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Notre Dame Fighting Irish season preview

8/21/2014

Previewing the 2014 season for the Notre Dame Fighting Irish:

Key returners: QB Everett Golson, RB Tarean Folston, RB Cam McDaniel, RB Greg Bryant, TE Ben Koyack, LT Ronnie Stanley, C Nick Martin, RG Christian Lombard, DT Sheldon Day, LB Jaylon Smith, LB Joe Schmidt, S Matthias Farley, S Max Redfield, S Austin Collinsworth

Key losses: QB Tommy Rees, RB George Atkinson III, WR TJ Jones, TE Troy Niklas, LT Zack Martin, LG Chris Watt, DE Stephon Tuitt, DT Louis Nix, LB Dan Fox, LB Carlo Calabrese, CB Bennett Jackson

Most important 2014 games: Sept. 6 vs. Michigan, Oct. 4 vs. Stanford, Oct. 18 at Florida State, Nov. 8 at Arizona State, Nov. 29 at USC

Projected win percentage (from Stats & Info): 0.538 (pre-suspensions)

Over/under Vegas odds: 7.5 (pre-suspensions)

Instant impact newcomer: Redshirt senior cornerback Cody Riggs did enough this summer and in fall camp to earn a starting job after transferring from Florida. But Riggs' role has become even more important after KeiVarae Russell (and three others) were suspended amid an academic probe. Riggs is a physical, versatile corner who brings along plenty of SEC experience and has proven to be a stabilizing force in light of Russell's suspension. He will likely prove to be one of the bigger fifth-year pickups in college football this season.

High point from 2013: It certainly didn't look like it at the time, but a 17-13 victory over Michigan State on Sept. 21 proved to be a huge win for the Irish and one that might have ended up changing the landscape of the national title race. The game was ugly, with poor offensive play all afternoon. Little did anyone know the Spartans would win the rest of their games, finish 13-1 and win the Rose Bowl. How much MSU learned from that defeat is anyone's guess, but it's not a stretch to think a 13-0 Spartans squad could have been No. 2 at the end of the regular season and facing Florida State in the BCS title game. Instead, one-loss SEC champion Auburn earned the shot.

Low point from 2013: A Nov. 9 loss at Pitt was a huge letdown, as the Irish entered the game with just two defeats and BCS bowl hopes still alive. Turnovers and mental mistakes in the Steel City did them in, though -- characteristics unbecoming of a Brian Kelly team in November. When Kelly said after the season that 2013 was a good year that could've been great, it is safe to assume the Panthers game was the one at the top of his mind. A Week 2 loss at Michigan also hurt -- because a loss to Michigan always hurts. But the ramifications of the Pitt defeat were bigger.

Best-case scenario for 2014: The optimistic view sees a young Notre Dame team that does not play a true road game until Oct. 18 at Florida State. Until then, Golson and the Irish take care of business early and race to a 4-0 start before stumbling into Stanford. A back-loaded schedule makes even a confident team trip into a few road blocks, but Notre Dame manages to finish 9-3 and heads to one of the better ACC bowl games. All in all, it's a very strong season for a team facing so much uncertainty on the defensive side of the ball, especially given the camp suspensions. (We could see 10-2 and an access bowl as a best-case scenario with all of the currently suspended players on board.)

Worst-case scenario for 2014: This is a tough one to project, given the uncertainty surrounding the currently suspended Russell, DaVaris Daniels, Ishaq Williams and Kendall Moore, but the weight of those players' losses might actually be more than the sum of their parts. Yes, three are starters, and Notre Dame will struggle to replace them, but if the academic probe lingers far into the season, it creates one more obstacle for a young team that faces a very difficult schedule. Notre Dame is favored in most of its games, but it has zero cakewalks. A worst-case scenario has the Irish scrapping for bowl eligibility.

They said it: "You never want to lose any of your players, so that's always difficult. To lose any of your players, especially given the circumstances, that's always difficult. But I'm responsible for not just four players [but] 105-plus [and] over 30 support staff [members]. I've got to get going. I've got to move immediately to getting better as a program and as a football team. I don't spend much time on the past [and] don't mortgage the future. I try to stay in the present." — Kelly, on moving forward as four players serve an indefinite suspension amid Notre Dame's academic probe