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NCF Nation: Bob Diaco

While coach Brian Kelly was leading Notre Dame to the national title game in 2012, former Fighting Irish coach Charlie Weis was collecting more money from the school than Kelly.

Notre Dame paid Weis $2,054,744 for the reporting period of July 2012 through June 2013, according to the university's federal tax return, which was provided to ESPN.com on Wednesday. The sum paid to Weis to not coach the Irish -- already at a total of $12,802,635 because he has now received three straight payments of $2,054,744 from Notre Dame, following an initial payment of $6,638,403 after his firing -- could end up exceeding $18 million by next winter. Notre Dame is scheduled for "additional annual payments" through December 2015, so three more payments of what Weis received in the previous three years means his buyout money from the school would total $18,966,867.

Weis was fired by Notre Dame following the 2009 season after five years as coach, and he is now entering his third season as the coach at Kansas.

Kelly received $1,457,284 from Notre Dame during the 2012 reporting period, though that number likely does not match his total earnings. The school notes that "the current head football coach is permitted to receive compensation from external sources with prior written approval from the University." Income from a source such as a shoe company would not have to be reported on the tax forms.

Kelly's base pay was $698,140, and he received "bonus and incentive compensation" of $607,200. Benefits and other compensation lifted the total to the $1,457,284 figure.

Kelly's boss, athletic director Jack Swarbrick, earned $1,143,052 from the school, according to the tax forms. Kelly's top assistant the past four seasons, defensive coordinator Bob Diaco, earned $672,824. Diaco left in December to become the head coach at UConn.

Notre Dame men's basketball coach Mike Brey earned a total of $1,526,488. He made $806,488 in salary, bonuses, "other reportable compensation," retirement, and deferred money and non-tax benefits, in addition to $720,000 from Play by Play sports, which is now known as Notre Dame Sports Properties.

Irish women's basketball coach Muffet McGraw earned a total of $1,331,339. She made $1,058,839 from the school and $272,500 from Play By Play sports.
Setting up the spring in the American Athletic Conference:

CINCINNATI

Spring start: Feb. 27

Spring game: April 5

What to watch:
  • Gunner Kiel: Attention has followed the former high school sensation for years, from Indiana to LSU to Notre Dame and now to Cincinnati. He enters his redshirt sophomore season having never taken a college snap. With sixth-year senior Munchie Legaux still recovering from last year's leg injury, the show is Kiel's to run this spring.
  • Hank Hughes' defense: The former Cincinnati defensive coordinator returns after coaching last season at UConn. There, he orchestrated a rushing defense that finished 23rd nationally despite a 3-9 campaign. He will keep a 4-3 base but loses three all-conference performers from last season: Greg Blair, Jordan Stepp and Deven Drane.
  • RDA IV: Ralph David Abernathy IV has been a playmaker out of the backfield for the Bearcats in recent seasons, but he has moved to the slot this spring. He will probably still line up in the backfield at times, but seeing what the 5-foot-7, 161-pounder can do in space is definitely worth keeping an eye on, especially if the man throwing him the ball, Kiel, lives up to the hype at quarterback.
EAST CAROLINA

Spring start: March 21

Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Carden's ascent: Shane Carden could be a dark-horse Heisman Trophy candidate in 2014. He enters his fifth year in the program coming off a season in which he completed better than 70 percent of his throws for more than 4,000 yards, totaling 43 combined touchdowns between passing and rushing. Similar numbers in a new league will get him much more attention.
  • Replacing Jeremy Grove: The redshirt senior linebacker recently announced that he was hanging up his cleats after several shoulder injuries. The former freshman All-American led the Pirates in tackles for two years running before being limited last season. Expect bigger roles for Zeek Bigger and Brandon Williams, who together last season totaled 10 tackles for loss and three forced turnovers.
  • Filling the backfield void: East Carolina says goodbye to Vintavious Cooper, who turned in consecutive 1,000-yard seasons. While signee Anthony Scott looks like a player who could contribute right away upon his summer arrival, the burden for now falls on the shoulders of three backs who totaled 548 yards on the ground last season.
HOUSTON

Spring start: March 3

Spring game: April 11

What to watch:
  • O'Korn looks to take next step: John O'Korn started 11 games last season at quarterback, proving to be efficient through the air and on the ground while taking the Cougars to a bowl game in their first season in the American. Now he's running an offense that, including him, returns eight starters. He set the bar pretty high as league rookie of the year, but incremental improvement could mean big things for Houston in 2014.
  • CB battles: Zach McMillian and Thomas Bates have graduated, taking their combined 10 forced turnovers from last season out the door with them. Two transfers could find themselves in the mix, as Lee Hightower (Boise State) and Tyler White (Utah) look to battle for starting spots on a defense seeking help in the secondary.
  • Trevon Randle: The former LSU linebacker and three-star recruit now finds himself in more of a pass-rushing role after sitting out the 2013 season for undisclosed reasons. The move is interesting for the 6-foot-2, 218-pound Randle, but the talent is certainly there for Randle to become a playmaker, wherever he ends up playing on the field.
MEMPHIS

Spring start: March 2

Spring game: April 11

What to watch:
  • Paxton Lynch's growth: Lynch made a name for himself by unseating Jacob Karam as the starting quarterback during fall camp last season. He followed with an up-and-down season for the 3-9 Tigers, showing flashes of playmaking ability and a penchant for turning it over. He is now the hunted, not the hunter, with redshirt freshman Brayden Scott now in the role Lynch played last season in hoping to steal the No. 1 job.
  • Hayes' return: The biggest coup of the offseason was the NCAA granting Brandon Hayes a sixth year of eligibility. The former walk-on was the team's MVP and leading rusher last season, and he will help take plenty of pressure off of whoever emerges as the starting quarterback.
  • Defensive growth: The Tigers were ranked 39th last season in total defense, and eight starters return. The unit gave the offense chances to win last season against league heavyweights Louisville and UCF before falling by a 24-17 margin in both games, and the Tigers welcome two new coaches in Ricky Hunley (line) and Ryan Walters (corners).
SMU

Spring start: March 4

Spring game: April 5 (no spring game)

What to watch:
  • Replacing Gilbert: SMU opened practice Tuesday with five men in the mix to become its starting quarterback, with Neal Burcham carrying the front-runner status after starting the final two games last season in place of Garrett Gilbert (knee), who totaled nearly 3,800 yards rushing and passing last season, accounting for 27 scores.
  • Receiver depth: The Mustangs are relatively thin at the position following the graduation of two of its top three receivers from last season, as Jeremy Johnson and Keenan Holman each tallied more than 1,000 yards in 2013. Deion Sanders Jr., meanwhile, will miss spring practice because of a shoulder injury.
  • The next Acker: Cornerback Kenneth Acker starred with the Mustangs, earning second-team all-conference distinction after finishing second in the league in passes defended (16) and tallying a team-best three interceptions on the season. Jay Scott, who forced three turnovers himself last season, is also gone. Talented safety Shakiel Randolph could see his role increased after showing plenty of promise in his first two seasons, including a 37-tackle campaign last season.
TEMPLE

