1 -- Five at 4-0?
2 -- Jaylon Smith: Merely Good or Great?
3 -- Is Sheldon Day as Advertised?
4 -- Youth movement or will youth be moved?
5 -- Will they be quarterback driven?
6 -- How will they respond?
#7 -- Will They Add Up? INT, FR, FF, Sack, TFL, PD, Blk. The preceding seven acronyms are officially tracked by Notre Dame and the bulk of the college football world. Interceptions, fumble recoveries, fumbles forced, sacks, tackles-for-loss, passes defended, and blocked kicks.
Add them up throughout last year's Notre Dame defense and the sum total is 155 for a 9-4 football team. In 2012, a 12-1 season? A whopping 32 more for a total of 187. The 8-5 Irish of 2011? Just 166. Sensing a trend?
They're defensive big plays and they'll be tracked all season and analyzed at Irisheyes.com. Not all yield equal results, but each is a bonus for the defense -- the more the merrier -- and Notre Dame's defense will need to approach its 2012 total to contend again in 2014.
Notre Dame's top returning pass-catcher has all of 17 career receptions to his credit. The top touchdown scorer a paltry three trips to pay dirt. Inexperience reigns among Notre Dame's wide receivers and tight end units. Talent, however, abounds, even with the pending loss of DaVaris Daniels from the fray.
Daniels' though was expected to be quarterback Everett Golson's go-to-guy this fall. Now that task falls upon the shoulders of junior Chris Brown -- who in a mid-season stretch of nine games last fall caught a a total of three passes -- and tight end Ben Koyack, who at present has but two solid months of football to his credit entering his senior year.
#9 -- Will He Miss When It Matters? The odds are against senior kicker Kyle Brindza. Then again, when you've drilled 15 of your 15 career fourth quarter and overtime field goals of relevance (he once missed with the Irish leading 28-6), long odds aren't likely on your list of concerns.
Notre Dame will be involved in a minimum of six and perhaps as many as 11 games decided in the fourth quarter this season. Will Brindza -- the first player mentioned by head coach Brian Kelly on media day when asked to name a team strength -- continue to split the uprights when it matters most?
#10 -- Will they protect this House? 6-0 in 2012; 5-1 in 2013. Kelly's last two Irish teams have restored a bit of lost luster to the stadium in the shadow of the Golden Dome with a combined 11-1 record over the last two seasons -- that on the heels of an 8-5 home field mark to begin his Irish coaching career (and a staggering 9-11 W-L ledger in the three seasons prior to Kelly's arrival.)
Notre Dame will likely be favored in five of six games played this season in South Bend, and the only likely favored foe, Stanford, is at least vulnerable. With Florida State, Arizona State, and USC all favored and each hosting the Irish over a seven-game span to conclude the season, it's incumbent upon Kelly's crew to defend its home turf this fall.
A 6-0 home mark would include wins against both Michigan and Stanford -- programs against which Kelly is a combined 2-6, to date.
#11 -- Will they run enough, and be able to when they have to? What does each team listed below have in common?
-- Florida State and Auburn 2013
-- Alabama and Notre Dame 2012
-- Alabama and LSU 2011
-- Oregon and Auburn 2010
-- Alabama 2009*
-- Florida and Oklahoma 2008
-- LSU and Ohio State 2007
In addition to playing in their respective BCS Championship games, each qualified for it, in part, because it averaged more than 200 rushing yards during their respective title-contending regular seasons. (The outlier, 2009 Texas, nonetheless ripped off 28 rushing touchdowns, a number that exceeds the last 15 single season totals at Notre Dame.)
As first noted here in 2009 (and repeated unapologetically each season thereafter): Throw for Show -- but Run for Championship Dough.
The Irish won't come close to contention if they don't approach the 200-yard mark in most games this fall.
#12 -- What happens when they take a punch? Or better put by an Irish defensive player prior to practice August 16 -- not coincidentally the day after news of an academic scandal rocked Irish nation -- "Let's show them what happens when we take a punch!"
We have no idea.
In 2013, they buckled. In 2011, they rolled over. In 2010, they simply weren't ready.
But in 2012, the Irish fought back after every punch absorbed, and 12 wins later, they reached No. 1 at the conclusion of the regular season for the first time since 1988.
Myriad haymakers await. How will they respond?