Everyone loves to knock The Irish. However, the short-sighted among the ‘haters’ would do well to remember that Notre Dame has won 21 games during the past two seasons, their best two-year stretch since going 21-2-1 from 1992. Can they repeat that level of success in 2014?
Notre Dame comes into the new football season with an unusually high number of storylines, even for them. It is a season of change in many aspects, however there is no doubt there is plenty of talent on both sides of the line of scrimmage.
There are a few question marks in terms of the defensive front and the linebacking crew is probably average, no better. However, the secondary is super-deep and talented, the big guys in the trenches on the offensive side are above average, and the skill players are top notch – a very exciting group of players. Add to that the fact the schedule is not that tough and this could be an exciting year for the Fighting Irish.
Key returners: QB Everett Golson, RB Tarean Folston, RB Cam McDaniel, RB Greg Bryant, TE Ben Koyack, LT Ronnie Stanley, C Nick Martin, RG Christian Lombard, DT Sheldon Day, LB Jaylon Smith, LB Joe Schmidt, S Matthias Farley, S Max Redfield, S Austin Collinsworth
Key losses: QB Tommy Rees, RB George Atkinson III, WR TJ Jones, TE Troy Niklas, LT Zack Martin, LG Chris Watt, DE Stephon Tuitt, DT Louis Nix, LB Dan Fox, LB Carlo Calabrese, CB Bennett Jackson
Most important 2014 games
• Sept. 6 vs. Michigan
• Oct. 4 vs. Stanford
• Oct. 18 at Florida State
• Nov. 8 at Arizona State
• Nov. 29 at USC
Key game: Sept. 6 vs. Michigan. Among that group of important games, the Michigan game stands out as the key fixture in the season. This will be a season-defining game. If Notre Dame wants to repeat the relative success of 2012, it is simply a must win game. They don’t come any bigger than this.
After an ‘interesting’ preseason camp, Notre Dame kicks off its 2014 season when Rice visits South Bend on this Saturday afternoon. Notre Dame are favored by a touchdown in Vegas, despite the fact the Owls are an improving squad. For The Irish, it’s the first chance to see Everett Golson back on the football field, his first game in over 600 days. It's also the debut of new coordinators Mike Denbrock and Brian VanGorder, who both have to hit the ground running if Notre Dame wants to achieve its lofty goals. Notre Dame is, of course, going to be without four academically suspended players which means the team will be without starters DaVaris Daniels, KeiVarae Russell and Ishaq Williams. However, they should still manage to find a way past Rice. If they don’t the season might be over before it begins.
The team – Offense
The 2014 Notre Dame offense should be a more balanced, productive attack than in 2013. Armed with the talented running back trio of Tarean Folston, Greg Bryant and Cam McDaniel and marshaled by quarterback Everett Golson, this should be the most talented and deepest offense yet under Kelly's watch. Junior WR DaVaris Daniels and Everett Golson will be important pieces of the puzzle. Perhaps most of all, the return of Golson marks the return of a quarterback capable enough to expand the scope of Notre Dame's offense. Overall, Golson, a deep running game and several young, exciting receivers should add up to plenty of points on the board for the Irish.
The team – Defense
There are many more questions on defense than offense when it comes to Notre Dame's 2014 season outlook. There's talent and potential up front, but former star recruit Ishaq Williams has to finally start playing up to his potential on the outside (when/if he returns from suspension), and the excellent tackle tandem of Jarron Jones and Sheldon Day need to start getting to the opposition quarterback with consistency.
Sophomore LB Jalen Smith is a crucial part of the defense going into the season. One of the nation's top outside linebacker recruits, Smith last year showed why finishing third on the team with 67 stops while making plays all over the field. He comes into 2014 as the new leader and star for a defense that will have a lot of work to do to return to its excellent 2012 output. Another key defensive player is Senior DE Ishaq Williams. The 2010 Gatorade New York Player of the Year is 6-5 and 271 pounds and has all the physical tools to be a star. It hasn’t happened yet for a variety of reasons, but is this the year when it all comes together? Only time will tell.
The schedule has a somewhat easy start, but October looks tough, featuring three Top 25 teams: Stanford and North Carolina at home, followed by a trip to Florida State. Road games at Arizona State and USC in November will also be a tough portion of the schedule. If you look at the schedule as a pessimist, you will see ten teams that went bowling last year, one national champion (Florida State), one Conference USA champion (Rice), one Pac-12 champion (Stanford), and one Pac-12 runner-up (Arizona State). If you look at it as an optimist, Rice, Michigan, Purdue, Syracuse, Navy, Northwestern and Louisville should all be beatable. Stanford and North Carolina present a challenge, and a tough one at that, but both games are at home. Even Arizona State and USC games are winnable. The season schedule toughness basically depends if you are a glass half full or a glass half empty kind of analyst.
Best-case scenario for 2014
Notre Dame clicks on both sides of the ball, the young players step up to their potential and the senior players rule supreme on the Gridiron. Notre Dame goes 11-1, losing only to Florida State, and has a loud say in the playoffs in December.
Worst-case scenario for 2014
The team doesn’t gel, Golson is sloppy and the defense has nothing in the tank come late season. Notre Dame loses 5 or 6 games and struggles mightily for Bowl eligibility.
Golson is a huge part of the equation, and if he stays healthy Notre Dame can dream of a bright season. The stable of Running Backs and the excellent offensive line all point to a positive season. The offense will have to score a good few points as the defense is going to be a work in progress. Notre Dame has depth, talent and skill across the board and that secondary could make a few game-changing plays on its own. The schedule is interesting, but is there to be attacked and the wins are there if Notre Dame wants them enough.
If the talented offensive line keeps Golson on his feet Notre Dame can win 9 or 10 games and put itself firmly in the national picture come playoff time.