but he hasn’t been able to press the right buttons so far at ND. More specifically, the position’s performance in big games has teetered on embarrassing.

Returning starter Tommy Rees racked up 19 turnovers in 12 games and his lack of physical tools continues to leave fans wondering why a player labeled “smart game manager” with those numbers is allowed to continue starting despite seemingly providing no other above average skills. If Rees remains in place as the starter, then Notre Dame will struggle to stretch defenses horizontally or vertically as his limitations cripple the playbook.

If Rees is ousted, other obvious concerns involving inexperienced players at quarterback come into play. The two most likely candidates, Everett Golson & Andrew Hendrix, both possess far more QB gifts and abilities, but have been shown to lack comprehension or understanding of the playbook and necessary audibles at times.

Even in Year 3 for Brian Kelly, it seems merely optimistic to think the offense can operate at the fast pace and with the quick strike ability his attacks at Cincinnati and Central Michigan were known for. The schedule is unrelenting after Week 2. Questioning whether an inexperienced signal caller can handle the season is valid.

No playmakers at wide receiver

The offense lost the university’s most decorated statistical wide receiver in history in 1st round pick Michael Floyd. His heir apparent in catches and ability to get over the top on defenses is a major unknown. TJ Jones made the preseason Biletnikoff list, but he joins John Goodman in players that underwhelmed at receiver in 2011.

As teams key in on the running game and Tyler Eifert, Notre Dame may not have a passer who can get the ball downfield or a receiver who can consistently get open at that level – an awful combination.

Pass defense is a concern

On defense, a young and inexperienced secondary combines with major questions about where the pass rush is coming from. The Irish are replacing both corners and lost their top back-up at safety to a season-ending injury in the spring. Notre Dame must also replace the country’s top 2011 freshman defender and uber-elite pass rushing demon Aaron Lynch.

If the Irish don’t find answers quick with the newcomers at multiple positions, it could be a long season facing some of the best air attacks in the nation. Zero experience at corner and behind the safety starters means the nickel and dime packages will contain plenty of green contributors.

Schedule Analysis

5Dimes currently has point spreads available on 10 of Notre Dame’s 12 regular season games. The Irish are favored in 7 of the 10 posted spreads and the two games that do not have lines are games against Purdue and Wake Forest, both home games where Notre Dame will likely be heavy favorites in each.

09/01          vs  Navy (Dublin, Ireland)   -15   (87%)
09/08          PURDUE   -10   (77%)
09/15          @ Michigan State   +2.5   (46%)
09/22          MICHIGAN   -2.5   (54%)
10/06          vs Miami (Chicago)  -10   (77%)
10/13          STANFORD   -6   (66%)
10/20          BYU   -8.5   (75%)
10/27          @ Oklahoma   +11.5   (19%)
11/03          PITTSBURGH   -13   (83%)
11/10          @ Boston College   -10.5   (79%)
11/17          WAKE FOREST   -14   (85%)
11/24          @ USC   +13.5   (16.5%)

The cumulative total is 754.5, or 7.55 wins. I find this win probability total a bit ironic considering the oddsmakers favor Notre Dame in 9 of their 12 regular season games.

The Irish will face the 2013 NFL Draft’s likely top two QB selections on the road: USC’s Matt Barkley & Oklahoma’s Landry Jones. The Irish are clear underdogs in both of those games, however, double-digit dogs in each game appears to be excessive.

Both games against the Michigan schools are more or less toss-ups and a split is a reasonable expectation. So despite being favored in their remaining 8 games, the oddsmakers appear to be thinking the Irish will falter somewhere else along the line since they have set Notre Dame’s win total at 8.

Notre Dame will win more then 8 games if …..

If Tommy Rees remains at quarterback I don’t see Notre Dame winning more than 7 or 8 regular season games. Going 2-4 or 3-3 against USC, OU, UM, MSU, STAN & BYU with Rees is a best case scenario. If Everett Golson is named the starter I think this team has 9 or 10 win potential.

ND lost quite a few quality starters to the NFL. While they have 2 weeks of lower tier opponents to work out the kinks, it’s hard to imagine ND not needing quite a few breaks to go their way in the middle of the season. At this point it’s crazy to predict wins over USC & Oklahoma. I consider Michigan State, Michigan and Stanford as toss ups.

In summary

Notre Dame has gotten bigger and faster under Brian Kelly and may be only a year away from making a legitimate run at a title. Seriously.

Tony Rice, Notre Dame’s last National Champion QB, recently claimed Everett Golson would erase all his records. Many are hoping to see Golson sooner than later and believe his skill set is the difference between another disappointing season and a surprising Top 15 finish.

Therefore depending on the quarterback situation I believe Notre Dame will win between 7 and 9 games and would suggest that the current posted win total of 8 appears to have little value one way or the other.

I believe from what we currently know about Notre Dame they are an 8 win team this year. I don’t see them beating either Oklahoma or USC on the road and will most likely split the with the Michigan schools. Can the Irish run the remainder of the schedule and win 9 games? With Tommy Rees at quarterback, Steve does not seem to think so and neither do I. Let me know what you think of Notre Dame’s chances of going over or under 8 wins this year. 

- Pez.

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