Overview: After reaching – and getting blown out - in the BCS National Championship Game in 2012, the Fighting Irish came back to earth in 2013. Head coach Brian Kelly’s team still won nine games, including home wins over a BCS bowl winner Michigan State and Southern Cal. On the flip side, Kelly’s team lost close games to their other two traditional rivals, falling at Michigan, 41-30, and at Stanford, 27-20. The fiery head coach has done a masterful job since arriving in 2010, posting a 37-15 record in four seasons. Twenty-one of those wins came in the last two seasons, and with four Top-20 recruiting classes on campus, there is plenty of pressure to win now in South Bend.
The big story in 2014 is the return of quarterback Everett Golson. Golson, a former UNC commit, burst on the scene as starter in 2012, leading his team to the national championship game. Everything changed in 2013 when the university suspended him for an entire year for academic violations (Golson later admitted that the reason for the suspension was that he cheated on a test). Last year, Tommy Rees threw 27 touchdown passes, but also averaged an interception per game. With the efficient right-hander reinserted into the starting lineup, there should be a decrease in turnovers (he only threw six in 2012). Golson isn’t a burner per se, but his ability to run the ball will give opposing defenses something to worry about on third down and in the red zone.
Like Golson, last season’s leading rusher Cam McDaniels also had academic related issues. The senior is expected to resume his role as starting tailback this season, and his 705 total rushing yards and 4.6 yards per carry should take some stress off his quarterback. The departure of second-round NFL Draft choice Troy Niklas was a major loss, but senior wide receiver DaVaris Daniels, who had a team-high 111 targets last fall, looks like the primary candidate to lead this group in 2014. Daniels struggled with drops (he had just 49 catches with all those targets), but the former four-star recruit has the type of elite speed that very few defensive backs can match. With Golson and McDaniels in the backfield, and a lack of depth at wide receiver position, look for this offense to return to a run-centric approach that carried the program to the national title game in 2012.
In keeping with tradition, this is a team that has relied heavily on a solid defense. Last season was no different as defensive coordinator Bob Diaco’s 3-4 scheme allowed 366.2 yards per game (tied for 31st in the FBS). Diaco is now the head coach at Connecticut, as Kelly brought in UCF defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder (a former Kelly assistant from his Grand Valley State tenure) to fill Diaco’s void. VanGorder runs an attacking 4-3 scheme, so it will be interesting to see how the current players respond.
The change in strategy should immediately help this unit’s inability to get to the quarterback. Notre Dame had an adjusted sack rate of 72.2 last season (ranked a lowly 108th in FBS). The defense will also be replacing two NFL draft picks (Louis Nix III and Stephen Tuitt) along the defensive line, which will place an even greater responsibility on tackles Sheldon Day and Jarron Jones to hold the line. Unlike the front seven, this is a secondary that should be outstanding once again. Notre Dame returns both of their starting safeties, and with Matthias Farley sliding over to corner to play alongside Florida transfer Cody Riggs and sophomore Max Redfield (a five star recruit), the new and aggressive 4-3 scheme could really make this a special group.
"When we were having this opportunity to recruit a young man, they had to have a passion for wanting to get a degree from Notre Dame and winning a national championship." - Kelly
“Football had to give up a little bit, relative to flexibility and scheduling by taking on with the ACC… So now, add your ACC schools with those three schools and you’re really limited as to where you can go.” - Kelly discussing the limitations of his school’s agreement with the ACC with Bruce Feldman of Fox Sports.
Historical Outlook: North Carolina has only played Notre Dome twice since 1976 (toping the Irish 29-24 in 08’ and losing 45-26 in 06’), but the good news is that frequency will increase with the Irish’s ACC scheduling deal in place. The bad news is that the Heels are an abysmal 2-16 all-time versus the Golden Domers since the first meeting in 1949.
Notable Matchups: This is going to be a year of an adjustment for a program that is used to a ton of flexibility. The Irish have dropped physical opponents such as Michigan State and Pittsburgh, that, like Notre Dame, rely on size, physicality, and a strong ground game. Instead, the team will face far less familiar ACC foes like FSU and North Carolina that rely on athletic, up-tempo offenses. UNC is sandwiched between Stanford and Florida State in what is easily the toughest three-game stretch on the Notre Dame calendar.