12 for the Final Four

A dozen questions in need of definitive answers if Notre Dame is to reach its goal of the Final Four this fall. 

#1 -- Five at 4-0? Since Notre Dame claimed its most recent national championship in 1988, only four Irish teams have started 4-0. Those squads, 1989, 1993, 2002, and 2012, concluded their seasons 12-1, 11-1, 10-3, and 12-1, respectively.

Can the 2014 Irish start 4-0 against what is inarguably their most manageable month of an otherwise daunting slate? With no true road games on tap, Notre Dame is heavily favored against Rice (-21), will be vs. Purdue two weeks later (initial line was ND -21), and barring a collapse in the opener, will likewise be favored to beat Michigan (-3.5 in its initial release, off the board due to pending suspensions) and Syracuse (-5.5, ditto).

October conversely features Stanford and Florida State while November includes games at Arizona State and USC. Traps abound throughout -- but the opening month is manageable. With four wins in tow, head coach Brian Kelly's youth-filled squad would not only emerge from the first quarter of the season ranked among the nation's Top 10-12, but earn a great deal of confidence in the process.

#2 -- Jaylon Smith: Merely Good, or Great? He's the best player on the team, but can the precocious sophomore finish 2014 among the best in the nation? Notre Dame's defense needs him to do just that, and while it's unlikely any defender will approach Manti Te'o's remarkable 2012 regular season in terms of accomplishments and recognition, Smith must be ahead of Te'o the 2010 sophomore (and Te'o the 2011 junior) THIS year.

A weekly playmaker is needed, but most important, Smith needs to be no worse than solid even when he's not at his best -- maybe not fair to expect from a second-year player at a new position, but that's the state of the Irish defense in 2014.

#3 -- Is Sheldon Day as Advertised? Kelly called Day the team's best player "on the ball." Defensive line coach Mike Elston has lauded his work ethic and skill set since Day arrived as a would-be high school senior in January 2012. And any media member that viewed Notre Dame's four open practices can easily identify the team's best defensive lineman -- it's Day, but like Smith above, Day can't merely be the best by default.

A breakout season is necessary, mainly against the run, but also as a timely pass-rusher in a scheme that will allow him more freedom to use his vaunted "initial quickness" (to borrow from Elston) off the snap.

#4 -- Youth movement, or will youth be moved? Eight true freshmen, one redshirt-freshman, one junior starter that was on the Notre Dame scout team 10 months ago. A senior that hasn't played since he was a freshman, plus a 5th-year senior yet to play in a competitive role.

A junior with one career start (beaten out this August by a true freshman). Two new starting linebackers, one of whom was a wide receiver last year, the other a former walk-on. Two backup linebackers yet to play a college snap; two others yet to start a game.

Add the aforementioned Day and Smith, and you have the makeup of the 2014 front seven, starters and reserves.

The stark reality: No Notre Dame fan knows how this front will hold up against Rice and Michigan much less over the next three months. And the coaching staff can't either -- there are too many new, moving parts. Too many young men set to face off against grizzled veterans. Too much based on potential, not enough on proven production and promise.

Will youth be served? Or instead routinely moved out of the way by a collection of offensive fronts capable of beating the Irish on any given Saturday?

#5 -- Will they be quarterback driven? From the bowels of Miami's Sun Life Stadium and in the wake of ignominious defeat, then third-year head coach Brian Kelly proclaimed that Notre Dame would be, in the future, a quarterback driven offense.

Pending your point of view, that reality was either not possible or unmet in 2013 -- it can't follow suit this fall. Senior Everett Golson can't be a conductor or game manager, he must be the straw that stirs the drink for an offense slated to score more points than any other during the Kelly era.

From the outset, Golson must take the field as a top tier quarterback -- weekly improvement must follow thereafter if the Irish are to approach contention in 2014.

#6 -- What will be their response? Barring reinstatement, junior cornerback Keivarae Russell won't suit up for Notre Dame this season. He was inarguably among the team's top five players. Barring reinstatement, neither will senior wide receiver DaVaris Daniels, inarguably among the top 10. Nor will senior defensive end, Ishaq Williams, an announced starter at what appears to be the team's weakest position.

How will Notre Dame's active players respond to the absence of those that are sidelined? The pending nature of the investigation is akin to a trial separation -- hope remains, but should it?

While head coach Brian Kelly has announced he's moved on, largely because it's his job and duty to do so, have his troops? Can they? Russell was a potential team captain. Daniels' return has been anticipated for nine months.

If the situation isn't resolved prior to Saturday's game against Rice, or failing that, before the following week's prime time nationally relevant contest vs. Michigan, will it be to the detriment of those not suspected of academic dishonesty?

The active Irish players remain in limbo -- it's an unenviable state, and one in need of change, one way or the other.

Note: The remaining six-pack of season-defining questions will be posted late-afternoon Monday.

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