Spring start: March 24

Spring game: April 26

What to watch:
  • Receiver help: Temple will open spring practice without Robbie Anderson, the Owls' top receiver from last season, who is no longer with the team. Both Anderson and the graduated Ryan Alderman combined for more than 1,300 yards last season, so the pressure will be on Jalen Fitzpatrick and John Christopher to carry bigger workloads going into 2014. They'll have a familiar Philly face coaching them, with former QB Adam DiMichele now the Owls' receivers coach.
  • Aerial attack: One silver lining from a 2-10 campaign last season? P.J. Walker, who rebounded after losing the preseason quarterback battle and ended up starting the season's final seven games, threw for 2,084 yards. He was part of a group that passed for the most yards ever (2,996) by a Temple team, a promising sign moving forward for the second-year player (and his second-year coach, Matt Rhule).
  • Tyler Matakevich: The kid just keeps on getting better, as the linebacker followed up his impressive rookie season by tallying 137 total tackles — including 11.5 for loss — picking off one pass, recovering two fumbles and forcing three more. He wears a single-digit jersey, No. 8, to signify his toughness, and he is a great central piece for the defense to build around. Temple was ranked 109th overall in yards allowed last season.
TULANE

Spring start: Feb. 7

Spring game: Feb. 26 (no spring game)

What to watch:
  • Injuries: The situation is a little different here with Tulane, which is already finished with its spring season, allowing us to instead look back. And the Green Wave even ended up finishing earlier than anticipated, as coach Curtis Johnson ended it after Feb. 26, cutting the final two practices because of injuries. Among the walking wounded throughout last month: Linebacker Nico Marley, running back Sherman Badie and linebackers Sergio Medina and Edward Williams, who both missed all of spring because of pre-existing injuries.
  • QB battle: Tanner Lee is seemingly the front-runner to start in 2014 after redshirting as a freshman this past fall. A local prospect from Jesuit High, he passed for nearly 4,000 yards in high school while tallying 39 touchdowns and just nine interceptions, and he received a much heavier workload this spring after the Green Wave struggled with consistency in the passing game in 2013.
  • Filling the backfield void: Orleans Darkwa is gone after totaling 920 yards and 12 touchdowns last season. Tulane might be turning to another redshirt freshman, with Badie getting plenty of attention this spring before suffering a concussion down the stretch. Senior Rob Kelley (420 yards in 2013) and three other backfield contributors from last season return to give this unit a bit of depth.
TULSA

Spring start: March 11

Spring game: April 19

What to watch:
  • Defensive stability: No one in the program is happy following a 3-9 campaign last fall, but the Golden Hurricane bring back plenty of experience from last season as they move into Year 1 in the American. Ten starters are back on defense. Despite finishing just 102nd in yards allowed last season, that gives the program a nice foundation as it welcomes in a tougher slate of opponents.
  • Josh Blankenship and the offense: Head coach Bill Blankenship's newest hire is his son, Josh, who was brought in to coach quarterbacks and rework an offense that finished 100th overall last season. The former Muskogee High head coach is part of a restructured offensive staff after coordinator Greg Peterson left the program and Bill Blankenship gave up coaching the QBs.
  • Backfield holes: Trey Watts and Ja'Terian Douglas are gone after totaling nearly 1,700 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns last season. Reinforcements are on the way in three running back signees from this recruiting cycle, with one of them, juco transfer Tavarreon Dickerson, enrolling early and looking to make an impact after averaging 8.5 yards per carry last season at Trinity Valley.
UCF

Spring start: March 12

Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Like after Bortles: Blake Bortles will be examined and re-examined in the public eye daily before the NFL draft, and his replacement back at UCF has some major shoes to fill. His backup last season, Justin Holman, is the most experienced of a three-man group that includes early enrollee and former SMU commit Tyler Harris.
  • Replacing Storm Johnson: Johnson is gone after rushing for 1,139 yards and 14 touchdowns last season, and Will Stanback will likely have to prepare for a much bigger role in his sophomore year after getting 105 carries in his rookie campaign of 2013. There are plenty of other bodies back there, but none managed the workload Stanback carried last season as a freshman.
  • Offensive line depth: Brent Key is now the assistant head coach of the offense, and he will serve as offensive line coach as well. The spring will be very important in helping to sort out the chaos up front, and one player worth keeping an eye will be Chester Brown, who saw limited action last season after switching from the defensive line in fall camp.
UCONN

Spring start: March 10

Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • New leader: Bob Diaco had an introductory news conference like few others. The former Notre Dame defensive coordinator is filled with energy, and he certainly brings a new approach atop the program following the Paul Pasqualoni and Randy Edsall eras. He already has made some cosmetic changes in the training facility, but bringing immediate change on the field is a bigger challenge in 2014.
  • Casey Cochran. The Huskies won their final three games last season, putting up 28 or more points in all three contests. Cochran passed for a school-record 461 yards in the finale, and seeing how he and the rest of the quarterbacks develop under this new staff will go a long way toward determining what UConn can do next season.
  • Defensive replenishments. For all of their struggles in recent years, the Huskies haven't lacked for talent or effort on the defensive side of the ball. That shouldn't change under Diaco, who won the Broyles Award as the nation's top assistant coach as Notre Dame's defensive coordinator in 2012. But replacing standouts such as Shamar Stephen and Yawin Smallwood won't be easy.
USF

Spring start: Feb. 26

Spring game: March 29

What to watch:
  • QB battle: Penn State transfer Steven Bench was named the starter at midseason in 2013, but he found himself behind freshman Mike White after an injury. Both quarterbacks turned the ball over way too much last season, and increased production from that position is crucial if Willie Taggart wants to get this program turned around in his second season as head coach.
  • Running backs: The battle to replace Marcus Shaw is on after his 765-yard season in 2013. Mike Pierre, Willie Davis and Darius Tice are the men being counted on now in the backfield, but no player from that trio carried the ball more than 41 times or topped 141 rushing yards for the season.
  • Jamie Byrd: Byrd enrolled at USF this January following a stint at Iowa Western Community College, and he has two years of eligibility remaining. He had 53 tackles, two interceptions, seven passes defended and a fumble recovery last season, and the hard-hitting speedster could make an early impact with the Bulls in the secondary.

Notre Dame spring preview

March, 5, 2014
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SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- The keys to Notre Dame's future arrived Monday, when Everett Golson took the field for the first time in nearly a year as the Irish opened their fifth spring practice under Brian Kelly.

[+] EnlargeEverett Golson
Joel Auerbach/Getty ImagesThe Irish offense hopes to benefit from the return of quarterback Everett Golson.
This spring will probably not look all that different from last spring, when Golson, coming off a redshirt freshman season that ended in the BCS title game, was officially handed complete control of the vehicle that was Kelly's offense before being exiled the following fall for an academic mishap. Yet the Irish may be shorter on all-around playmakers this spring than they were last year.

