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The decision by Manti Te'o to return to school for 2012 was essential for Kelly's building plans. Te'o ended the season as the Irish's leader in total tackles, tackles for loss and sacks, and his production will be key in 2012 as he and his teammates take on one of the toughest schedules in college football: Miami, BYU and Michigan at home, with road games at Michigan State, Oklahoma and USC.
Throw in a game against an improving Purdue team and a season opener with Navy in September (which will be played in Dublin, Ireland, by the way), and all of a sudden the game against the Seminoles next week and the opportunity to get to nine wins means even more. The line between perception and reality can become very blurred in big-time college football, and at a program as prestigious and passionate as Notre Dame, the needle had better keep moving in the right direction.
A nine-win season coupled with the returning experience of quarterback Tommy Rees and Te'o and another incoming top-10 recruiting class would make the offseason conversations around the watercooler much more optimistic. Another 8-5 season, however, would put even more pressure on Kelly, and September and October would have to be much more about wins than explanations.