Pay dirt promise

The first installment in our summer-long prediction series focuses on Notre Dame's touchdown total for the upcoming season. Will it be the highest of the five-year Brian Kelly era in South Bend?

The No. 1 scoring defense from 2013, Florida State, awaits.

So too does the No. 2. And the No. 10, and the No. 16…

Why then, does our opening prediction in a summer-long preview series posit that Notre Dame 2014 will produce the highest touchdown total of the five-year Brian Kelly era in South Bend?

2010 -- 41 total (28 passing, 11 rushing, 1 blkd. punt return, 1 INT)
2011 -- 50 total (25 rush, 21 pass, 2 KR, 2 INT Returns)
2012 -- 38 total (23 pass, 14 rush, 1 Fumble Return)
2013 -- 42 total (27 pass, 12 rush, 3 INT)

Surpassing 2011's total of 50 is the target goal, and it won't be easy considering the comparative schedules from three seasons ago and the slate that awaits. In Kelly's second season (2011), Notre Dame's end-season offensive totals benefitted greatly from a whopping 25 touchdowns -- half its season total! -- against Air Force (8), Navy (7), Maryland (5), and Purdue (5).

In the remaining nine contests, the Irish managed just 25 scores, three of them scored by defense and special teams.

The 2014 lineup offers few such advantages:

Defensive Rankings, 2013

Below is a list of each 2014 Irish foe and how it fared in terms of national scoring defense last season. The No. 3 (Michigan State) and No. 22 (Oklahoma) defenses dropped from Notre Dame's schedule for 2014:

-- Florida State (Oct. 18): No. 1 overall
-- Louisville (Nov. 22): No. 2
-- Stanford (Oct. 4): No. 10
-- USC (Nov. 29): No. 16
-- Navy (Nov. 1): No. 40
-- Rice (Aug. 30): No. 42
-- North Carolina (Oct. 11): 43
-- Syracuse (Sept. 27): 56
-- Arizona State (Nov. 8): 63
-- Michigan (Sept. 6): 66
-- Northwestern (Nov. 15): 68
-- Purdue (Sept. 13): 111

While Louisville's defensive ranking is partly a function of its laughable 2013 schedule -- one that takes a decided turn for the challenging in 2014 -- it's relevant to note that the Cardinals return eight defensive starters to work with new coordinator Todd Grantham, formerly of the Georgia Bulldogs.

Florida State will be at worst "very good" and at best, outstanding, defensively as has been the case since head coach Jimbo Fisher took over the program in 2011. The Seminoles have finished 20th, 4th, 6th, and 1st defensively under his guidance. In the season prior to Fisher's arrival, FSU ranked 94th in scoring defense -- or 31 spots below Charlie Weis' last team in South Bend.

New Trojans head coach Steve Sarkisian has ample talent on hand, especially up front, though like Florida State (promoted linebackers coach Charles Kelly), USC replaces its coordinator, Clancy Pendergast, with Justin Wilcox who held the same role under Sarkisian for the Huskies.

Arizona State (Keith Patterson, formerly of West Virginia), and Stanford (promoted linebackers coach Lance Anderson) also made changes.

Rice, Michigan, Purdue, Syracuse, North Carolina, Navy, and Northwestern each retained its defensive coordinator for 2014.

Why then, would these Irish, with a handful of middling, yet just one perceived awful defense on tap (Purdue), find a way to top 50 touchdowns for the first time in the Kelly era?

The presence of a duo of dual threats

Graduated quarterback Tommy Rees shouldn't shoulder the lion's share of blame for Notre Dame's inconsistent offense during the Kelly era, but it's difficult to argue that the Irish weren't both one-dimensional and predictable when faced with an opposing defense blessed with either, A.) speed, B.) cohesion, or C.) a pulse.

2014 ushers in the era of the option -- that is, Kelly and his quarterbacks have options. A fake handoff no longer indicates a play-action pass 100 percent of the time. An attack triggered by quarterbacks Everett Golson and Malik Zaire (it's a long season, they'll both be needed), has the opportunity to beat a defense not only through the air, but by various means on the ground.

Designed run. Scramble out of trouble when passing. Designed roll-outs with run/pass options. Handoffs to a trio of capable, potentially explosive 'backs. All, at last, available.

And with a 7-deep offensive line that will be better in October than September, in November than October.

Coaching Speed

Notre Dame's defense might not be better (i.e., allow fewer points) in 2014 than it was last fall, but new defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder's attacking unit could prove to be a better complement to Kelly's offense than was the defensive side of scrimmage last fall.

In two of the first four seasons of the Kelly era, former defensive coordinator Bob Diaco's units produced among the lowest turnover totals (2011 and 2013) in team history.

That's not likely to be the case again under VanGorder's scheme, one tailored to wreaking havoc with pressure -- up front and on the perimeter -- in an effort to force mistakes.

Irish fans might spend October lamenting poor run fits or cornerbacks that are beaten in man coverage 35 yards downfield, but hand-wringing over a (often successful) bend-but-don't break scheme is no longer on tap.

Which ties in directly to point No. 3…

Necessity is the Mother of Reinvention

Notre Dame doesn't have a short-yardage 'back -- it has two. The Irish don't have a certified complementary receiver for (expected) standout DaVaris Daniels -- they have three.

For an offense replete with precious few proven commodities on tap, the Irish sure have options. Tarean Folston, Greg Bryant, Cam McDaniel, DaVaris Daniels, Ben Koyack, Corey Robinson, Chris Brown, Will Fuller, C.J. Prosise, Amir Carlisle

There's a burgeoning offensive explosion imminent in South Bend, and though the unit will doubtless be more polished -- and thus effective/explosive -- in 2015, it's incumbent upon Kelly the play-caller and architect to finally produce.

Notre Dame can no longer play conservative offensively, expecting the defense to ride to the rescue as it did for the first three seasons of the Kelly era. The head coach's entire approach is set to change in 2014, by necessity, but also by design.

Through the first 52 games of the Kelly era, Notre Dame has prevailed just five times when its foe scored more than 21 points (5-13). But it's evident -- and stated often by Kelly -- that game plans were tailored as such, at least until last season, when the Irish finished 3-4 when its opponent scored more than 21 points.

The program's mantra for Season 1 thru 4 was, "Keep the points down."

For 2014, and likely 2015, "Let it loose" seems more appropriate.

In my first conversation with Kelly (December 2009), the incoming head coach was asked about his apparent reliance on offense rather than defense during a run to 12-1 at Cincinnati.

"I really concern myself more with how we win; I don't care how. And if you look at our schedule (at Cincinnati) carefully, and really go through it, you'll see that we won one game 28-7. That we won another 21-14. So you'll see some low-scoring games in there and some of it was tactical, in how we played offense, to get the win that day.

"When you have what we had at Cincinnati, a prolific offense and one that could score on anybody, you don't put your defense in a good position when you play that way. But having said that, it wasn't about our defense, it was about winning."

The pace, the approach, the game plan, and the identity of Notre Dame's football team will change in 2014.

More touchdowns, the most of the five-season Brian Kelly era, will follow.


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