2014 CFN Preview - Notre Dame Fighting Irish
Notre Dame LB Jaylen Smith
Notre Dame LB Jaylen Smith
Posted Jul 26, 2014

Preview 2014 - In the new world of college athletics, Notre Dame should shine. (Getty Images)

Notre Dame Fighting Irish

Preview 2014

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By Pete Fiutak

Head coach: Brian Kelly
5th year: 37-15
11th year overall: 90-37
Returning Lettermen:
Off. 14, Def. 25, ST 2
Lettermen Lost: 21
Ten Best ND Players
1. LB Jaylon Smith, Soph.
2. DT Sheldon Day, Jr.
3. CB KeiVarae Russell, Jr. SUSP
4. WR DaVaris Daniels, Jr. SUSP
5. QB Everett Golson, Sr.
6. OT Ronnie Stanley, Jr.
7. C Nick Martin, Sr.
8. RB Tarean Folston, Soph.
9. TE Ben Koyack, Sr.
10. RB Greg Bryant, RFr.
2014 Schedule

Aug. 30 Rice
Sep. 6 Michigan
Sep. 13 Purdue (in Indy)
Sep. 27 Syracuse (in NJ)
Oct. 4 Stanford
Oct. 11 North Carolina
Oct. 18 at Florida State
Nov. 1 Navy (in Landover)
Nov. 8 at Arizona State
Nov. 15 Northwestern
Nov. 22 Louisville
Nov. 29 at USC

With all of the massive changes being proposed in the big-money, high-stakes world of college athletics, no one is poised to take advantage of what might be coming better than Notre Dame.

It’s not that hard – if you have a lot of money, however this all plays out, you’re going to be more than just okay.

However, considering what appears to be happening, that means the program has to try to figure out exactly what it wants to do when it comes to finding creative and legal ways of - to be crude - giving players money. Going forward, more than ever, whoever has the gold will rule the college football world, and if done right, the Irish could and should turn this movement in their favor.

But this is Notre Dame, and that means it has to balance several things at once. The team has to be great, the money has to keep rolling in, and it all has to be done in the spirit of what being Notre Dame is supposed to be – whether the reality of the ideal is phony or not. All of that requires bringing in the best players possible and winning lots and lots of games.

As magical and wonderful as the 2012 season might have been, the BCS championship loss to Alabama only exposed just how far Notre Dame had to go to really and truly be among the elite of the college football elite. That’s not taking away anything that happened two years ago – there’s no such thing as a cheap 12-0 regular season record with that schedule – but the Irish simply didn’t have the talent to hang around with a rested and motivated Crimson Tide team. Going forward, will Notre Dame simply be able to New York Yankee it up and buy any top recruit it wants to in order to be as good as that Alabama team or 2013 Florida State? It won't be that easy, but there's a good chance that Notre Dame will be able to create its own rules on how this works.

All the garbage and all the silliness surrounding the idea of what you can and cannot give players to play college athletics is changing, and while unionization probably isn’t as close as some would like to believe, the big conference commissioners are taking care of that themselves. With the Power Five conferences – ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC – all looking to impolitely push out the NCAA, they’re changing the way things are done, and that means more money and more flexibility on how the business side of major college athletics is handled. To put it bluntly, the SEC wants to figure out how it can play players, and everyone else is looking to keep up without being too obscene. Potentially, no one can do that better than Notre Dame.

Texas rules the roost in terms of generating football revenue, but according to a study from Indiana University finance professor Ryan Brewer, Notre Dame football – which generates about $100 million a year – is valued at over $800 million in terms of the business side of all things revolving around the program. So as you start to hear more and more about things like “cost of attendance” and other buzzwords and phrases that simply mean the schools are going to find a way to give players money, Notre Dame will never have a problem keeping up as the biz dev landscape changes.

So what is Notre Dame’s next move? What can it do, considering its unique place in the world, to start to amass the talent and actually be as good as Florida State, Alabama and other top programs, while not sacrificing what being Notre Dame is supposed to be about?

The football program is sort of in the ACC - the two sides are friends with benefits. The ACC becomes more stable – remember, the conference was on the verge of being raided for its top programs a few years ago – and gets to bask in the light and ratings of Notre Dame. Notre Dame gets bowl tie-ins and a nice base of teams to play, but without having to be seen as just another program like it would next to Ohio State and Michigan in the Big Ten, Texas in the Big 12 or Alabama in the SEC.

Brian Kelly is sort of saying all the right things about wanting to be the Notre Dame head coach forever, but he dipped his toes into the NFL coaching waters by talking with the Philadelphia Eagles a few years ago, and turning 53 this year, his window might be closing soon if he really does dream of working in the NFL at some point.

Both of those things – the ACC and Kelly’s tenure – all tie in to where Notre Dame football is going next. No, it’s not crazy to suggest that Texas really could have thrown $100 million at Nick Saban – Notre Dame can pay its head coach whatever it wants to. Yes, being attached to the ACC will help the Irish be a part of the bowl and playoff process, and in the end, that’ll bring in even more money.

Oh yeah, and along the way, the 2014 Fighting Irish are going to actually play college football, and they’ll be really, really good at it.

There are a few concerns on the defensive front, and the linebacking corps might be just okay, but the secondary is deep, the offensive line is fine, and the skill positions are better than at any time in the Kelly era. Throw in a schedule that’s nowhere near as difficult as most are going to make it out to be – outside of the road trip to Florida State, the Irish have an honest shot in every other game – and the potential is there for a second wonderful ride in the last three years.

The Irish don’t have to be perfect – 11-1 probably gets it done when it comes to getting into the inaugural College Football Playoff.

And then the football program will make more money.

