1: Is George Atkinson a blossoming lead runner or just part of a well-rounded running back committee? Unfortunately for Atkinson, this can't be answered if he erupts for 200 yards and three scores. Atkinson should look good vs. Temple's rush defense. He'll look great vs. Air Force and Navy, too. It's Michigan, Michigan State, Oklahoma, etc., that are a current cause for concern.
We won't have our first definitive answer on the Irish starter until the team bus departs Ann Arbor after midnight next Saturday.
2: How deep is the defensive line rotation? It'll be hot Saturday, and Temple head coach Matt Rhule's offense will spread the ball horizontally as much as vertically. As a result, defensive line coach Mike Elston is likely to employ a six or seven-man rotation up front while the game remains in doubt in order to keep everyone fresh and in good health.
The Irish first-half defensive line rotation won't look the same -- nor will it likely be as deep -- in the weeks that follow. Defensive line depth is among the three biggest indicators of a championship level football team, and Notre Dame is in search of it after a run of bad luck (defection, injury) leading into 2013.
3: How much has Rees improved? I suspect he'll have quality numbers, time to throw, and open receivers. I'm confident the veteran triggerman can dominate any defense that can't consistently pressure him up the middle or to his right.
Rees' last three starts vs. porous defenses Maryland, Navy, Air Force, and Purdue (all in 2011), show cartoonish aggregate statistics: 93 completions in 132 attempts (69.6%), 1,048 yards, 10 touchdowns and 1 interception.
His litmus is next week and thereafter.
Now…on to what matters Saturday afternoon.
Tommy: Inside and Out?There's safe, there's smart, and then there's way-too-careful.
Notre Dame's offense was safe and smart for most of 2012, rarely way-too-careful. It was careful in the season opener vs. Navy when quarterback Everett Golson, making his first start, threw 13 of his 18 pass attempts to the left, and outside the hash marks. It was a wise coaching tactic to break Golson into the speed of the college game, with one or two reads on nearly every pattern and little chance for error.
When we last saw Rees in full-time action, he too relied on passes short, and too often outside the hash. It was a method employed by Charlie Weis with a young Jimmy Clausen as well (32 of Michael Floyd's 48 receptions as a freshman -- Clausen's sophomore year -- were on or outside the hash marks).
The reason, of course, is that there will usually be but one defender to contest an outside throw, and tipped passes fall safely to the ground rather than dangle in the air for a zone defender to intercept over the middle.
But Rees is a senior capable of reading an entire defense, regardless of scheme or personnel. If he remains an outside or on-the-hash quarterback Saturday, look out -- defenses that await will eat the Irish third-down passing game for breakfast.
If Rees spreads it out, especially in advantageous down-and-distance situations (I'm not asking him to throw caution to the wind on 3rd and 11), we'll know the staff -- and the quarterback -- have more confidence in his right arm.
#2 -- Red Zone EfficiencyAsked which aspect of the team impressed him the most early in camp, head coach Brian Kelly responded, "I think our red zone play has been so much better. A lot of that has to do with Tommy and his experience. He's been really good taking care of the football, giving us opportunities to score touchdowns, not kick field goals. I'd say that probably stands out."
It should tomorrow then, too, because Notre Dame should be able to stress Temple's defense enough with the running game that the Owls will need an extra defender or two when the Irish set up first and 10 inside the 20. That opens up passing lanes, and its up to Rees to make the throw, likely under duress from an anticipated blitz. If Temple sits back in a drop 8 zone as defenses did to Rees often in 2011, the Irish ground game should churn out two first downs and a touchdown on seven or fewer carries.
Notre Dame has ranked 70th (last year) and 88th in red zone efficiency over the last two seasons. A full 40 spots higher might be necessary to contend for a BCS Championship in 2013.
#3 -- Clean, Crisp, CompellingIn his three season openers at the helm in South Bend, Kelly's teams have played: spotless, sloppy (read: Keystone Kops imitation vs. South Florida) and spotless again.
This squad, vs. a foe as undermanned as Temple, doesn't have to score 40 points. It doesn't have to wait until the fourth quarter to unleash its first punt, and it doesn't have to score quickly, or even early -- it merely has to protect the football, play ahead of the chains, minimize errors both mental and physical, and enter the mid-portion of the third quarter with no doubt on the final outcome.
The offense should be efficient (no more than one turnover and one pre-snap penalty), quick-tempo'd at times, and most important, dominant up front.
Last fall, five of Notre Dame's six home games (Wake Forest the exception) included a pre-snap penalty and/or personal foul on their offense's first drive. That's unacceptable for a veteran team (and of note, each of those five games were decided by a touchdown or less.)
Mental toughness, physical toughness, efficiency. That's the goal for Saturday's opening contest.
The Irish will win most games they play close and late in 2013.
This won't be one of them. And oh yeah, the defense won't give up a touchdown, either.