Quarterback Uncertainty: After a long string of good quarterbacks, the Trojans are facing questions at the position. USC was forced to play without the injured Matt Barkley in the last two games of the 2012 season, and sophomore Max Wittek took over, but coach Lane Kiffin has not named Wittek as the starter for the 2013 season. Wittek will battle with fellow redshirt sophomore Cody Kessler and incoming freshman Max Browne for the starting job. Kiffin is not expected to decide on a quarterback until shortly before the season opener at Hawaii.
New Defensive Look: Lane's father, Monte Kiffin, was the defensive coordinator for the Trojans, but he resigned at the end of last season and is now the defensive coordinator for the Dallas Cowboys. The USC defense will go into the 2013 season running a 5-2 defensive scheme under new coordinator Clancy Pendergast. The Trojans will look to use an impressive defensive line, led by senior Morgan Breslin. Breslin led the team in TFL last season with 19.5 for 107 yards.
Spring Stars: The wide receivers. It's no surprise that the Trojans have another good receiving corps. Even after losing Robert Woods to the NFL this offseason, the group still boasts 2012 Biletnikoff Award winner Marqise Lee. Lee caught 8 passes for 148 yards and 3 touchdowns in the spring game for the Trojans offense. Sophomore Nelson Agoholor seemed to cement his position as a starter with his own impressive performance in the spring game (7 rec, 106 yards, 2 TDs). A third wide receiver, Victor Blackwell, added 155 yards receiving and a touchdown in the game.
Extending the Rivalry:Even though the university's move to the ACC has put some of Notre Dame's football scheduling future in doubt, the school announced last week that it's annual series with the Trojans will be extended at least through 2023. The teams have met every year since 1926, and the Irish hold a 44-35-5 lead in the series overall.
High/Low Pre-Season Rankings: Lindy's Sports has USC at #25 in its pre-season poll. Athlon Sports predicts the Trojans will finish second in the Pac-12 South (behind fellow Notre Dame opponent Arizona State) and ranks the team #26 to start the 2013 season.
What It All Means: The Trojans have all the weapons to be a BCS contender this season, as long as they can find a quarterback. However, the team was full of talent last season and finished at a disappointing 7-6 on the year. As is the case in just about every game this season, the Irish defense will have to come up big at home against the Trojans.
Who's The General? Like a lot of the teams on the Notre Dame schedule this season, Air Force is looking for a new quarterback. Connor Dietz graduated, so it is down to redshirt sophomore Kale Pearson and freshman Jaleel Awini. Pearson is a running quarterback, closer to the type of guy we are used to seeing behind center for the Falcons. Awini is a passer that could bring a new look to a team that has grown so accustomed to the triple option. Coach Troy Calhoun will have to decide what he wants before the season opener against Colgate.
Defensive Woes: A large problem for the Falcons over the past few years has been defense (72nd in total defense in the nation in 2012). During the offseason, the group has been shuffled around in an attempt to improve as Calhoun goes for a younger, more athletic look. Sophomore Connor Healy looks to be an anchor at inside linebacker for a defense that is, not surprisingly, undersized.
Spring Star: The Falcons did not play a spring game this season, but Ty MacArthur has emerged as the top offensive threat for the Falcons going into the new season. The senior wide receiver led the team last season with 411 yards and 2 touchdowns. He will look to have an even bigger role this year, especially if Awini is named the starting quarterback.
High/Low Pre-Season Rankings: Athlon Sports picks the Falcons to finish 3rd in the Mountain West Conference's Mountain Division and ranks the team as #82 to start the season. Lindy's Sports picks Air Force at #86.
What It All Means: The stout Irish defense should have no problem with the Air Force offense, regardless of who is playing quarterback. The Notre Dame offense should be to take advantage against the inexperienced, undersized Falcons defense, and Notre Dame should not have any problems winning this game, even if it is on the road.
Changing of the Guard? Much like Air Force, the Midshipmen have implemented the triple option offense for a long time now, and they've thrived. However, with the emergence of Keenan Reynolds as the quarterback of the future, Navy has looked to add a new passing element during this offseason. Reynolds started eight games last season and threw for 898 yards and 9 touchdowns, while only throwing 2 interceptions. Head coach Ken Niumatalolo will look to give Reynolds a chance to air it out this season.
Spring Star: Noah Copeland. The junior fullback will take over as Navy's prime offensive threat in the running game. He was second on the team in rushing last season with 741 yards and 5 touchdowns. He'll be paired with junior slotback Geoffrey Whiteside, who has some speed, in the backfield for the Midshipmen this season.
High/Low Pre-Season Rankings: Athlon Sports ranks Navy at #67. Lindy's Sports has the Midshipmen at #68 in its pre-season poll.
What It All Means: Just like the Air Force game, this one should be no issue for the Irish. Navy is undersized at almost every position, and Louis Nix and Stephon Tuitt should be able to get to Keenan Reynolds early and often. The offense should be able to capitalize against a team that it put 50 points up against last season.
New conference: The biggest offseason change for Pittsburgh is the move to the Atlantic Coast Conference. The team leaves the Big East after going 3-4 in the conference last season, and they start their new conference schedule off with a bang, taking on powerhouse Florida State in the season opener. It will be interesting to see how the conference move affects the Panthers this season.
Offensive Uncertainty: Not only are the Panthers heading to a new conference, but they will have to do it with an almost totally revamped offense. Both former starting quarterback Tino Sunseri and star running back Ray Graham (172 yards, 1 TD against the Irish last season) are gone, and highly-touted running back Rushel Shell (more on him later) is no longer at the school. Second-year head coach Paul Chryst will have to sure up this offense if the Panthers want to succee this season.
