Coaching Change: Temple will take the field in South Bend with a new coach after former Notre Dame assistant coach (1999-2001) Steve Addazio left the Owls after just two seasons to take over at Boston College. Matt Rhule now heads up the Temple team and looks to build off a team that went just 4-7 last season.
Rhule spent last season as an assistant offensive line coach with the New York Giants, but prior to that, he was an assistant at Temple from 2006 to 2011. Expect the Owls to focus on scoring some points this season, as Rhule served as the offensive coordinator at Temple for three years during his first stint there. Where as Addazio used a run-heavy offensive attack, this year's Temple team is expected to throw the ball much more under Rhule.
Where's the Defense? It's interesting that Temple brought in another offensive-minded coach. Offense wasn't really their biggest issue last season. The defense allowed 31.2 points per game last season, and gave up more than 130 rushing yards in every Big East game. Yet, there were no real significant changes made this offseason to help out the struggling defense. Perhaps a good offense is the best defense in the Owls' case.
Spring Star: Connor Reilly. The junior quarterback entered spring practice as a backup and left the starter. Reilly emerged as the best arm of the three Temple quarterbacks during the spring, and because Rhule is looking to throw the ball a lot more, Reilly became the favorite. In the Temple spring game, Reilly went 25-41 for 366 yards and four touchdowns. Yes, it was just a spring game, but those are some impressive stats, and the Irish will have to look out for Reilly's arm on August 31.
High/Low Pre-season Rankings: Athlon Sports has Temple finishing last in the American Athletic Conference and ranked #97 on the national scale. Lindy's Sports ranks the Owls at #109.
What It All Means: As has been mentioned before, this game should be a relatively easy one for the Irish. Coming off a disappointing 2012 season and spending the entire offense learning a totally new offense under Rhule, it just doesn't seem like the Owls can pull of the upset. However, it's the first matchup between these two schools in football and a huge opportunity for the school from Philadelphia. Recent history shows the Irish have allowed some program-defining wins to lesser opponents at Notre Dame Stadium (Connecticut in 2009, Tulsa in 2010, South Florida in 2011). I just don't see that happening to this Irish team as they take the field for the first time since the national championship looking to rid themselves of this offseason's demons.
Here's to you, Mr. Robinson: Perhaps the greatest offseason news concerning Michigan for the Notre Dame faithful is that Denard Robinson is gone. Yes, Robinson had a horrible game against the Irish last fall, and yes, he was eventually benched at quarterback in favor of Devin Gardner, but let's not forget all the damage that Robinson did against the Irish in his career at Michigan. I, personally, breathe a large sigh of relief now that I don't have to see #16 in maize and blue on the field at the Big House this September.
New Offense Taking Form: Granted, the departure of Denard Robinson is not a shocking offseason turn of events. Robinson was a senior, and his eligibility was gone. Devin Gardner started the last few games of the season at quarterback in Robinson's place anyways. Those last few games served as a dress rehearsal for what's to come this season. This year's offense will be a different one with Gardner at the helm. He's a pro-style quarterback with a big arm, pretty much the opposite of Robinson. He has some speed and athleticism too, so he will be able to move outside the pocket.
The Michigan running backs will have to perform much better than they did last season to give the offense another dimension. Incoming freshman Derrick Green was the top recruit at his position, and he could make a big impact for the Wolverines. Fitzgerald Toussaint looks to rebound from injuries that hindered him much of this offseason and last season. Regardless of what happens in the backfield though, look for a different Michigan offense than what we have become accustomed to over the past few seasons.
Injuries: The Wolverines have been hit with the injury bug this offseason. Linebacker Jake Ryan tore his ACL in spring practice, and he isn't expected to return to the field until October. So, the Irish won't have to worry about his playmaking abilities. Projected backup quarterback Russell Bellomy also tore his ACL in the spring, leaving incoming freshman Shane Morris as the Wolverines' backup. Both Fitzgerald Toussaint and cornerback Blake Countess are expected to be ready for the season, but it is still yet to be determined just how big of a factor they will be at the beginning of the year.
Playing Chicken: The rivalry against the two winningest programs in college football history got a little more contentious this offseason when Michigan head coach Brady Hoke accused Notre Dame of "chickening out" of the teams' football series. The Irish decided to discontinue the series after the 2014 season, in large part due to Notre Dame's agreement to move to the ACC. That agreement requires Notre Dame to play five ACC teams each year in football.
High/Low Pre-season Rankings: Athlon Sports projects the Wolverines to win the Big Ten Legends Division and gives them a preseason ranking at #14. Lindy's Sports has Michigan at #16.