What to watch for on offense: There’s absolutely no reason that this offense can’t come up with a ton of big plays and start showing off far more firepower. No team with a running back trio of Tarean Folston, Greg Bryant and Cam McDaniel – along with a running quarterback like Everett Golson – should average 151 rushing yards per game and come up with just 12 touchdowns like last year’s ground attack generated. There were plenty of big moments for the passing game with Tommy Rees pushing the ball around, but the consistency wasn’t there when it came go putting points on the board. By far, this should be the most talented and deepest offense yet under Kelly’s watch, and it should hit 30 points a game without breathing hard after hitting the mark just five times last year.

What to watch for on defense: Can the line get into the backfield? Louis Nix and Stephon Tuitt were among the star defensive linemen who carried the defense over the last few years, and while Nix was a Coke machine last season who sat in the middle of the line before getting hurt, Tuitt and linebacker Prince Shembo were the ones who made things happen in the backfield. Of the 21 sacks generated last season, Tuitt and Shembo came up with 13 and no one else had more than one. There’s talent and potential up front, but former star recruit Ishaq Williams is part of the academic issues and investigations - the team needed him to finally start playing up to his billing on the outside. It would've been nice if the excellent tackle tandem of Jarron Jones and Sheldon Day could've stumbled into a quarterback here and there, but Day is part of the investigation, too.

The team will be far better if … the running game rolls for 150 yards or more. In the Brian Kelly era, Notre Dame is 22-3 when hitting the 150-yard mark, losing to Oklahoma last season despite ripping off 220 yards and losing to Michigan in 2010 and 2011. Of the 12 other losses under Kelly, the Irish offense ran for 100 yards just four times. Everett Golson might not be Johnny Manziel when it comes to taking off, but he’ll give the offense positive rushing yards, and there are more than enough backs to work into a rotation and put up huge numbers on a regular basis. Two years ago, the Irish controlled games by running for 150 yards or more nine times – winning them all. Getting to 200 yards shouldn’t be much of a problem.

The schedule: On one level, the slate is a killer facing ten teams that went bowling last year, one team (Northwestern) that didn’t go bowling but will this year, one national champion (Florida State), one Conference USA champion (Rice), one Pac-12 champion (Stanford), and one Pac-12 runner-up (Arizona State). However, if taken on a game-by-game basis, it might not be quite so bad. There’s no Michigan State to deal with, and Rice, Michigan, Purdue, Syracuse, Navy, Northwestern and Louisville have to be must wins for a team shooting for a big season. Stanford and North Carolina will be tough, but those two are at home. Forget about Florida State, but the Arizona State and USC games are winnable.

Unfortunately, the two off weeks come before two of the easier games – before Syracuse and Navy – but the real problem could be the lack of true home games. Notre Dame always dominates a neutral site, but it won’t play in South Bend from October 18th until November 15th, dealing with Navy in Landover. With the Purdue game in Indianapolis, and the Syracuse game in East Rutherford, there isn’t a home game for a month early in the season, either.

Best offensive player: Junior QB Everett Golson. It's going to be hard not having around star receiver DeVaris Daniels, but Golson could have the magic to make up for it. How rusty will he be? Will he get away with the chances he took throughout the dream season two years ago? He's the leader of a talented offense, and he needs to keep the mistakes to a minimum and has to take the offense to another level.

Best defensive player: Sophomore LB Jalen Smith. How were the Irish supposed to get over the loss of Manti Te’o and improve the linebacking corps? In came Smith, and he proved to be everything the team needed right away. One of the nation’s top outside linebacker recruits, the Fort Wayne native showed why finishing third on the team with 67 stops while making plays all over the field. He looked the part from the start, and now he’s the new leader and star for a defense that might not be back to its 2012 level, but should be better. Watch for him to become more of a factor in the backfield.

Key player to a successful season: Sophomore NT Jarron Jones. Ishaq Williams was going to be the key part, but that changed. The 2010 Gatorade New York Player of the Year was supposed to be a dominant hybrid for the Irish defense, but he was suspended pending an investigation into academic issues. Jones now has to become a key part of the line that needs help in the interior. Williams was needed to become a factor on the outside, but it's Jones he'll need to be the main man in the interior.

The season will be a success if … the Irish go to the Orange Bowl. Here’s the deal. Notre Dame doesn’t have any direct tie-in with any bowl, but it’s eligible for any ACC bowl tie-in as long as its record is within one game of the team eligible for the slot. The Irish will have the offensive pop and should be solid defensively given a little time, but there’s not enough there to beat Florida State in Tallahassee and run the table against everyone else with road games against Arizona State and USC along with home games against Michigan, Stanford, North Carolina, Northwestern and Louisville to deal with. Even so, 10-2 would almost certainly warrant Orange Bowl consideration, assuming the ACC champion is in the College Football Playoff.

Key game: Sept. 6 vs. Michigan. There’s a long, long way to go with a lot of dangerous games left, and it’s way too early in the season to come up with a loss. However, with Rice, Purdue, Syracuse in the early part of the campaign, 4-0 is more than likely before dealing with Stanford with a win over Michigan. The Wolverines have won four of the last five meetings, with the one Notre Dame win coming in the great 2012 season. It’s in South Bend, and any hope of this being anything like two years ago, the Irish have to win.

2013 Fun Stats:
- Fumbles: Opponents 12 (lost 4) – Notre Dame 7 (lost 4)
- Kickoff Return Average: Opponents 25.7 yards per try – Notre Dame 23.8 yards per try
- Sacks: Notre Dame 21 for 148 yards – Opponents 8 for 63 yards

2014 Notre Dame Preview - What You Need To Know & Top Players