My predicted final score – Notre Dame 27 South Florida 12 – is historically relevant, though not chosen for that reason. In short, I think Notre Dame's defense will hold the Bulls to a touchdown or less, yield field goals in the red zone, and provide Brian Kelly's Irish offense with enough favorable field position to complete a handful of scoring drives.
Hardly the stuff of legend, but a peek back at Notre Dame's still-active four-game winning streak reveals plenty of ugly football translating to a highly attractive end-result.
Notre Dame's offense is unlikely to reach elite status this fall, but more relevant, I doubt it will approach that level in September. Its current strength lies in its defense, and on the sidelines, not unlike the last Irish squad to reach elite status after an uninspired Week One performance: Lou Holtz's national runner-up from 1993.
Like Kelly's second squad, Holtz's '93 group entered the campaign following an extended winning streak to conclude the previous season (the '92 Irish won their final seven and finished third in the national polls). And like Kelly's second squad, Holtz's '93 group entered its season-opener searching for an offensive identity.
It finished Game One with a disjointed 27-12 win over Northwestern. The end result: a four-spot drop down to #13 in the Week Two Associated Press poll.
But like the '93 squad, Kelly's 2011 group should improve greatly on the offensive side of scrimmage as the season progresses. And like the '93 squad, this year's unit will travel to Michigan in Week Two; return home to take on Michigan State in Week Three; and entertain regulars and rivals Pittsburgh, Purdue, Stanford, USC, Navy, and BC (don't get me started) along the way.
The bar the 1993 team set – though one rung below the championship winners of season's past – has not been approached since.
Saturday's mission: Win big, win ugly, or win in workmanlike fashion, reminiscent of the rejuvenated Irish late last season. Regardless, tomorrow won't be a litmus test.
The four-game set that waits in September, will.
Irish 27 South Florida 12
A Closer Look – Irish OffenseA position-by-position look at Week One personnel moves to monitor.
Wide Receivers: Look for five wideouts to play, but for slot receiver Robby Toma to be the first and most effective player off the bench. Toma's knack for finding a hole and making the first man miss is paramount to an offense that had only Floyd adding yards after the catch last season.
Unit MVP: Floyd, with just under 100 yards but a pair of scores vs. an experienced but overmatched cornerback trio.
Tight Ends: Tyler Eifert will likely earn the lion's share of snaps in Week One and Two as two newcomers, Alex Welch and Ben Koyack, get their feet wet. Brian Kelly noted that 5th-year senior Mike Ragone is ready to go after working through a quad injury throughout August – I doubt the valuable blocking tight end will be at full strength or a major factor for the opener.
Offensive Backfield: Barring injury, the only players to take a snap for Kelly's crew this Saturday will be starter Dayne Crist and wildcat option Theo Riddick. Look for 18-22 carries from Cierre Wood if he can find an early groove/success, thus allowing 7-9 more for power option Jonas Gray. (Riddick could carry as many as eight times if the Irish jump to an early double-digit lead.) But if the Bulls defense stymies the Irish running game early, I have little faith Notre Dame will continue to pound away – instead relying far too much on Crist's arm and the spread attack.
Front Five: Likely a seven-man rotation with Andrew Nuss subbing for both Chris Watt and Trevor Robinson at guard and Christian Lombard spelling right tackle Taylor Dever for a series in both halves. Expect center Braxston Cave and LT Zack Martin to operate in those roles for the duration should the game remain in doubt.
A Closer Look – Irish DefenseDefensive Line: Position coach Mike Elston noted that 6-7 linemen will play Saturday; I'll guess seven (RDE Kona Schwenke the last in) with humid conditions expected. As noted in the previews linked above, senior Ethan Johnson is poised to control his left edge vs. fresh meat in right tackle Quinterrius Eatmon; Johnson's bookend Kapron Lewis-Moore will strike with a key tackle-for-loss as some point Saturday. I expect the nose guard tandem of Sean Cwynar and redshirt-freshman Louis Nix to earn a 60/40 snap split for Week One.
Oh yeah: look for true freshman Aaron Lynch to record his first career sack late in the third quarter.
Linebackers: My choice for the game's defensive MVP resides in the Irish unit, with senior Darius Fleming making plays at, and behind the line of scrimmage, but also shutting down short throws for minimal gains on the perimeter. You can pencil in Manti Te'o for his usual 10-12 stops vs. the power running tandem of Demetris Murray and Darrell Scott.
Key to the festivities: new drop linebacker Prince Shembo and his debut in pass coverage – the position is not one mastered easily, especially for a player who spent his high school career and freshman season at Notre Dame in attack mode as a defensive end/rush linebacker. Expect seven 'backers to appear with Carlo Calabrese earning 40-45 percent of the snaps behind classmate and newly-minted starter Dan Fox. Senior Steve Filer will play in packages as a pass-rush specialist while Shembo's understudy and fellow sophomore Danny Spond might be needed to help shut down the short passing game.
Defensive Backfield: The three-man safety rotation should see Harrison Smith involved in 90 percent of the snaps, with Jamoris Slaughter and Zeke Motta splitting free safety duties and each taking a turn at Smith's SS spot (Motta would be the likely initial choice to give Smith a sideline break).
Though we've heard through the grapevine that sophomore cornerback Lo Wood would see regular rotation time at cornerback, I'll believe it when I see it. Look for starters Robert Blanton and Gary Gray to take nearly every meaningful snap, with both coming out for less than three consecutive plays in the second quarter.
Wood's development is crucial, however, as he'll be targeted often if pressed into duty vs. Michigan or Michigan State over the next two weeks.
I'd like to see aggressive senior Danny McCarthy get a shot, but he might be too far behind the "starting" safety trio at season's outset.
Closer Look – Irish Special TeamsDon't expect Week One miracles from the Irish punt return group – the team's worst collective unit last fall. Then again, if new return man Theo Riddick falls forward twice he'll exceed the group's production from nine games in 2010 (sadly, that's as factual is it is sarcastic).
Riddick and 2010 return man Bennett Jackson will handle kick return duties as well – the Irish haven't had a consistent player in that regard since Vontez Duff in 2003. Riddick set a program record for kick returns and subsequently yardage as a freshman in 2009 – not necessarily indicative of success as volume (aka: touchdowns allowed by the defense) resulted in 37 returned kicks.
With a painful one-punt exception, the Irish coverage teams were outstanding throughout 2010. Look for the 10 of the following 13 competitors in kick coverage: Danny Spond, Lo Wood, Steve Filer, walk-on Patrick Coughlin, Troy Niklas, Danny McCarthy, Austin Collinsworth, Prince Shembo, Dan Fox, Robert Blanton, walk-on Chris Salvi, and Bennett Jackson (the team's best) to run under boots from new kick-off specialist, Kyle Brindza (in his collegiate debut).
Mr. (Nearly) Perfect, David Ruffer, will handle place-kicking duties as a 5th-year senior. Ruffer has connected on 23 of 24 career field goal attempts, each booted since mid-November 2009.
Offensive MVP: Michael Floyd
Defensive MVP: Darius Fleming
Name to Note – Offense: Robby Toma
Name to Note – Defense: Jamoris Slaughter