As another off season of College Football material kicks off, this year marks the third year I’ll throw my hat in the ring and look at a number of topics and categories. In the process I’ll look to do everything from predicting next year’s 25 best teams, identify the games of the year, narrow down the Heisman field, identify those replacing 2012′s stars and ultimately make predictions for each league, culminating in a national championship pick. They’ll be many things I’ll be ridiculed for. There will be a number of things that will surprise some people. Ultimately you’ll come away from the next 6 months of material as ready for the college football season as I can possibly make you. While I’ll be sure to miss on things I would like to remind the skeptics I did correctly predict the same number of bowl teams preseason as Phil Steele a year ago as well as top him in BCS Bowl participants predicted before the year. Nonetheless I’m not putting out any magazines soon so keep buying his for the top preseason coverage available.
The key in any top 25 poll is understanding the premise on which the poll is based because not all top 25 polls are built the same way. Some people choose to rank teams 1-25 based on where they think teams will be ranked at year’s end. If they think a team will lose 5 games they won’t rank them. While that may seem logical I’ve never been a proponent of that style of poll and it has never been, nor will ever be, how I choose to do my top 25 polls. My polls reflect the 25 teams entering 2013 who I think are the top 25 teams on a neutral field if the country played a round-robin. If a team is likely to max out at 7 wins that doesn’t give me the urge to rank a nine-win team over them if the nine-win team is from a much weaker league. With that covered, let us continue the top 25 for 2013 as the official kickoff of the off season coverage here at The Sports Headquarters.
*Returning Starters Figures from Phil Steele’s Blog
Teams already ranked:
#25. Fresno State Bulldogs
#24 Vanderbilt Commodores
#23 USC Trojans
#22 Miami Hurricanes
#21 Ole Miss Rebels
#20 Boise State Broncos
#19 Wisconsin Badgers
#18 Oklahoma Sooners
#17 Florida State Seminoles
#16 Northwestern Wildcats
#15 Oklahoma State Cowboys
#14 Louisville Cardinals
#13 Florida Gators
#12 TCU Horned Frogs
Coming in at #11…
Notre Dame Fighting Irish
2012 Record: 12-1
Conference Finish: Independent School
Bowl: Lost National Championship Game 42-14 to Alabama
2013 Returning Starters: 6 offense, 8 defense
Although the schedule in 2012 didn’t wind up matching the gauntlet many envisioned it would be in August, fact is Notre Dame navigated a challenging set of games to go 12-0 last season and qualify for the national title game. That’s ultimately where the navigation went off course though as Alabama manhandled the Irish from the get-go in a national championship game that was over before Brent Musburger could make a household name of Katherine Webb. While the defense in 2013 has some holes to fix, I believe ultimately the make or break point for the Irish will come on the offensive side of the ball. Everett Golson may not have had the flashiest numbers as a freshman but was a good game manager and made a number of big plays in key moments for the Irish, perhaps none bigger than his scramble against Pittsburgh to keep the Irish’s BCS title hopes alive. Those hoping for the sophomore to take a big leap may be asking a lot because the weapons around him are shaky. I’ll be most intrigued by how he throws the ball this season as that was the biggest hindrance to the Irish offense last year. Tommy Rees still sits behind Golson in the event of injury and perhaps the most noteworthy chance in QB makeup is the transfer of highly touted 2012 recruit Gunner Kiel. Nonetheless Golson will be given every chance in the world to lead this group in 2013.
