20 in the Books

Our week-long predictions series reaches 20 with five more prior to game week.

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, a record-setting swan song by Tyler Eifert, and the team's projected record after nine games.

Thursday 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.

Saturday morning featured featured the season's lowest scoring slugfest, the squad's sack-master, and the likelihood of better red zone play…but fewer total touchdowns scored, this fall.

Below is a quartet that rounds out 20 predictions for 2012 with five still to come:

#17 -- Late-October Shootout

Our previous column included the forecast of Michigan State as the lowest-scoring contest, and proven right or wrong, my prediction never wavered regarding the team's Week Three trip to East Lansing.

Projecting the highest scoring contest is a bit trickier. USC could put 30-plus on the Irish defense. So too could Oklahoma. Can Notre Dame score 30 on either and still prevail? I considered going out on a limb and choosing Game No. 7, an October 20 battle vs. BYU at Notre Dame Stadium as the season's wildest affair. Look for both teams to score in the 30s and showcase efforts by opposing dual-threat quarterbacks Everett Golson and Riley Nelson.

But Oklahoma is an offensive juggernaut in Norman, averaging nearly 42 points per home game over the last two seasons. The Irish need to get off the bus scoring 30-plus to have a chance. I think they will…but the Sooners might score more.

#18 -- 30-Point Threshold

Speaking of scoring defense: one of my 2011 predictions included no foe topping the 30-point plateau against Bob Diaco's defense. Instead three turned the trick: Michigan thanks to a 28-point 4th Quarter; Air Force thanks to two garbage-time touchdowns in the final four minutes; and USC thanks to Notre Dame's offense coupled with a guy named Robert Woods.

I've described this year's defense as "solid at worst." They'll need to be much better than that to keep some of the nation's best offenses under 30 for 12 consecutive weeks. Look for three teams to again top 30 points vs. Diaco's D, but for the Irish to finally win one of those shootouts.

#19 -- Close and Late

Speaking of shootouts: did you know Notre Dame is 1-9 under Brian Kelly when the opponent scores more than 21 points?

While allowing each of you time to digest that alarming stat, consider that the 2012 slate includes the following: two games in which Notre Dame will be a three-score favorite (Navy); five others in which the Irish are currently favored by more than a score (from 8-14 points): Purdue, Miami, Pittsburgh, Boston College, and Wake Forest; four others that are relative toss-ups (a TD or less for the point spread): MSU, UM, Stanford, and BYU); and two in which the Irish will be underdogs of more than seven points (Oklahoma and USC).

Add it all up and Notre Dame should play between eight and 11 contests decided by the 4th Quarter. In 2009, Charlie Weis' final Irish team played an unprecedented 10 games decided on one of the two teams' final offensive series. That rarity won't repeat in 2012, but Kelly's third Irish squad will endure more down-to-the-wire struggles than in either of his first two seasons, playing at least seven that come down to the final possessions.

For an official prediction, I'll surmise eight of Notre Dame's 12 regular season contests are decided by eight points or fewer.

#20 -- Freshmen Firsts

Its always fun to add a shot-in-the-dark prediction to the series. So before we conclude with our final five season predictions, let's look at which of the 16 true freshmen will see the field in and who among the group might redshirt in 2012:

Slot Receiver Davonte' Neal: Set to start at punt returner and backup senior Robby Toma in the slot.

CB Keivarae Russell: Named the starting cornerback Thursday by head coach Brian Kelly

DE Sheldon Day: Projected member of the team's six-man defensive line rotation and likely the 3rd or 4th DE in the team's pecking order.

WR Chris Brown: Offered as a perimeter player who will contribute this season. Noted by Kelly as a "starter" in particular personnel groupings.

S Nick Baratti: Forged his way onto the two-deep at field safety behind Zeke Motta and a likely regular on Notre Dame's "Run Teams' (kick/punt coverage; kick/punt return).

Dog LB Romeo Okwara: No. 2 Dog linebacker after a standout fall camp. Okwara could have a redshirt season preserved if he doesn't appear in a contest before junior and previously assumed starter Danny Spond returns to compete at the position.

CB Elijah Shumate: Seems a natural fit for the coverage units but we've heard precious little about those groups to date. I'll guess Shumate ends up a special teams starter.

OT Ronnie Stanley: No. 2 left tackle behind Zack Martin though redshirt-freshman Nick Martin is the first tackle in should either his brother or RT starter Christian Lombard go down. If junior Tate Nichols returns from injury and can compete after an August knee injury, Stanley's valuable redshirt season could be preserved.

Dog LB C.J. Prosise: A media day conversation with safeties coach Bob Elliott made me think Prosise will be back at safety next year, if not by the end of 2012. His size/speed ratio almost demands special teams action, but the current Irish squad has plenty of able bodied safeties and running backs to battle for such roles.

QB Gunner Kiel: Two things would have to happen for Kiel to burn his redshirt season, neither is particularly appealing: A terrible start, one bad enough that the final two months could be turned over to a true freshman, and/or two injuries coupled with ineffectiveness at the position.

S John Turner: I'd assume fourth in the pecking order among the freshman DB and behind senior Chris Salvi as well as 5th-year Danny McCarthy. Turner appeared quicker than I had expected in scrimmage action.

WR Justin Ferguson: The Irish are 7-deep ahead of him; no reason to burn this redshirt season unless he begins destroying the first unit in September.

Long-snapper Scott Daly: Technically, it only takes one injury to put Daly in a starting role…

DL Jarron Jones: Needs a year to grow into his body; at least two, if not three major DL injuries away from 2012 action.

RB Will Mahone: Cierre Wood, Theo Riddick, and George Atkinson should be able to handle the heavy lifting. Cam McDaniel is also available in a pinch.

OG/C Mark Harrell: Converting to center and currently working at backup guard. Harrell is the least likely frosh to see action this fall.

Final Tally: Seven preserve of a redshirt season with Kiel the cut-off above...


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