Top 25 — No. 18 Notre Dame Fighting Irish

Published: Monday, August 1, 2011 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, July 31, 2011 at 11:30 p.m.


2010 record: 8-5 overall. Defeated Miami 33-17 in the Sun Bowl.

Returning starters offense/defense: 8 on offense; 8 on defense

Strength: Defensive front seven. Notre Dame has one of the nation's top linebackers in Manti Te'o (133 tackles last season, 9.5 for loss), and an improving line that should be bolstered by a recruiting class heavy on ends. One of the key reasons the SEC has been so successful in recent seasons starts at the point of attack. Athletic defensive linemen abound in the SEC, and coach Brian Kelly is trying for a similar formula in South Bend by loading up on standout defensive ends.

Weakness: Offensive backfield. The Irish appear to have plenty of talent at quarterback, but it remains unclear who will be the starter. Last year, Dayne Crist went out with a ruptured patella tendon and a 4-5 record before freshman Tommy Rees took over and led Notre Dame to four straight wins to close the season. Rees failed to impress statistically (12 touchdowns with eight interceptions), but it's hard to argue with the end result. Also in the mix are talented young athletic QBs Andrew Hendrix and Everett Golson. The senior Crist likely will start the season under center based on experience, but coach Brian Kelly could change things up quickly if Crist struggles early on. Running back depth is also a big issue for the Irish. Cierre Wood will probably be the featured back after averaging 5.1 yards per carry when senior starter Armando Allen's season was cut short in 2010. Jonas Gray is another option, but questions remain about his durability and hands.

Biggest star: Michael Floyd. This talented wide receiver's future is still uncertain as he is on indefinite suspension following his DUI arrest in March, his third alcohol-related offense in as many years. Notre Dame recently decided to allow Floyd to remain in school, paving the way for him to return for his senior season. Kelly could choose to make an example out of Floyd, but expect the receiver who had 79 catches for 1,025 yards and 12 scores in 2010 to see the field early in the year.

Rising star: Ishaq Williams. A five-star prospect out of Brooklyn N.Y., Williams was not the only prized end in the 2011 class. Kelly also brought in another five-star commit in Stephon Tuitt and four-star prospects Aaron Lynch and Ben Councell. Kelly also signed three other three-star ends in the ‘11 class. If even a few of these guys pan out, the Notre Dame defensive line could be downright scary in the near future.

Toughest game: vs. Southern Cal, Oct. 22. The battle for the Jeweled Shillelagh is always interesting with two of the most storied programs in college football history meeting head on. Notre Dame beat USC last year for the first time since 2001 despite four turnovers by Rees. With USC entering its final season under the NCAA's bowl ban stemming from the Reggie Bush scandal, the Trojans would love nothing more than to come into South Bend and spoil what could be a special season for the Fighting Irish.

Overview: Kelly's debut season got off to a shaky start with the Irish losing three of their first four games. After two consecutive midseason losses to Navy and Tulsa, Notre Dame righted the ship with four straight wins to close the season, including victories over Utah, USC and Miami. Kelly brought in a Top 10 recruiting class this year, and appears to have some momentum. Kelly is an offensive genius with a quickly improving defense, and he's got enough pieces to have a shot at a BCS bowl in 2011.

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