But with Golson back -- 15 pounds heavier and seemingly much more mature after spending two months with well-known quarterback coach George Whitfield Jr. in San Diego -- it is finally all in for Notre Dame. Its fan base has been anxiously awaiting the offensive theatrics that a Kelly team last displayed five years ago at Cincinnati, and the most important component to that is Golson.

"Absolutely," Kelly said, speaking about the quarterback position, specifically. "Your offensive line has to play well; it has to protect the quarterback. We've got to run the ball effectively, take care of it. But I think we all know college football and where it is: The quarterback is really going to be the centerpiece of this offense and the way we run it. It's going to fall on him.

"We all live in the same world when it comes to the Notre Dame quarterback. We're going to heap a lot on this kid's shoulders. And he knows that. That's why he came back to Notre Dame, because he wants that. Clearly, he's going to be the one that drives this for us."

Replacing the top protectors of Golson (and every other QB of the Kelly era) is paramount, as stalwarts Zack Martin and Chris Watt are gone after manning the left side of the line so well together for more than three years.

Finding reliable weapons in a passing game down its top three pass-catchers from last season is important, too. (One of those targets, DaVaris Daniels, is expected back this summer after making a Golson-like academic gaffe.)

Defensively, potential first-round picks Stephon Tuitt and Louis Nix are gone, as are three of the four starting linebackers. Defensive coordinator Bob Diaco -- along with offensive playcaller Chuck Martin -- are gone, and longtime college and NFL veteran Brian VanGorder brings aboard the potential for a more aggressive defense, which should complement a much more aggressive offense.

A running game that lacked punch at times last year will be greatly strengthened by the dimension presented by Golson's legs, which he says got quicker despite the added weight.

It is weight his body and mind are ready to carry as he looks to bring Notre Dame's offense to a place it has longed for.

"I think if leadership ability is in you, it'll show eventually when you're called on," Golson said. "I think only being a freshman, I was still leading to a certain extent. I think now it's more heightened, I would say, because our team is so young this year. But it's been great. That's the spot that I want to be at and I was kind of born to be at, I would say, in a sense. So when it happens, leadership steps to the front."

American spring preview

March, 5, 2014
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Another year, another set of fresh faces.

And, of course, new challenges, as well.

This is life now in the American Athletic Conference, which won’t complete its makeover complete until next season, when Navy joins the fold as a football-only member.

For now, it watches two others walk out the door while welcoming three new programs into the fold.

Goodbye, Louisville and Rutgers. Hello, East Carolina, Tulane and Tulsa.

And, if last season is any indication, the newcomers may not be second-class citizens upon their arrivals.

"There's enough talent around the country that creates a little bit more parity than people are talking about now," said East Carolina coach Ruffin McNeil. "I know they're trying to talk about these conferences and those conferences. Well, I've been to those conferences, and there's good football players in each league. And I feel we're ready to compete with anyone. I'm not afraid to say that, and I know other coaches in the league are not, either."

That became evident through UCF's historic campaign in the remodeled league's debut last season, with the Knights going 12-1 and topping Baylor in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl. These, of course, were the same Knights that lost twice to Tulsa a year earlier, and the Golden Hurricane now enter the American coming off a disappointing 3-9 season last fall.

That is all encouraging from one perspective. But the optimist's approach shows a similar surprising run could be on the horizon in 2014.

"East Carolina is going to have a huge advantage in our conference. I think they're going to be the next guys, to be honest, similar to UCF," said conference commissioner Mike Aresco.

"Everything's in place: They've got a Heisman candidate, they've got just some tremendous players and I think they're going to make a mark quickly because they've never had this kind of TV exposure. They've got a 50,000-seat stadium and they fill it up all the time. Their quarterback Shane Carden I think will be a Heisman candidate. I think they're the kind of team that will really benefit."

Among the old guard, UConn made a major move by hiring prized Notre Dame defensive coordinator Bob Diaco to head its program. Cincinnati has another year under Tommy Tuberville and could possibly start the most talked about quarterback to never take a college snap in Gunner Kiel.

The American begins life in the post-BCS era with no automatic entry to access bowls. It is a member of a group of five conferences from within which the top overall team will be granted a berth at the adults' postseason table.

It's not exactly ideal, but after enduring a year of turmoil and coming out on the other end with a BCS win and several probable high draft picks to its name, the league enters its next phase with a much more positive outlook.

New Era Pinstripe Bowl preview

December, 28, 2013
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Rutgers and Notre Dame take the Yankee Stadium field at noon ET today (ESPN) with the George M. Steinbrenner Trophy on the line. Here is a preview of the action today from the Bronx, N.Y.:

Who to watch: TJ Jones is playing in his final college game. Notre Dame's team MVP from this season has caught 65 balls for 1,042 yards with nine touchdowns, becoming Tommy Rees' most reliable target. And he is facing a Rutgers defense that has been susceptible to the big play, as the Scarlet Knights have allowed an FBS-high 153 pass plays of 10 or more yards, an average of 13 per game. Look for Rees and Jones to connect early and often.

What to watch: This could also be Stephon Tuitt's final game. The 6-foot-6, 312-pound end is a nightmare for offensive linemen, tallying 18 sacks over the past two seasons. Seeing how much he -- along with a now-healthy Sheldon Day opposite him and what is likely to be a revolving door in the middle at nose guard -- can pressure Rutgers quarterback Chas Dodd into mistakes will probably dictate the flow of this game. The Scarlet Knights are tied for 98th nationally in sacks allowed, surrendering 2.58 per game, and Saturday could provide a nice opportunity for Tuitt to leave a final impression on NFL scouts, as the draft advisory board gave the junior a second-round grade, according to Brian Kelly.

Why to watch: This is the finale for a group of Notre Dame seniors who have, in large part, turned the program around. Many committed to the Charlie Weis regime -- or, in some cases, to no coach at all before Kelly was hired. They have gotten the Irish to a point where Pinstripe Bowl berths and eight- or nine-win seasons are disappointments, and they are a big reason why Kelly, the fourth-year coach, gave them such a strong say in where they would go bowling once a BCS bid was off the table. This could, in theory, be an audition for the Irish's two interim coordinators as well, as Mike Denbrock (offense) and Kerry Cooks (defense) will run their units after Chuck Martin and Bob Diaco left for head-coaching jobs at Miami (Ohio) and UConn, respectively.

Prediction: Notre Dame 38, Rutgers 14. The Irish offense will have its way with an uncharacteristically bad Scarlet Knight defense (one that is also with an interim coordinator, in Joe Rossi).

3-point stance: AJ wins the other award

December, 13, 2013
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1. AJ McCarron of Alabama expressed amazement Thursday night when he won the 2013 Maxwell Award, but perhaps he wasn't aware of the award's recent history. Heisman winners don't win the Maxwell. Since Drew Brees of Purdue won the Maxwell in 2000 instead of Chris Weinke of Florida State, only two players have won both awards: Tim Tebow of Florida in 2007 and Cam Newton of Auburn in 2010.

