Predictions hit a Baker's Dozen

O'Malley's week-long predictions series continues with two disparate looks at third-down situations, and an end total for senior star Manti Te'o.

Our first three predictions examined expected pass defense struggles, touchdowns scored by Cierre Wood, and the possibility of a 4-0 start in September, while predictions No. 4-7 detailed likely home defeat for the 14th straight season, a new interception king, a noticeable surge in rushing attempts for 2012, and fewer interceptions thrown by the Irish quarterbacks.

Rounding out the first 10 was a trio that included the likelihood Irish fans will again see three quarterbacks take meaningful snaps, an record-setting swan song by Tyler Eifert, and the team's projected record after nine games.

On to the next set of 10, starting with this trio:

Prediction #11 -- Third-Down Defense Suffers

There haven't been many consistent aspects for the Notre Dame football team over the last two seasons, but one of the sports most important, telling statistics is one of them. Defensive coordinator Bob Diaco's unit ranked 20th among 121 FBS school last year in 3rd-down efficiency defense, holding foes to a 34.24 percent conversion rate (regardless of down and distance).

One season prior and vs. a better collection of opposing offenses, Diaco's group performed similarly, ranked 28th while holding their 13 foes to a 36.45 percent conversion rate.

The presence of five veteran defensive backs augmented both the 2010 and 2011 efforts. The lack of the same will hurt this year's, as will the transfer of pass-rushing phenom Aaron Lynch.

Third down won't be a death knell for the defense, but expect the lowest national ranking of the Diaco era, thanks to cornerbacks learning on the job, shaky depth among the entire back line, and most important, at least seven potent offensive football teams on the 12-game slate.

Prediction #12 -- Third-Down Offense Surges

Fans often lament the lack of a power running option in South Bend, so it's unlikely many would guess that Notre Dame's third-down offense was its most improved statistical category last fall, leaping from 73rd nationally in 2010 to 19th last year when it converted an impressive 46.55 percent of its third-down opportunities.

(For a look at the team's remarkable success on 3rd and short, click here.)

It will only get better this year with a mobile quarterback as part of the team's read-option attack, multiple tight end sets, and most important, fewer negative plays on 1st and 2nd down, the offense's main focus since spring practice began.

Look for the Irish offense to rank among the nation's top 15 in third-down efficiency this fall -- predicted struggles in this regard during a Week Three battle in East Lansing notwithstanding.

Prediction #13 -- Te'o to Top Three

Senior linebacker Manti Te'o leads the squad with 28.5 tackles for loss over the last three seasons. With six more, he'll join the program's all-time Top 10 in the category. Where can Te'o land? I project the Butkus Trophy favorite and likely first team All-America to surge all the way to No. 3, supplanting a pair of standout defensive linemen Justin Tuck (2002-2004) and Anthony Weaver (1998-2001) who are locked in a third-place time with 42 career TFL.

Look for Te'o, who registered 13.5 TFL last year, to fall just short of the No. 2 spot and former outside linebacker Kory Minor who tallied 44.5 TFL from 1995-98.

As for Te'o's shot, or any future Irish player's shot at the top spot in program lore? Don't hold your breath: the immortal Ross Browner was credited with a ridiculous 77 tackles-for-loss as a four-year star (1973, 1975-77) -- its a program record that will never be approached.


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