College Football Coverage: Can Notre Dame Shake Down More Thunder?

Brian Kelly finally woke up the echoes in South Bend, as Notre Dame football became relevant on the national stage for the first time since the departure of Lou Holtz following the 1996 season. The Irish went 12-0 in the regular season, won a big statement game at Oklahoma and reached the BCS National Championship Game.

While that title game didn’t exactly go like anyone rooting for ND might have hoped, it was more about showing the gulf that currently exists between the SEC and the rest of college football right now. Notre Dame at least established they were the best of the non-SEC portion of the world and they’ve got a legitimate shot at doing the same thing in 2013.

Defense was what keyed the Irish rise in 2012, and even with Manti Te’o in the NFL, it’s what will make Notre Dame a national contender again. They return eight starters, with Louis Nix III anchoring the middle of that three-man defensive front and tying up blockers. They’re a veteran linebacking group, and three starters in the secondary are back. If you fall behind Notre Dame early in a game, get ready for a long afternoon or night trying to rally against this group.

It’s the offense where the question marks are. I’m not all that concerned by the loss of quarterback Everett Golson, suspended for the year for academic reasons. He did a good job as a freshman leading this team last year, but he wasn’t the reason they ultimately won. Tommy Rees will be fine in stepping in.

Nor am I concerned about the loss of running backs Theo Riddick and Cierre Wood. Both were tough, physical runners, but programs like Notre Dame can usually replenish a backfield in pretty short order.

A bigger concern would be the loss of tight end Tyler Eifert. With all the other changes at the skill positions, a tight end that can bail you out on third down, or when a downfield route breaks down is invaluable, and not easily replaced. The short, ball-control passing game also integrates well into a team concept built on winning with defense, and the loss of Eifert might mean Kelly has to take more chances down the field and risk mistakes.

Whomever the head coach turns to at the skill spots, there will be a veteran offensive front, with three senior starters back in the fold. In the end, that’s the reason I’m not ultimately concerned about who starts at running back, because the blocking is going to be there.

The schedule, as usual, is challenging. The Michigan game will be in Ann Arbor on September 7, and a neutral-site date with Arizona State will be in Dallas on October 5. Oklahoma is coming to South Bend, and the toughest date of them all is at the end—November 30 at Stanford, with the Cardinal looking like a national championship contender.

Notre Dame-Stanford could be a play-in game to the BCS National Championship. At the very least, it will be a big one. The final season predictions in TheSportsNotebook’s college football coverage will take place next week, but at the very least, I would expect the Irish to be back in one of the major bowl games.