What It All Means: Last season, the Irish were able to finally get a close win against the Wolverines, one that had eluded them in nail-biters the previous two seasons. Expect this year to be more of the same at the Big House. The strong Irish defense should be able to match up with Michigan's new look offense, and it will come down to what the offense can do against a pretty good Wolverines defense. As if there was ever a need for more bulletin board material when these two teams play, Hoke's comments will just make this year's matchup more enticing. The Irish want to prove there's no chicken business going on in South Bend, while Michigan would love to beat the Irish after getting ditched.
Coaching Change: After a disappointing four years under Danny Hope, the Boilermakers made the switch to Darrell Hazell. Hazell comes to West Lafayette after spending the past two seasons as head coach at Kent State. Hazell was the 2012 MAC Coach of the Year, leading the Golden Flashes to an undefeated conference record and an appearance in the GoDaddy.com Bowl. Before his time at Kent State, Hazell served as an assistant coach at Ohio State for seven years under Jim Tressel.
The Boilers have long used the spread offense, but expect to see more plays with the quarterback under center this season. Hazell wants his team to be more physical.
Quarterback Uncertainty: In last year's matchup, Notre Dame saw both Caleb TerBush and Robert Marve at quarterback for Purdue. Both of them are gone after injury-plagued careers, and the Boilermakers are left with little experience at the most important position. Senior Rob Henry has started seven games in his career, but he has not started since the 2010 season. So, both redshirt freshman Austin Appleby and incoming freshman Danny Etling are getting a chance to show what they can do. Hazell has said he will not name a starter until two weeks before Purdue's season opener at Cincinnati.
Spring Star: Akeem Hunt. The junior running back seemed to embrace his chance to be the go-to guy in the backfield for the Boilermakers this spring. Hazell was impressed with him throughout spring practice, and he shined in the Purdue spring game, rushing for 134 yards and one touchdown on 19 carries.
What the Future Holds: The future of the battle for the Shillelagh Trophy is unclear as Notre Dame athletics transitions into the ACC and Purdue looks to play more games in the Big Ten. It's a long-standing, in-state rivalry for the two teams, but the Irish have dominated the overall series (56-26-2). It will be interesting to see what happens for the Boilermakers and Irish after this season's matchup.
High/Low Pre-Season Rankings: Athlon Sports has Purdue finishing in 5th place in the Big Ten Leaders Division and gives them a pre-season ranking of #78. Lindy's Sports has the Boilermakers at #83.
What It All Means: Purdue is in a season of change as they look to build towards a brighter future. Darrell Hazell will look to improve the Boilermakers like he did Kent State during his time there. However, Hazell was 5-7 during his first year at Kent State. Expect more of the same for the Boilers this season. Notre Dame should not have a problem against their in-state rival, even if the game is in West Lafayette.
Coaching Changes:The 2012 season took dramatically different roads for Notre Dame and Michigan State after the Irish knocked off the Spartans in East Lansing. Michigan State finished the season with a 7-6 record, and as we all know, the Irish went on to an undefeated regular season and the national championship game. Head coach Mark Dantonio spent the spring switching up his coaching staff in an attempt to help his team take the next step.
He hired Jim Bollman as the new co-offensive coordinator. Bollman spent last season at Boston College, but he served as the offensive line coach at Michigan State under Nick Saban from 1995-1997. Bollman will share offensive coordinator duties with former quarterbacks coach Dave Warner. Dantonio also named defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi assistant head coach.
Offensive Questions: The Spartans need to answer some questions on offense before kicking off the new season. Senior quarterback Andrew Maxwell is the starter as of right now, but he struggled at times last season and could be on the hot seat. Sophomore Connor Cook came in during the second half of the Spartan's win in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl and could be given a larger role if Maxwell doesn't play well.
The Spartans also have to replace Le'Veon Bell. Although Notre Dame largely kept Bell in check during last year's game, the Irish have had problems with Michigan State running backs in the past. The battle for the starter spot will come down to juniors Jeremy Langford and Nick Hill and redshirt freshman Riley Bullough, a converted linebacker.
Spring Star: Aaron Burbridge. The sophomore wide receiver will enter the 2013 season as one of the Spartan's starting wide receivers. He was a Big Ten All-Freshman Team selection last season and developed more throughout the spring. He led all Michigan State wide receivers in the spring game with five catches for 113 yards.
High/Low Pre-Season Rankings: Lindy's Sports ranks Michigan State as #20 in its 2013 pre-season rankings. Athlon Sports has the Spartans finishing fourth in the Big Ten Legends Division and ranked #32 in the national pre-season rankings.
What It All Means: The Spartan offense is similar to the one that the Notre Dame defense totally dominated last season. If the Irish can get to Andrew Maxwell like they did in East Lansing, I don't see Michigan State being able to do anything on offense. Like many games this year, it will come down to the Irish offense being able to score some points against a pretty good Spartan defense.