2. Bob Diaco will be a good salesman for UConn. He is a good-looking, well-spoken, energetic coach. He has the football chops as well, having served a long apprentice for Brian Kelly. UConn athletic director Warde Manuel hired a sparkling candidate. Now Diaco must face the reality of UConn football: Will UConn provide Diaco with the budget to hire a good staff? Can Diaco do what Randy Edsall did at UConn, supplant the state's meager homegrown talent with players from the northeast and Florida? Is there room for national success in the American? Diaco bit off a lot. We'll see how well he can chew it.

3. Alabama didn't finish No. 1 in the BCS ratings, but the Crimson Tide finished No. 1 in the TV ratings, playing in the season's three most-watched games. LSU at Alabama, played in prime time, drew a 6.9 rating. The Iron Bowl pulled an 8.2. The most-watched game of the season, played way back in Week 3, had been promoted for nine months: Alabama and Texas A&M did an 8.5. Ohio State at Michigan came in a distant fourth at 5.8. The most-watched Pac-12 game, Oregon at Stanford, drew a 3.6 on a Thursday night.
Kyle Flood was answering a question about his depleted staff on Tuesday when Brian Kelly chipped in a few minutes later with his unsolicited take.

[+] EnlargeBrian Kelly
Kelley L Cox/USA TODAY SportsDespite losing both coordinators, the Irish are in good hands with Brian Kelly.
"And just to add on to Kyle's situations with his staff," the Notre Dame coach said at Yankee Stadium. "I just want to let him know he's got too many staff members. When I was at Cincinnati, we had three staff members and we coached in the bowl game against Western Michigan, so you've got way too many. And we won that game, so I think he's fine. I don't think you have to worry about him having not enough coaches."

At this rate, it would be easy to say that the concerns now fall on Kelly, who lost his second coordinator to a head-coaching job in an eight-day span Wednesday when Bob Diaco accepted the UConn post. That came in the wake of Chuck Martin packing his bags for Miami (Ohio). The moves hamstring the Irish staff as it readies for Rutgers on Dec. 28's New Era Pinstripe Bowl, and as it gears up for the mad dash to national signing day in the 39 days following the 2013 finale.

The initial reaction across players and fans, per routine, was overreaction. Tweets decrying Diaco for looking out for himself were soon deleted, eventually giving way to more and more congratulatory remarks for a man whose next career step was only a matter of time.

Make no mistake, this is far from the situation that is taking place in Piscataway, N.J., where Flood, the second-year head coach, let go of three assistants after an underwhelming 6-6 campaign. The Scarlet Knights step into the Big Ten next season. And this is far from the case that Kelly was referencing in that bowl press conference, as he had just taken the Cincinnati job and had only three of his Central Michigan assistants with him by the time the Bearcats faced, and defeated, Western Michigan in the International Bowl nearly seven years ago.

"It certainly creates a little bit of a challenge," Flood said of Rutgers' situation, "but I'm confident that people are put in positions where they can be successful, and that's really my job as the head football coach, to make sure we got a coach assigned at every position and in all three phases and the coordinator role."

Kelly's challenge is considerably smaller. This is Notre Dame, after all. Initial reaction among recruits speaks to that, with most youngsters recognizing that much of what they were promised remains in place so long as Kelly is at the forefront. If Diaco does not bring along other Irish assistants with him to Storrs, Conn., Kelly will have a much easier time filling the holes on his staff. Kerry Cooks, let's not forget, has also been the co-defensive coordinator these past two years, and he will probably take on Diaco's responsibilities for (at least) the rest of the month.

The fact this Notre Dame team went 8-4 and had its top two assistants get hired to run their own shows speaks volumes about where the program is now. Jimbo Fisher lost seven assistants in a season that ended with Florida State winning the Orange Bowl, and the Seminoles have turned out oh-so fine in the year since. This is a good problem to have, and as IrishIllustrated's Pete Sampson said, one coordinator leaving right after the other could trigger an eventful race back to South Bend to occupy Kelly's office whenever he should depart.

That's down the road. For now, the calendar has 19 days remaining in a year that began with a letdown against Alabama in the national title game and will likely end with a win against Rutgers -- with plenty of embarrassment (Manti Te'o, Everett Golson) and departures (Gunner Kiel, two receivers) sandwiched in-between.

As they did in this past year, the Irish will enter 2014 hoping to close whatever gap remains toward a national title. And while Jameis Winston isn't walking through that door, the two most important elements of that chase, Kelly and Golson, still are.

Irish confident going into bye

October, 7, 2013
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The line between a 4-2 record and a .500 mark is thin, and Notre Dame can exhale a bit knowing it will not face two weeks of questions following its 37-34 Saturday win over Arizona State. But the Irish are not ready to mount a BCS-bowl campaign just yet.

"I've got to tell you, I don't know that we even really have that in our mind-set as much as the guys want to win football games on Saturday," coach Brian Kelly said. "And we just don't get too far ahead of ourselves, because we are staying in the present. And if we think about anything else but the next day of practice, we just -- we just would be putting ourselves in peril. So they have done a great job since I've been here of just really trying to stay focused day to day, and if they get ahead of themselves and start thinking about anything else, we'll find ourselves looking at it on the other end. Again, I think if they just focus on -- they are going to get some time this week to focus on their studies and academics, and get ready for USC."

[+] EnlargeNotre Dame defense
Ronald Martinez/Getty ImagesThe Notre Dame defense generated five sacks and two interceptions against Arizona State.
Saturday might have been Notre Dame's most complete performance to date, as the Irish made big plays in the passing and return game, in addition to notching five sacks and two interceptions, one of which was returned for a touchdown.

Still, momentary lapses provided the staff much to work with, particularly when the Sun Devils went 75 yards in just 57 seconds to cut the Irish lead to three and make the game essentially come down to an onside kick, which TJ Jones recovered.

"Well, you know, I wasn't doing jumping jacks," Kelly said. "I guess all I was saying was that I felt our defense was playing well enough for us to win, and I still feel that way. There are things that we have to continue to improve on. Nobody was happy with the last drive. [Defensive coordinator Bob] Diaco was not happy. Our players were not happy. But we think there are things that we can take from it. You know, it's the first time we saw a team that actually wanted to get back there and try to throw a comprehensive passing game and we were able to get some pressure.

"We were opportunistic in turnovers and I thought we did a very good job in -- again, obviously they couldn't run the football against us. So those are all basic, important tenets of playing good defense. So I think those continue to show themselves week in and week out and if you do that, you've got a chance to win each game that you play. I'm not saying that, you know, we've got a spectacular defense, but we have a solid defense that is getting better."

One that answered the bell when it mattered most, staunching the bleeding from a two-loss September and giving the Irish much to play for over the second half of the season.

