Predictions: Sweet 16

Our week-long predictions series reaches 16 strong with a look at the team's projected sack-master, the season's lowest scoring contest, and…fewer touchdowns scored overall?

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.

Yesterday we highlighted a three-pack that focused on the team's third-down defense, its third-down offense, and Manti Te'o's likely finish among program legends in tackles-for-loss.

Below are No.'s 14-16 in our full-week countdown:

Prediction #14 -- Better Red Zone but Fewer TDs

Notre Dame scored 46 offensive touchdowns last season, the most at the program since 2006, when Brady Quinn fired for 37 scores and the Irish rushed for 14 more.

Part of 2011's production was a healthy dose of terrible defense, courtesy three teams: Air Force, vs. whom the Irish put up eight touchdowns; Navy (7) and Maryland (5). That's 20 of the team's 46 touchdowns scored in just three of its 13 games. Throw in five more at Purdue and 25 of 46 TD were scored over four games, leaving a paltry 21 for the remaining nine contests.

Expect fewer touchdown scores this season despite a far less error-prone red zone offense. A mobile quarterback, an edict to eat it rather than force it into coverage, a quality, deep running attack, and a top tier tight end give the Irish a chance to score in close vs. anyone, but the reality of at least nine solid to standout defenses on the schedule -- and likely only one from the sport's lower tier -- will keep the Irish offense from scoring more overall in 2012.

Fewer overall scores doesn't necessarily mean that the offense regresses, rather, that there aren't incongruent 59, 56, and 45-point games along the way.

Notre Dame will face defenses ranked 6, 10, 18, 22, 30, 31, 38, 43, 45, 63, and 65 last fall among the now 124 FBS teams. Only Navy falls well below the Mendoza Line with the 78th best returning scoring defense. For the sake of reference, the Irish D finished 24th in 2011.

Prediction #15 -- ND/MSU the lowest-scoring game

For the purpose of this prediction, I annually define "lowest scoring game" as the contest with the lowest scoring winning total. In other words, a 17-14 contest is "lower scoring" than a 30-0 game, despite the extra point scored overall.

For 2012, pair an early-season matchup of two new quarterbacks, the #9 returning scoring defense serving as hosts for the primetime contest vs. the No. 24 scoring defense from last season, add to that 20 returning regulars between the defensive units, and throw in a contest last fall that included combined rushing averages of 2.45 yards per carry, and you have a low scoring slugfest in mid-September.

Yes, a series that saw combined point totals in the 60s to 80s(!) in 2005, 2006, 2009, and 2010 will serve as the lowest-scoring affair when the Irish travel to East Lansing to take on rough and tumble Michigan State.

To borrow from Georgia Tech and Atlanta Falcons play-by-play man Wes Durham, "Get the women and children off the sidelines" for this one.

Prediction #16 -- Shembo the Sack-Man

The sophomore Ishaq Williams is a dark horse candidate, I only seriously considered two candidates: sophomore defensive end Stephon Tuitt and junior Cat linebacker Prince Shembo. Tuitt is potentially a Top 3 defender for 2012 while Shembo is back where he belongs, serving in a pass-rushing role as a four-down defensive end and Cat linebacker (a spot with coverage responsibilities as well).

I'm not sure how Shembo will fare covering the short zones of the boundary, after all, it took junior Darius Fleming an admitted nine games to master the art of his craft at the same spot in 2010, but Shembo, the self-processed "silverback" can get through and around most offensive tackles he'll face.

His continued presence coming off the edge on third and long will serve as a key to the Irish season. Top Stories