Offense in Transition: The Sooners have had to deal with an offseason full of questions on the offensive side of the ball. All-star quarterback Landry Jones, All-American offensive tackle Lane Johnson, and the top two Sooner receivers, Kenny Stills and Justin Brown, have all moved on to the NFL. That leaves Bob Stoops with a lot of work to do.
Junior Blake Bell is the only quarterback on the Oklahoma roster with game experience. He scored the Sooners only touchdown against the Irish in Norman last fall. However, he will battle for the quarterback spot with Trevor Knight and Kendal Thompson. Running back Damien Williams (905 yards, 11 TDs in 2012) and wide receiver Jalen Saunders 829 yards, 3 TDs in 2012) give Stoops some experienced players that can help Oklahoma move forward.
The Defense, Too? It's not just the offense that has faced a transition period during this offseason. The Sooners defense returns only four starters from last season, giving way to a relatively inexperienced front seven. However, Oklahoma does return senior corner back Aaron Colvin. Colvin was a first-team All-Big 12 pick last year, and he had 10 tackles against the Irish. Stoops will need Colvin to step up as the leader of this Sooners defense.
Spring Star: Blake Bell. The junior quarterback hasn't officially been named the starter for the Sooners going into the season, but he used spring practice to prove why the starting job should be his. Bell's running ability has been on display for awhile in the "Bell-Dozer" package that Oklahoma has used in goal-line situations, but in the spring game, he showed that he can throw the ball pretty well. He finished the game with 164 yards and two touchdowns, completing 13 of his 24 passes. Keep an eye on Bell as the Sooners get ready for the beginning of the 2013 season.
High/Low Pre-Season Rankings: Oklahoma is ranked #15 in Lindy's Sports' pre-season poll. Athlon Sports has the Sooners finishing second in the Big 12 with a pre-season ranking of #17.
What It All Means: It may seem like I'm singing the same tune, but it's true. The Notre Dame defense should be able to contain a relatively inexperienced Sooner offense. They did it last year against a much more experienced corps. If the offense can take advantage against the young Oklahoma secondary, Notre Dame should be in good shape. The team should have no issue getting up for a big game at Notre Dame Stadium against a Sooners team that could be looking for some revenge after missing out on a BCS bowl last season.
Building on Experience: Arizona State comes into this season looking to build a great deal off of an up-and-down 2012 campaign. The Sun Devils started 5-1 last year before losing four straight Pac-12 conference games. However, they finished the season with three straight wins, including a win against Navy in the Fight Hunger Bowl.
The team returns a great deal of experience on both sides of the ball. Six starters return on offense, including junior quarterback Taylor Kelly. Kelly boasted a 67.1% completion rate last season, throwing for 29 touchdowns and only nine interceptions. On defense, the Sun Devils return eight starters from last year's team.
Second-year head coach Todd Graham beat Notre Dame in South Bend when he was the head coach at Tulsa, and he will look to ruin the Irish party in Dallas.
Meeting in the Middle: The upcoming scheduled series between Notre Dame and the Sun Devils got a little bit awkward this offseason after the Irish tried to drop the 2014 meeting in Tempe in favor of adding ACC opponent Florida State to the schedule. Arizona State would not allow Notre Dame to drop them, stating that the Irish must honor the agreement the teams signed in 2008. Eventually, a compromise was worked out, and the Irish will head to Sun Devil Stadium for the 2014 matchup, but expect the Sun Devils to play with a bit of a chip on their shoulder in Dallas after almost being dropped.
Spring Stars: Although not surprising, two redshirt seniors shined for the Sun Devils in the spring. Tight end Chris Coyle led all receivers with 7 catches, 87 yards, and three touchdowns in the spring game. He also led the Sun Devils in receiving last season (696 yards, 5 TDs). On the defensive end of the ball, All-American defensive lineman Will Sutton looks like he will pick up where he left off last year. The reigning Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year had two sacks in the spring game and anchored the starting defense, which only allowed 35 rushing yards in the game.
High/Low Pre-Season Rankings: Athlon Sports predicts ASU will finish on top of the Pac-12 South and gives them a pre-season ranking of #23. Lindy's Sports puts the Sun Devils at #37.
What It All Means: This year's Shamrock Series matchup could be a potential trap game for the Irish. Arizona State carries an experienced team with a defense that can put pressure on Tommy Rees and the Notre Dame offense. If the defense can't lock down Taylor Kelly, the Irish could be in for a long night in the new Cowboys Stadium. However, Notre Dame is 4-0 in Shamrock Series games. With some new, flashy jerseys and a big time venue, the Irish won't be looking past this game. I expect the Notre Dame faithful to come up big in Dallas, helping give the team an extra boost to get a close win.