"They know how difficult it is to win, and when you're on a stretch of games that they were on, and they knew a bye week was coming up, it was a very important game for them, and they understood the significance of winning, and they clearly knew the difference between 4-2 and 3-3 going into a bye week," Kelly said. "They are feeling pretty good. You know, again, I think the most important thing for them is they now look at it as a six-game schedule and they have got to be perfect for six weeks."
SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Word was that Jaylon Smith clocked in a 4.4 40-time at the Best of the Midwest camp two winters ago in Indianapolis. By the time he completes his freshman year at Notre Dame, that number might very well be re-told as a 4.2 or 4.3. By the time he finishes his college career, presumably to fulfill expectations at the next level, his legend might just reach comical proportions.

[+] EnlargeJaylon Smith
AP Photo/Scott BoehmFormer five-star recruit Jaylon Smith has lived up to the hype thus far, starting immediately as a freshman.
"I'm not sure how accurate it was," Mike Ledo, Smith's trainer at AWP Sports Performance in Fort Wayne, Ind., said with a laugh. "Then he went out to face a top lineman there and was rushing off the edge and killing the lineman. Then he ran over to 1-on-1s with receivers and defensive backs, and he was shutting down the top receivers there as a corner.

"It was pretty evident there: To dominate bigs, and then go over and play cornerbacks at his size, was impressive."

For the record, Smith, ESPN's No. 7 overall prospect last year, was credited with a 4.59 40-time upon completing his prep work at Bishop Luers. And he has since started all four games for the Fighting Irish this season at Dog linebacker, perhaps the most complicated position in coordinator Bob Diaco's 3-4 scheme.

The precocious 6-foot-3, 230-pounder has tallied 11 total tackles, including one for loss, to go with a pass breakup and a pass defended, illustrating downfield skills that helped him rally from No. 3 to No. 1 on the depth chart over the course of preseason camp.

"He always trained with my DBs, so I helped him develop great cover skills," Ledo said. "He texted me in camp thanking me so much for helping him cover; apparently that was the difference to get on field: His ability, at 6-3, to cover in space, kind of like a safety. That was the expectation."

Starter Danny Spond's early retirement because of migraines left Smith battling 6-foot-5, 254-pound redshirt sophomore Ben Councell. Ledo, apparently, was the one who informed Smith that he was No. 1 on Notre Dame's initial depth chart heading into the opener against Temple.

Smith, meeting the media for the first time on Wednesday, said any butterflies he had disappeared after the first series against the Owls.

"After the first series, really," Smith said. "I was really pumped up. I knew all the fighting songs and things like that. I went to about every home game last year, so I was really just anticipating everything and it was fun."

The football part has, in some ways, been the easiest part of Smith's transition. He did not enroll until June, and he said that learning how to balance his time off the field has been the biggest adjustment.

"He's impressive. He can come in and do all the things he's done, obviously as a freshman, and he's a very mature guy, very physically mature guy," safety Matthias Farley said. "So I think he's gotten a lot more comfortable in his role throughout the last couple weeks and he's continued to improve each and every week, so the sky's the limit for him and he's obviously playing very well."

Spond, who has remained with the Irish as a student-coach, announced his retirement to the team after an Aug. 17 practice. Smith said the only thoughts that hit him at that time were for Spond and his long-term health. Exactly two weeks later, Smith was taking the field with the Irish for their first defensive snap of the season.

Mistakes have followed since, Smith said, but thoughts of the future and its promise have helped him put minimal gaffes behind and allowed the freshman to press on toward a career as promising as any of the Brian Kelly era.

"I have a long way to go but I think I'm on the right track, and really just worried abut tomorrow and just getting out on the field, continuing to stay healthy," Smith said. "It's a 12-13 week season, so it's something that I've been quite used to, winning four state championships. But it's a different level. You have to go hard every play here."

Irish defense looks to get back on track

September, 13, 2013
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SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Bennett Jackson entered the football building's auditorium Wednesday wearing a yellow t-shirt. On the front, above his heart, the shirt read: "Irish D-Boys," with the Fighting Irish leprechaun logo right below the words. On the back, in big, bold letters, the shirt read: "Addicted to Our Culture."

Defensive coordinator Bob Diaco had asked his players how addicted they were to that culture before a camp practice early last month, and Notre Dame has tried to live by that motto after a 2012 season that surpassed everyone's expectations.

[+] EnlargeBennett Jackson
Cal Sport Media via AP ImagesSenior Bennett Jackson believes this year's Notre Dame defense can be as good as last year's.
"Just really dominance, that's what we expect from one another, that's our standard," Jackson, the lone defensive captain, said, describing his defense's culture. "We do everything throughout the day in every facet of our life at a first-class level basically, and we don't expect anything less than that. So our culture is dominance -- that's what we push ourselves toward."

But that culture of dominance was fractured last week by a Michigan team that put up 41 points in delivering the Irish their first regular-season loss since 2011. A unit that returned seven starters from last year showed holes that few saw coming.

The Irish finished last year's regular season atop the nation in scoring defense, at 10.33 points per game. They then gave up 42 points in the BCS title game loss to Alabama. The Crimson Tide converted all five red-zone trips that night into touchdowns. Likewise, the Wolverines reached the end zone on all four of their red-zone trips this past weekend.

This against a defense whose hallmark last season was two game-winning, season-defining, goal-line stands.

"We didn't play very well," linebacker Dan Fox said of the red-zone defense in each contest.

Notre Dame has allowed 47 points and six touchdowns through two games this season. According to ESPN Stats & Info, the Irish did not allow 47 points last season until their sixth game, and they did not allow six touchdowns until their ninth game.

Their next two opponents, Purdue and Michigan State, could provide opportunities for those numbers to climb back to the standard, as the Boilermakers and Spartans rank 108th and 100th nationally, respectively, in total offense.

"I feel like we're definitely trying to push one another in practice," Jackson said. "We have a high standard as a defense, and we feel like we haven't played to that level or the level that we expect of ourselves, so of course we're (trying) to push our level up, pushing everybody through practice and just stay focused on our keys."

Head coach Brian Kelly has not lost faith in the unit that his team rode to last year's heights, saying that "what you see is what you got" when it comes to personnel this weekend, and that this year's defense remains capable of playing at a championship level, despite last week's rough outing.

Notre Dame's defense might very well live up to last year's high mark, but it received a not-so-friendly reminder that adjusting for personnel losses and bigger targets on their backs is still a process that takes time.

"We've got to coach some things up," Kelly said. "We've got to clean some things up fundamentally. I like our players, and we've just got to continue to develop who we are. I think I would feel a lot differently moving forward if I didn't feel like we had the players necessary to have a good defense and the level of the defense that we're going to need with the schedule that we're going to play. We've got to clean some things up, and I'm confident that we will."

Irish defense avoids encore talk

August, 27, 2013
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SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Bob Diaco wants to know if you are addicted to his culture. The reigning Broyles Award winner asks this after leading a mad-dash to the middle of Notre Dame's three practice fields once the team breaks for its first preseason session on campus. Over there, he will instruct a defense that returns a majority of its key pieces from a 2012 season that saw it finish second nationally in scoring.
He does all of this, mind you, while wearing a sweatshirt and sweatpants in the second week of August.
"I like to get a sweat on out there," he says with a laugh, "and then when you're running around, if you slam into somebody or they slam into you, you've got a little extra cushion."

