Thoughts for Thursday

Thoughts, opinions, relevant statistics and ramblings as the Champs Sports Bowl draws near.

#1 – Ten on Top

At the conclusion of 2010, my Top 10 Irish players shared a common trait: each returned for 2011. I therefore expected more than eight regular season wins, calling for a 10-2 mark with a bowl victory. At the conclusion of 2011, I'm estimating that just five of the Top 10 will return for 2012 (and that includes the draft-tempted Tyler Eifert.

Why then do I think the 2012 squad will win more regular season games than their predecessors against what is sure to be a tougher schedule?

A.) Depth has been forged: The squad might lose five of its top 10 players, but another two dozen of its remaining top 30 competitors will return.

B.) It's how you start: For the first time since 2008, the Notre Dame schedule isn't top-heavy. That is: Navy in Dublin and a home date with Purdue is a fairly friendly start. Add to that Michigan State's need to debut a new quarterback after the three-year Kirk Cousins era, and three of Notre Dame's first four opponents will be undermanned or in flux next fall. September has laid waste to the Irish program for the better part of two decades – that need not be the case in 2012.

#2 – Third and Fourth Quarter Disparity?

Notre Dame allowed just 13 third quarter points over the course of the season. It conversely yielded 104 in the fourth, though that total is misleading as only 59 of those points had any impact on a game's outcome: South Florida 7, Michigan 28, Michigan State 3, USC 7, Boston College 7, and Stanford 7. (Pittsburgh and Wake Forest were held scoreless in the only two remaining competitive contests).

Take away the Ann Arbor train wreck and Notre Dame surrendered just four fourth quarter touchdowns when the game was in doubt this season. (Actually, if you could take away the Ann Arbor disaster, the landscape of college football would have changed for the better part of 2011.)

#3 – Sweet 16

Four-star offensive tackle Ronnie Stanley will end his recruitment today, choosing among Notre Dame, Nebraska, and Arkansas, with the Irish the prohibitive favorite. That pledge would be Notre Dame's 16th verbal commitment, a reality that technically pushes out another potential 5th-year senior for next fall. Then again, it's unlikely that more than six of the 13 potential 5th-years would be invited back regardless of space (for more on that, Click Here).

Brian Kelly is likely four more verbal commitments away from a tough decision on expected/potential returnees such as center Mike Golic or wide receiver John Goodman for 2012.

#4 – A Season of Deficits

You have to hand it to Notre Dame's 2011 football team – they rarely left the fan base wondering what kind of fall Saturday it would be.

Notre Dame raced to leads of 24-7 (Loss at Michigan), 21-0 (Win at Purdue), 21-3 and 42-16 at the half (win vs. Air Force); 14-0 and 35-7 at the half (Win vs. Navy) and 17-0 (Win vs. Maryland) this season. It conversely fell behind 16-0, 17-0, and 21-0 in three of its four defeats. Head coach Brian Kelly's Irish also led by 18 early in the third quarter (Michigan State) and by 26 at the half (Air Force). The Irish also took a 10-0 lead over BC and never trailed in the contest.

The 12-game season included just two true nip-and-tuck struggles (at Pittsburgh and at Wake Forest) with Notre Dame winning both.

Both Vegas odds (Florida State is favored by a field goal) and logic suggest the Champs Sports Bowl will fulfill the latter criteria to end an uneven campaign.

#5 – Forgiven but Forever Relevant

Though the first 36 hours offered cause for pause, its since been impressive how well Kelly and the Irish staff and players handled the aftermath of head coach's highly publicized comments regarding his team's "DNA" in the aftermath of the USC defeat.

Nonetheless, the 45-day-old dust-up afforded the opportunity for another Favorites List for your favorite beat writer.

Thus, in Kelly parlance, I believe these players had the "Most DNA" of any Irish competitors in my viewing lifetime: Mark Bavaro, Tim Brown, Mike Kovaleski, Steve Beuerlein (the senior), Wes Pritchett, Chris Zorich, Tony Rice, Anthony Johnson, Michael Stonebreaker, Todd Lyght, Reggie Brooks, Kevin McDougal, Marc Edwards, Derrick Mayes, Shane Walton, Glen Earl, Jeff Faine, Justin Tuck, Tom Zbikowski, Brady Quinn, Golden Tate, and Michael Floyd.

I'm considering adding current junior Tyler Eifert to that list as well, but let's let the bowl game and all-important 2012 season determine his final ascent.

Note: Part II will be published prior to 1:00 ET Top Stories