The run game was key for the Irish last season and finding a replacement for the combo of Theo Riddick and Cierre Wood is priority number one on offense for a team that expects to live by the mantra of play defense and run the football. The combo was the only two non-quarterbacks to carry the ball more than 55 times last season. What becomes of the Irish run game? Junior George Atkinson III becomes the back with the most experience on the roster and should assume the starting role coming out of spring. Really the only other options on roster figure to be Cam McDaniel or Amir Carlisle. Recruits Tarean Foster and Greg Bryant also come in but all reports seem to think Atkinson will become the back and replacing a combo that rushed for over 1600 yards last year as a duo will be a tall task. The passing game loses Tyler Eifert to the NFL, meaning T.J Jones is the only player returning who caught more than 35 passes last season. Riddick was third on the Irish in catches to give an idea of how limited the pass catchers were. Beyond Jones is a number of incoming freshman this season at the tight end and wide receiver positions. Reality is its Jones and a bunch of unproven parts and some of those are going to have to step up.
The offensive line which was so good a season ago brings back three starters, most notably Zack Martin and added four four-star Oline recruits this past offseason. Finding a couple to plug those two spots will be a task this spring but the Irish look again to be strong up front, a good sign for a team that lacks a premier back. The Irish were one of the nation’s best in 2012 at not turning the ball over, not taking sacks and converting third downs, key reasons why despite mediocre numbers as a whole this team was able to go 12-0 behind a great D. One area of improvement for 2013? Red Zone offense where the Irish tied for 71st nationally and had to settle for a number of field goals.
The number one scoring defense in 2013 loses its emotional leader but has nearly everything else back for a team that hopes to repeat a dominant 2012 season in order to get itself back in the BCS picture. For all the praise Manti Te’o received (and deservedly so) the front three of the Irish was the best unit last season and will be the backbone of the defense again in 2013. The run defense was among the best in the nation and was especially stout in the red zone. Kapron Lewis-Moore departs but the combo of Louis Nix III and Stephon Tuitt make up a tremendous duo that should be a disruptive force in 2013. While Nix III is better known for stopping the run he did record seven and a half tackles for a loss and force a fumble. Tuitt was one of the nation’s top D-linemen with a monster campaign last season recording 13 tackles for a loss and 12 sacks. Tuitt should start the season on every Nagurski Trophy season watch list and likely will be a semifinalist at worst at year’s end.
Dan Fox, Danny Spond and Prince Shembo all return to the linebackers core with Shembo coming off a year where he had 10.5 tackles for a loss and seven and a half sacks. Obviously it’s impossible to not mention Manti Te’o's departure from this group after the all around season he had last year. Despite three starters back it was Te’o who was in the middle of everything leading the team in interceptions and recording 50 more tackles than any other linebacker. While this core is experienced and will certainly be helped by the defensive line, someone is going to have to pick up their production significantly to replace all that Te’o did for the defense. A couple of recruits in the 2013 class enter as promising linebacker prospects including five star Jaylon Smith.
The secondary returns three starters as well in cornerbacks Bennett Jackson and KeiVarae Russell as well as safety Matthias Farley. The corner tandem combined for over 100 tackles with six interceptions and 12 passes defended for the 24th ranked passing defense in the country. Zeke Motta who was second on the team in tackles a year ago must be replaced at safety but as is the case with Te’o at linebacker, Notre Dame will rely more on its depth than any one individual to make up for these losses as Brian Kelly has been significantly improving the defensive talent in the past couple recruiting classes.
It may not appear as daunting as last year’s slate but as I said in the intro, last year’s schedule never lived up to the expected difficulty so while this year’s appears more manageable that could change by August. Nonetheless regardless of how it compares to last years, the Irish schedule should again be as tough as any schedule outside the SEC and maybe Big 12. The Irish face a number of road challenges as well as 11 teams that went to bowl games last season. The two games I’m very much intrigued by are Southern California and Oklahoma, both in South Bend. I’m not expecting much from USC and Oklahoma I am lower on than others coming into the year but both could possibly wind up being better than I’m projecting which would make the home slate tough. Road games at Michigan and Stanford present tough challenges and frankly it is hard to imagine Notre Dame can repeat last season. With that said, this is the Irish and if the team is even eligible for a BCS bowl they will be taken every time. So odds are the team likely needs a 9-3 season or better to feel good about getting back to a BCS bowl, 10-2 or better and they’re a lock.
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