The 2013 season is now four days away, and Diaco and his players have been peppered with questions about turnover, expectations and encores.
Can Notre Dame function as well without Heisman Trophy runner-up Manti Te'o in the middle? Will another strong recruiting haul allow for more flexibility? And what, really, is the personality of this defense as it enters year No. 4 under this regime?

"I think it's going to be just a collective group of guys that enjoy each other, enjoy playing hard, enjoy doing and playing defense the way it should be and not necessarily that person that's going to be out in front, you know?" Diaco said. "I think it's just a group of guys that really love each other and love what they're preparing to do and collectively just want to be the best they can be."

[+] EnlargeNotre Dame defensive coordinator Bob Diaco
Matt Cashore/US PRESSWIREBob Diaco thinks his Notre Dame defense could keep up its high-level of play this season despite losing Manti Te'o.
The Irish were almost the best last year, running the table and leading the nation in scoring defense until Alabama ran and threw all over them en route to a six-touchdown display that most around here figured to forget rather quickly.

Diaco instead used that as a teaching moment this past spring. Diaco taught his players about Dan Gable, the Iowa State wrestling great whose only prep or collegiate loss came in the finals of his senior year. Gable, Diaco told his players, was able to turn his worst moment into his greatest, as the lone defeat propelled him to gold at the 1972 Olympics.

"Going back to the Alabama game, it wasn't how anyone wanted it to be and you've just got to remember those types of things," noseguard Louis Nix said. "You've got to remember, like, you don't want that to happen again; you want to be competitive, you want to go out and do great things -- 12-0 was all great, but we lost when it counted, and you think about that every day.

"Me? I watch the national championship at least three times a week, honestly, to remind myself I don't want that to happen again. Alabama's a great team, great O-line, great coaches, great quarterback -- you have to emulate a team like that. They work hard, they go out and compete very game. They leave no doubt that they should've been national champs; that's what we've got to do and I feel like if you compete and you go out and practice hard and you do all the things that are right -- because life is a circle, when you do good things you get good things out of it, when you do bad things it comes back to haunt you — so we've just got to keep working and hopefully maybe we'll make it back to the game and probably win."

Notre Dame seems to have the necessary pieces. Nix and fellow defensive linemen Stephon Tuitt could be high first-round draft picks with another year of output similar to that of 2012. The duo, along with sophomore Sheldon Day, form what figures to be among the best defensive lines in the country.

Eight starters were slated to return to the defense until dog linebacker Danny Spond announced his retirement during camp following a series of hemiplegic migraines. But there seems to be enough bodies from a 2013 recruiting haul that ranked No. 4 nationally to create more desirable alternatives than Notre Dame had in the past. (One of the newcomers, five-star linebacker Jaylon Smith, has joined the ever-improving Ben Councell in place of Spond.)

"So I think you have to look at it that we have some other pieces that might be a little bit stronger than they were last year, so I think you have to look at all 11,” head coach Brian Kelly said. “We lose a great player in Manti Te'o but we gain some other pieces that I think are stronger this year across the board."

Diaco avoids big-picture talk, instead focusing on individual aspects that can be improved upon.

Where most look back to last year and see a defense that exceeded expectations, he harps on "the myriad, bucketful, bushel basket-full of things we did wrong."

"We're not a flavor-of-the-month, flavor-of-the-year group in terms of tweaking, changing, creating energy propaganda to get the unit going," Diaco said. "We believe in our culture, we believe in our unit culture, we believe in our unit identity and those are based on core principles that we believe create a great defense. And what we're interested in is improving and raising the level -- even if it's .0001 percent, we're interested in raising that level, every player and every coach in that unit."
The man in the middle of it all last year recognizes that culture, and he sees no sign of it slowing down just because he is no longer there among it again.

"They have the potential to be good," Te'o, now with the Chargers, said. "Any year that they line up, they have the potential to be good, and they have a lot of weapons on defense. I'm confident that they'll carry on what they did last year and everything will be good."
Is it Aug. 31 yet?

Jan. 7 must feel like it was a lot more than six measly months ago for those in South Bend, Ind., as an offseason out of left field threatened to dissipate all of the goodwill built up during Notre Dame's renaissance 2012 campaign.

To recap, since losing to Alabama by 28 in the Discover BCS National Championship, the Irish have:

  • Spent days on their toes and watched four-star linebacker Alex Anzalone flip to Florida as head coach Brian Kelly flirted with the Philadelphia Eagles in the days following the national title game.
  • Suffered through the humiliation of the revelation of the Manti Te'o girlfriend hoax, which tainted much of the remarkable story behind the Heisman Trophy runner-up.
  • Watched three second-year players -- including quarterback Gunner Kiel -- leave for other destinations before or early in spring ball, leaving the Irish without their top four players from the class of 2012, according to ESPN. (Cornerback Tee Shepard left shortly after enrolling in the spring of 2012.)
  • Withstood a long battle with five-star defensive tackle Eddie Vanderdoes, a saga that ended with ESPN's No. 10 prospect going to UCLA after signing with Notre Dame, costing him a year of eligibility.
  • Lost quarterback Everett Golson, who had upward of 40 starts remaining in an Irish uniform, for at least this season because of what he called "poor academic judgment."

So yes, the 2013 season opener against Temple at Notre Dame Stadium probably cannot come soon enough for many who are tired of the negative headlines and stream of bad news.

[+] EnlargeBrian Kelly
Matt Cashore/USA TODAY SportsNotre Dame coach Brian Kelly is well-versed in steering squads through quarterback issues.
That doesn't mean good things aren't happening in Kelly's fourth year, however. For one, even without Vanderdoes, he has another strong recruiting class that can make an immediate impact this fall. (It was ranked No. 4 nationally by ESPN when Vanderdoes was in the fold.)

Kelly also has experience navigating an uncertain quarterback field, though the position for the Irish is not as dire as it would be for most programs when losing a starter from a perfect regular season.

Just look at senior Tommy Rees, who saved Notre Dame in three of its first six games last season, who is 14-4 as a starter, knows the offense inside and out, and has the respect of the locker room.

Redshirt junior Andrew Hendrix has some experience and plenty of potential as well, and the promise of early-enrollee southpaw Malik Zaire, ESPN's No. 6 signal-caller from the class of 2013, impressed the staff this spring.

On the other side of the ball, there are eight starters back from a unit that finished second nationally in scoring defense last season, with a secondary that is much more experienced and should give coordinator Bob Diaco some flexibility with the unit as a whole.

Kelly once used five quarterbacks in a single season in Cincinnati during a season that ended in the Orange Bowl. If anyone can handle the haymakers the position has been thrown, it is he.

Rees' 20 turnovers during an 8-5 2011 campaign soured him on many fans, but if he can be more judicious, and if the defense can put forth a comparable performance to last season's, there is no reason this team cannot go BCS-bowling for the second consecutive year.

If it doesn't? Things may get complicated, but this is the last year Notre Dame will have to worry about a fallback plan.

