The No. 16 Notre Dame Fighting Irish begin their 2011 campaign against the South Florida Bulls this Saturday, September 3rd  at 3:30 pm EST at Notre Dame Stadium in Notre Dame, Indiana . It will be broadcasted nationally on NBC.

The Fighting Irish have high hopes that a retooled team with the return of starting QB Dayne Crist, who will start over heralded Sophomore Tommy Rees, and outstanding wideout Michael Floyd can take them to the elite NCAA team status.

This will mark The Fighting Irish’s first meeting with South Florida.

Here Ladies and Gentlemen is the Inaugural 2011 Notre Dame Fighting Irish Football Preview…

Notre Dame Offense
Dayne Crist finds himself at the helm of the offense once again. In spite of leading the team to five straight victories and tremendous momentum at the end of last season, Sophomore Tommy Rees was demoted to the bench. Kelly feels that Crist off of knee surgery is a much improved player, a better quarterback, and “the type of guy he wants to coach”. Let’s see if he’s the “type of guy” who can lead the team to victories.

The team is loaded at the receiver position led by one of the best in the nation in Micheal Floyd (79 Catches, 1,025 yards, 12 TDs 2010). Floyd is complemented by the superb play of receivers Theo Riddick, T.J. Jones, and TE Tyle Eiffert. The trio combined for 90 catches, 1,072 yards receiving, and 8 touchdowns last season.

The Notre Dame running back department is a bit thin where Junior Cierre Wood is joined by the two Freshman George Atkinson III and Cam McDaniel. Though Wood’s rushing numbers were underwhelming last year (603 yards, 3 TDs), he has averaged more than 5 yards per carry and accumulated more than 1,073 all-purpose yards in 2010.

The kicking duties will be handled by true freshman Kyle Brindza.

ND Defense
The squad, returning 12 starters, is led by LB Manti Te’o. His 133 tackles in 2010 were the most by a ND player in 27 years. The Fighting Irish hope to build on the defensive momentum from last season. Over the team’s last four games (4-0) Manti and company gave up only 233 yards per game and a total of 39 points.

LB Darius Fleming will once again join Te’o in the vaunted Fighting Irish 3-4 defense and will look to build upon his 6 recorded sacks from a year ago. And fellow LB Dan will share duties with Carlo Calabrese in an outside spot. This is surprising as Calabrese capped of a solid season with 60 tackles and Fox was mainly a special teams guy who recorded 20 tackles as a sophomore.

The Notre Dame backfield is bolstered by the presence of Irish captain Harrison Smith whose 93 tackles and seven interceptions in 2010 make him a force to be reckoned with.  Senior cornerback Robert Blanton adds 52 tackles and seven for a loss from last season.

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South Florida Offense
The most popular person on the sidelines is a non-player who is all too familiar with the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. Bulls second year coach Skip Holz.  The son of legendary Notre Dame Coach Lou Holz, Skip played for the Fighting Irish and even joined his father’s staff in his final year as Offensive Coordinator. Holz is looking to improve upon last season’s  8-5 record and a Meineke Car Care bowl victory over Clemson, 31-26.

There are high expectations for QB BJ Daniels. He salvaged an underachieving season over his last six games by throwing seven touchdowns and three interceptions, culminating in an impressive showing in the Meineke Car Care Bowl. He will be called upon to generate offense with his speed and also to limit mistakes by cutting down on interceptions and improving completion percentage.

The team also welcomes the addition of RB transfer Darrell Scott who had two disappointing seasons with the Colorado Buffaloes to join Demtrius Murray (542 yards, 4 TDS 2010) in the backfield.

The Bulls also welcome the return of their injured receiving corps from last year A.J. Love and Sterling Griffin.

The Offensive line could be a liability for the Bulls with three new starters including red-shirt Freshman Quinterrius Eatman.

South Florida Defense
The squad was impressive last season ranked 17th in total defense last season, 22nd against the run, and 24th against the pass. The team rests heavily on standout Linebackers DeDe Lattimore (69 tackles) and Sam Barrington and bolstered by a strong secondary including CB Quenton Washington (I Int, 65 tackles),  SS Jon Lejiste (4 sacks), CB Kayvon Webster (29 tackles) and S Jarell Young (41 tackles). 

The Fighting Irish have some major questions on offense. Sure they are set at wide receiver with Floyd and Company but how will Dane Crist perform after an underwhelming season cut short by yet another season-ending injury? Can Cierre Wood be counted on to be the go-to man in the running back spot backed up by two inexperienced Freshman?

In spite of these nagging worries the Notre Dame defense will triumph over the inconsistent and average South Florida offense, giving its offense some breathing room against a formidable Bulls defense.  Look for Michael Floyd to to return with aplomb and gusto. 

This will be an important win for the Irish who would like to start their Fiesta Bowl conquest on the right cleat.

Notre Dame 20 – South Florida 13