Trouble Spot No. 9 – South FloridaSouth Florida is closer to the fifth-best team on the Irish schedule than the ninth, but the Bulls draw the Irish on the wrong weekend. Slide Skip Holtz's crew down to a Week Six matchup, or even following Michigan or Michigan State, and I'd believe the Big East championship hopefuls could give the Irish all they could handle.
But not in Notre Dame's home opener.
Situation (date, time, location): The opening game for both squads, September 3, at Notre Dame Stadium. Kick-off is set for 3:30 ET.
Numbers/National View of South FloridaHoltz's group is viewed as a BCS contender and fringe Top 30 team. Athlon's (#35), Lindy's (#33), and Phil Steele (tied for first in the Big East and #25 overall) each hold the Bulls in high regard (Steele adds the Bulls will drop fewer than three league games for the first time in program history).
My View of South Florida: A team that's a year away, but a team that could hold the Irish to one of its three-lowest scoring outputs of the season…but can they score enough, or protect the football for the better part of 60 minutes, to keep the contest in doubt entering the final period?
The nation's 105th best offense in 2010 returns just four starters (five key contributors) and only two of its offensive linemen. Key to the attack is dual-threat QB B.J. Daniels, who when unleashed as a runner as he was two seasons ago as a true freshman (better than 700 yards on the ground), can wreak havoc on a defense.
Six starters return on the other side of scrimmage including most of a solid defensive backfield and a pair of key linebackers that led the nation's No. 17 ranked defense last fall.
Coaching Element1986 Notre Dame graduate Skip Holtz enters his second season at the program, guiding the Bulls to an 8-5 finish and the Big East Championship game (a 19-16 loss to UConn) last fall. His mission now – overtake, well, no one, as the perennial power of the Conference (I suppose West Virginia could still lay claim).
Holtz should have the Bulls clicking on all cylinders in 2012 (now that'd be a taxing home opener for ND), and has enough pieces in place to make another run at 9 wins this fall.
Among two handfuls of hopeful coaching hires for much of Notre Dame's fan base, Holtz will receive a nice ovation in his official return to the Stadium in September. He generally extracts the most from his roster, and is not without impressive upsets on his resume, most recently with back-to-back opening wins as head coach of East Carolina in 2008 vs. Virginia Tech and West Virginia. He guided the Bulls to road wins vs. Cincinnati and Miami last season, but dropped both matchups vs. Top 25 foes, Florida and West Virginia.
Trap Game PotentialNone. The only potential pitfall for a season-opener is if the Irish aren't adequately prepared in August camp. That seems unlikely entering Year 2 of the Brian Kelly regime.
Keys to offense/defenseThe Bulls will likely return to relying on talents and running ability of Daniels after a season in which he was asked to remain in the pocket due to lack of depth at the position. South Florida will run far more than it passes, due both to the presence of Daniels and a pair of talented runners in transfer Darrell Scott (a bull, no pun intended) and Demetris Murray that will commit to a north-south attack.
Though improved, especially late last season, Daniels remains a scattershot passer entering his junior season.
South Florida has succeeded in stopping the run for the better part of six seasons, ranking No. 22 nationally last fall. The Bulls possess quality linebacker play that will matchup well with Notre Dame's running game and offensive front, thereby testing the play-calling patience of Kelly on game day. (The Irish finished 2-5 when their pass attempts exceeded their rushes by eight or more snaps, last season.)
Advantage Irish? The Bulls will debut a trio of new offensive line starters (and tight end) for the season opener, and for the first time since 2006, the Irish have a defensive front capable of taking advantage of the situation.
Relevant StorylinesIrish defensive coordinator Bob Diaco noted in the spring that the Irish defense won't simply pick up where it left off – it needs to be rebuilt, reconstituted, and reconstructed. (There were also Petri Dish and baking analogies, but I'll spare you the details…)
Regardless, the expectation is that Notre Dame will (roughly) pick up where it left off: as a defensively stout football team with a two-pronged approach offensively, featuring the read-option with a dose of power football – the latter as a unit that will grow into head coach Brian Kelly's image as the season progresses.
Also relevant to the proceedings is the likely return, and ensuing excellence, of Michael Floyd, one of the nation's top offensive weapons, to the Irish lineup.
Puncher's Chance for an upset? On a scale of 1-10? At least 6.5, because the season-opener, despite what you've read above, does include a healthy dose of the unknown for the majority of 120 FBS teams.
But I expect the Irish to be clearly superior to South Florida in early September, and rank the following Notre Dame foes as more likely home upset options: Air Force, Boston College, and Navy (with MSU and USC relative toss-ups, slight underdogs – assuming USC has lost a game by the time it visits in late-October).
Final Verdict/PredictionI considered the Bulls for both slot #10 and #8 slot on this list, but the opening game scenario was the decisive factor. To be blunt, I'll be shocked if Notre Dame loses to South Florida, and that's the purpose of this series. If the Bulls instead hosted the Irish in the opener, the contest would rank among my Top 4 Trouble Spots for 2011.
Expect the Irish to win comfortably if not convincingly, scoring in the mid-20s while limiting the Bulls to one touchdown and a few field goal opportunities.