Whether Golson returns and is back in form moving forward remains to be seen, but the program can feel the comfort of having a place at the table for the college football playoff from 2014 on, as the Irish will play five ACC teams each year and have much, much better bowl access.

No program is perfect, however picturesque Alabama might look from the outside.

Oregon? Hello, NCAA. TCU? Where do we even begin?

Notre Dame proved in 2012 that it is once again a big-boy program. Stuff happens to big-boy programs. That doesn't make the future any less bright for the Irish -- something they can't wait to prove come Week 1.
Steve Mitchell/USA TODAY Sports The Irish are using game film and spring practice to learn from their disappointing loss to Alabama.
SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Bob Diaco has not seen the old Nike commercial in which Michael Jordan explains that all of his successes are direct results from his failures. But the Notre Dame defensive coordinator expressed a similar message to his players in wake of a blowout loss to Alabama in the Discover BCS National Championship.

"I haven't seen the ad," Diaco said Friday morning when asked, "but what you're saying right now is exactly what I'm talking about."

After a defense that gave up less than 11 points per game in the regular season surrendered 42 to the Crimson Tide on Jan. 7, and after a unit that had allowed less than 287 yards per game was gashed for 529, the Irish defense sought lessons through film watching and exercises that pre-dated the 2012 season, as they hope to turn the page from their biggest (and only) defeat and work toward a greater triumph.

"We communicated about it in detail," Diaco said. "We watched the game probably a half-dozen times. We went back and we made notes on every single play. You walk out of the game and you were absolutely defeated, demoralized, dejected, just like I'm sure everyone in the world that's a Notre Dame person felt. We all felt the same 100 times. But after you have a chance to inspect it, then the reality of it was, it wasn't just an absolute push around. We had a misfit here or there, a miscommunication here or there, a missing lineman here or there. Then, we were faced defensively with a challenge that we really hadn't been faced with — that's a bang-bang-bang score.

"So now there's a feeling of, you're exasperated, and you want to make the play. And it's all out of great intentions, but all of a sudden, your eyes are wandering, your feet are happy, you're misaligned and it just starts to snowball from there, and it's hard to get it back on track. It's good to watch and be able to show the players and the staff on each particular play, 'Hey, if this changes, this is what'll be the result.'"

Diaco said he had the defense study the personalities of Dan Gable, Nelson Mandela, Father Theodore Hesburgh and Carl Brashear before the season, with the story of Gable providing a narrative he hopes can take shape throughout 2013.

Gable, the Iowa wrestling coach when Diaco was a linebacker at the school, suffered his only collegiate loss in his finale at Iowa State before bouncing back to win the gold medal at the 1972 Olympics without surrounding a single point.

"The lessons learned in that propelled him to go on and win Olympic gold," Diaco said. "The unit needs to understand those lessons. We've got to make sure that that moment right there is really our greatest moment. We have to turn it into our greatest strength. An understanding of what we need to do, an opportunity for everyone to sharpen the blade, so to speak, on their knife moving forward. It has to be viewed that way."

That starts with 15 practices this spring — two of which are in the books — while trying to channel thoughts of what-could-have-been into something to build on moving forward.

"The worst part from our standpoint is we never even got into our game plan," offensive coordinator Chuck Martin said of the title game. "We were unfortunately a three-and-out, a six-and-out and OK, now we're in catch-up mode and a lot of the things we would've liked to try to do, I guess if we could've done them or not we'll never know, but a lot of these were kind of out the window."

Best case/worst case: Pac-12 bowls

December, 13, 2012
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Our assignment is to pose a best-case and a worst-case scenario for every Pac-12 bowl team.

So here goes.

Arizona

Gildan New Mexico Bowl, Albuquerque, N.M., Dec. 15: Arizona (7-5) vs. Nevada (7-5), 1 p.m. ET, ESPN

Best case: Arizona rolls 40-28, as quarterback Matt Scott goes out with a bang that raises NFL eyebrows, and running back Ka'Deem Carey rushes for 195 yards to sew up the national rushing title.

Worst case: Scott gets knocked out of the game early and backup B.J. Denker looks overwhelmed, raising questions about the future at QB. Carey rushes for 35 yards and loses the rushing title as Nevada rolls 42-21. Michigan fans hit the message boards with a litany of "I told you so" about Rich Rodriguez.

Washington

MAACO Bowl Las Vegas, Las Vegas, Dec. 22: Washington (7-5) vs. Boise State (10-2), 3:30 p.m. ET, ESPN

Best case: In a "Welcome back!" performance, QB Keith Price throws for 295 yards and three touchdowns -- matching the total TD passes the Broncos have yielded all season -- and runs for another score as the Huskies end 2012 with a statement victory that bodes well for 2013. The Huskies' hot offseason topic is how high the preseason ranking will be.

Worst case: Washington starts slowly as it has much of the season, then gives up a double-digit fourth-quarter lead as Price throws multiple interceptions. Boise State wins going away 38-17, and the Huskies' hot offseason topic is whether coach Steve Sarkisian has plateaued.

UCLA

Bridgepoint Education Holiday Bowl, San Diego, Dec. 27: UCLA (9-4) vs. Baylor (7-5), 9:45 p.m. ET, ESPN

Best case: That the Bruins score 45 points is not unexpected. That Baylor is held to just 17 points is unexpected. UCLA dominates on both sides of the ball, and quarterback Brett Hundley looks like a budding Heisman Trophy candidate. After the game, linebacker Anthony Barr and guard Xavier Su'a-Filo both announce they are returning for the 2013 season. Says Barr, "Unfinished business? Naaah. I just like playing with these guys."

Worst case: Baylor rolls over UCLA in a 55-30 win, as the Bruins' defense can do nothing to slow the Bears, while Hundley throws three picks. Barr and Su'a-Filo opt to leave for the NFL, as does coach Jim Mora, who is hired by the Philadelphia Eagles.

Oregon State

Valero Alamo Bowl, San Antonio, Dec. 29: Oregon State (9-3) vs. Texas (8-4), 6:45 p.m. ET, ESPN

Best case: Oregon State throttles the Longhorns 31-13 with stifling defense, but the big story is Cody Mannion -- or is it Sean Vaz? -- throwing four touchdown passes and making a strong case to be the 2013 starter.

Worst case: The Beavers become the only team that couldn't run on Texas this year, and Sean Mannion and Cody Vaz both throw two interceptions in a 30-10 defeat. Meanwhile, Oregon State makes both Case McCoy and David Ash look like superstars. "Well," say all the national commentators. "This makes a strong case for the Big 12's superiority over the Pac-12. But we've still got to see the Fiesta Bowl."

Arizona State

Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl, San Francisco, Dec. 29: Arizona State (7-5) vs. Navy (7-4), 4 p.m. ET, ESPN2

Best case: Arizona State uses its superior speed on both sides of the ball to throttle Navy 48-17. After the game, consensus All-American defensive tackle Will Sutton announces he's returning for his senior year.