The Shell Saga: As mentioned earlier, Rushel Shell is no longer on the team. Shell was a blue-chipper coming out of high school and ran for 641 yards and 4 touchdowns as a true freshman for the Panthers last season. However, he left Pittsburgh in April with plans to transfer to UCLA. His journey took another turn just a few weeks ago when it was announced that he would not be transferring to UCLA after all, and he wanted to return to Pitt so that he could be closer to his twin daughters. However, the Panthers would not allow him to return to the team, and he is now deciding between West Virginia and Kentucky.
Spring Star: Manasseh Garner. The tight end transferred to Pittsburgh from Wisconsin and sat out last season, and he is capitalizing on his first chance at playing for former Badgers offensive coordinator Paul Chryst. He finished an impressive spring with 10 catches for 100 yards in the spring game. Expect Garner to compete with incumbent starter J.P. Holtz for targets at the tight end position.
High/Low Pre-Season Rankings: Athlon Sports has Pittsburgh finishing 5th in the ACC Coastal Division and ranks them at #52 in the nation to start the season. Lindy's Sports ranks the Panthers #58 in their preseason rankings.
What It All Means: The Irish were big time favorites going into last year's game, and as we all know, it took a for them to win. However, last year's Pittsburgh team was more experienced than this one. With all the uncertainty of a new conference and an unclear group on offense, I don't see the Irish getting caught in this one. Plus, don't expect the Notre Dame players to forget about almost losing to the Panthers last year. I bet they won't be sleeping on them.
Coaching Changes: Although head coach Bronco Mendenhall is back, the Cougars totally revamped the offensive coaching staff this offseason. Robert Anae was rehired as the offensive coordinator, just two years after he left the same position. During his break in offensive coordinator stints for BYU, Anae served as the offensive line coach at Arizona. The team also hired four other new offensive coaches, looking to jumpstart an offense that ranked #60 nationally last season.
Transition on Defense: Ranked third in total defense last season, the Cougars will look to replace seven starters, including NFL-bound star Ezekial "Ziggy" Ansah. Incoming junior college transfer Trenton Trammell hoped to be a big help in the secondary, but he tore his ACL during spring practice and is out for the season. Senior linebacker Kyle Van Noy (13 sacks, 22 TFLs in 2012) will look to anchor the inexperienced group.
Spring Star: Jamaal Williams. Although Williams only played one series in the BYU spring game, he made it count, scoring a touchdown. He got stronger in the offseason and is looking to build on a successful freshman season that saw him run for 775 yards and 12 touchdowns. The sophomore is also a good pass-catcher, so expect him to be a big part of the new Cougars offense this season.
High/Low Pre-season Rankings: Lindy's Sports puts BYU at #39 in its 2013 pre-season rankings. Athlon Sports ranks the Cougars at #43.
What It All Means: The BYU defense gave Notre Dame big problems in last year's matchup. If they are able to rebuild much of the defense that was so good last season, they could cause some problems in South Bend again this season. The Cougars' offense will be improved due to all the changes. However, it's Senior Day, and I doubt the Irish will overlook a day when it says goodbye to a great class of players.
StanfordReloading: It was a relatively quiet offseason for Stanford, as they look like a top 5, BCS contender for the fourth year in a row. Perhaps the biggest job for the Cardinal this offseason was replacing star running back Stepfan Taylor (1530 yards, 13 TDs in 2012). Right now, seniors Anthony Wilkerson and Tyler Gaffney are the top choices. Regardless of who's running the ball, it will be behind a very experienced and good offensive line, returning four of five starters from last season. Kevin Hogan did not play against Notre Dame in 2012, but he went 5-0 as the starter for the Cardinal in the latter half of the season. Yes, All-American Zach Ertz and Levine Toilolo are both gone at the tight end position, but the Cardinal have reloaded with Luke Kaumatule.
On defense, Stanford returns 8 starters. So, a top-20 all-around defense just looks to be getting better this season with three preseason first-team All-Pac 12 picks: linebacker Trent Murphy, linebacker Shane Skov, and defensive lineman Ben Gardner.
Irish Killers: The return of Murphy, Skov, and Gardner is not good news for the Irish. The three Cardinal defenders combined for seventeen tackles and three sacks in last season's matchup. The Cardinal front seven had Everett Golson scrambling the entire game last year, and Tommy Rees is much less mobile than Golson. If Notre Dame can't keep them contained, these three might just have a field day in Palo Alto on November 30.
Spring Star: Ty Montgomery. The junior wide receiver looked to cement himself as the top receiving option for the Cardinal during spring practice and had 5 catches for 59 yards and a touchdown in the spring game. Montgomery is the only wide receiver at Stanford with substantial game experience, so expect him to be their man on the outside once the season starts.
High/Low Pre-Season Rankings: Stanford is consistently near the top of the pre-season college football rankings. Lindy's Sports has them at #3 in its pre-season rankings. Athlon Sports lists the Cardinal as the second-best team in the Pac-12 North behind Oregon, ranking them at #7 to start the season.
What It All Means: In my opinion, this is the toughest matchup on the Notre Dame schedule this season. The Cardinal look to have solid experience and skill at almost every position, and Kevin Hogan is much better than Josh Nunes, who played against Notre Dame last year. After a controversial ending to the game in South Bend that could have kept Stanford out of the national championship discussion, expect the Cardinal to be looking for some big time revenge.