Overview of the IrishA tale of three seasons saw the Irish plummet to 1-3 to conclude September; struggle at 4-5 prior to its Bye at the end of October; then explode with four straight wins for an 8-5 finish in Brian Kelly's first season.
Last season's record: 8-5
Returning starters/letter-winners: 18 starters (both QB) and 42 letter winners
Key losses: Junior tight end Kyle Rudolph, senior nose guard Ian Williams, and senior running back Robert Hughes. Rudolph missed the final six contests due to a hamstring tear; Williams four of the last five thanks to a knee sprain, and Hughes was a non-starter, but key power runner during the team's 4-0 finish
Floyd and Te'o are the team's top players, each ranking among the nation's best at their respective positions. Smith is the lone team captain (Floyd since stripped of his co-captaincy following an off-season arrest), and the most improved player of the calendar year at the program.
Best game: October 22 in South Bend vs. arch-rival USC. The game marks the first prime time kick-off at Notre Dame Stadium since 1990 – one season prior to the Irish/NBC television contract.
Projected finish: 10-2
Outlook: The team's 4-0 finish included 18 quarters in which the Irish defense yielded just one offensive touchdown (on a one-yard, four-play drive, to boot). That stout effort has Irish fans thinking big – an annual occurrence to be sure, but with the exception that this squad's strength is rooted in its defense, one that returns 14 of its 18 regulars from 2010.
If the offense can improve from a disjointed first season under head coach Brian Kelly – or simply maintain its closing pace (the team scored 28, 27, 20, and 33 points in its final four outings) – the Irish will be pitted in a BCS Bowl "elimination game" when they travel to Stanford on Thanksgiving weekend to close the regular season.