Worst case: Navy's triple option wears down the Sun Devils in a 28-17 victory. Even worse, the Sun Devils turn the ball over five times and commit 12 penalties for 105 yards, including two personal fouls. They look like the 2011 team, not the 2012 version under new coach Todd Graham.

USC

Hyundai Sun Bowl, El Paso, Texas, Dec. 31: USC (7-5) vs. Georgia Tech (6-7), 2 p.m. ET, CBS

Best case: Matt Barkley looks like, well, Matt Barkley, throwing five touchdown passes as the Trojans roll 40-10. As for the defense, coordinator Monte Kiffin goes out in style, with the Trojans holding Georgia Tech's option to just 225 total yards. Head coach Lane Kiffin announces after the game that he has hired Bob Diaco away from Notre Dame to be his defensive coordinator.

Worst case: Barkley tries to play but reinjures his shoulder, and the Trojans fold thereafter, ending a horribly disappointing season with a 38-17 loss. After the game, receiver Robert Woods, running back Silas Redd and cornerback Nickell Robey announce they will enter the NFL draft. Lane Kiffin also announces the hiring of Nick Holt to run the Trojans' defense.

Stanford

Rose Bowl Game presented by Vizio, Pasadena, Calif., Jan. 1: Stanford (11-2) vs. Wisconsin (8-5), 5 p.m. ET, ESPN

Best case: Stanford dominates on both sides of the ball in a 30-10 victory, holding the Badgers to just 79 yards rushing and 210 total yards. Quarterback Kevin Hogan throws two touchdown passes and runs for another, while running back Stepfan Taylor rushes for 145 yards and a score. After the game, linebacker Shayne Skov, defensive end Ben Gardner and tight end Zach Ertz announce they will be returning for their senior seasons.

Worst case: Montee Ball rushes for 197 yards and two scores as Wisconsin pushes the Cardinal around in a 24-17 win. The Badgers sack Hogan four times, overwhelming the Cardinal's offensive line. After the game, Skov, Gardner and Ertz announce they will enter the NFL draft. Coach David Shaw is hired by the Philadelphia Eagles, and Walt Harris is rehired.

Oregon

Tostitos Fiesta Bowl, Glendale, Ariz., Jan. 3: Oregon (11-1) vs. Kansas State (11-1), 8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN

Best case: Oregon starts fast and never lets up in a 51-20 blowout, with running back Kenjon Barner rushing for 187 yards and two scores and quarterback Marcus Mariota throwing for three TDs. The Ducks sack Collin Klein five times and grab two interceptions. "I'm sure glad we didn't play them in the regular season," Kansas State coach Bill Snyder says afterward. Shortly after the game, Ducks coach Chip Kelly signs a lifetime contract, opens practices and promises to be more patient with hypotheticals and other sorts of irritating questions.

Worst case: The Kansas State defense throttles the Ducks' offense, and Klein throws three TD passes in a 30-13 victory. The Ducks rush for only 101 yards. "Oregon struggles in these big games," say the national commentators afterward. "And this really makes the Pac-12 look bad." Kelly is hired by the Philadelphia Eagles. Mariota quits football to become a professional surfer. John Mackovic is hired to replace Kelly.
The ACC, historically one of college football’s most inconsistent leagues, had stability at the top from the preseason through the postseason, with Florida State and Clemson holding onto a firm grasp of the No. 1 and No. 2 spots in the power ranking, respectively. That hasn’t changed as we head into bowl season.

With the regular season and the championship game officially behind us, here is how the ACC stacks up heading into the new year:

1. Florida State (11-2, 7-1 ACC; LW: No. 1) -- The Seminoles won their first ACC title since 2005 with a 21-15 win over Georgia Tech. It was a disciplined defensive performance against the nation’s No. 3 rushing offense, and the Noles will represent the ACC against Northern Illinois in the Discover Orange Bowl.

2. Clemson (10-2, 7-1; LW: No. 2) -- After finishing the regular season with a loss to rival South Carolina, Clemson has a chance to redeem itself against the SEC against LSU in the Chick-fil-A Bowl. Clemson has won seven of its past eight games and could win an 11th game for the fourth time in school history.

3. Miami (7-5, 5-3; LW: No. 3) -- The Canes will be home for the holidays after their second straight self-imposed postseason ban, but the success this season was something to build on for next year. Running back Duke Johnson was named the ACC’s Rookie of the Year.

4. Georgia Tech (6-7, 5-3; LW: No. 4) -- The Yellow Jackets had a chance to upset the Noles in the ACC title game, but an interception with a minute remaining in the fourth quarter ended any hopes of it. Georgia Tech needed a waiver from the NCAA to play in the Hyundai Sun Bowl, where it will face USC.

5. North Carolina (8-4, 5-3; LW: No. 5) -- It was a successful first season for coach Larry Fedora; now it is a waiting game to see if star running back Giovani Bernard will leave school early to enter the NFL draft, and if there is any substance to the coaching rumors surrounding Tennessee’s interest in Fedora.

6. Duke (6-6, 3-5; LW: No. 6) -- The Blue Devils will face Cincinnati in the Belk Bowl as Duke returns to the postseason for the first time since 1994. David Cutcliffe was named the ACC Coach of the Year. Duke is making its ninth bowl trip and has a 3-5 record in postseason games. The Belk Bowl will be the program’s first appearance in a bowl game in North Carolina.

7. NC State (7-5, 4-4; LW: No. 7) -- Athletic director Debbie Yow didn’t waste any time hiring Dave Doeren from MAC champion Northern Illinois. Instead of coaching in the Discover Orange Bowl against FSU with his old team, Doeren immediately began working for NC State, which will play Vanderbilt (8-4) in the Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl. Offensive coordinator Dana Bible will coach the Pack in the bowl game.

8. Virginia Tech (6-6, 4-4; LW: No. 8) -- After going 0-2 against the Big East during the regular season with losses to Pitt and Cincinnati, the Hokies will have a chance to redeem themselves against Rutgers in the Russell Athletic Bowl.

9. Wake Forest (5-7, 3-5; LW: No. 10) -- The Deacs’ main priority now is recruiting, as it was another trying season for coach Jim Grobe and his staff. Wake Forest ended the season with three straight losses.

10. Virginia (4-8, 2-6; LW: No. 9) -- Coach Mike London made sweeping changes following a disappointing season, firing four of his assistants, including defensive coordinator Jim Reid. It’s likely the next coordinator will have a different, more aggressive defensive philosophy and scheme.

11. Maryland (4-8, 2-6; LW: No. 11) -- Anything and everything Maryland did this year on the field was overshadowed by its intent to join the Big Ten for the 2014 season. The ACC announced its intent to sue Maryland in order to force the university to pay the $50 million exit fee in full. As Randy Edsall and his staff recruits this offseason, they will do so looking for athletes to compete in the Big Ten.

12. Boston College (2-10, 1-7; LW: No. 12) -- Coach Frank Spaziani was fired, and first-year BC athletic director Brad Bates hired Temple coach Steve Addazio.

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