ND vs. Opponents: Offense

As IrishEyes continues its preview of Notre Dame's 2008 season we are going to examine each position group and see how the Irish match up with their opponents. All of the rankings are completely subjective and evaluations are based on a number of factors including past productivity, potential and depth. Today we take a quick look at the offensive unit as a whole.

No surprise here as the Trojans topped our rankings at each of the offensive skill positions while placing in the top four among offensive lines. The truly scary thing about the Trojans is the depth that they possess all over the offense. If quarterback Mark Sanchez were to go down, Arkansas transfer Mitch Mustain would step right in and with some success and some breaks, he could win the position for good. At running back, USC has loads of talent that will give them plenty of flexibility. Not only does the depth allow the Trojans to mix in fresh bodies and provide insurance for potential injuries, but it also gives Pete Carroll the freedom to use electric sophomore Joe McKnight in the backfield, split wide and as a returner.

The Irish end up so high on this list based almost solely on potential. The obvious key for Notre Dame is the play of the offensive line. If the guys up front can open up some holes and keep Jimmy Clausen upright, the Irish offense could make the biggest turnaround in the country. Clausen showed his true ability down the stretch and now that he seems to be fully healthy, he appears ready for a breakout year. With three talented running backs returning from 2007 and incoming freshman Jonas Gray, Notre Dame should have no problem finding at least one effective runner. Tight end could be the deepest position on the entire roster. Mike Ragone got most of the reps along with converted fullback Luke Schmidt during the spring while Will Yeatman was suspended. But now Yeatman is back and incoming freshman Kyle Rudolph is talented enough to make an impact right away while classmate Joseph Fauria has the size to create mismatches. The most crucial offensive position after line is wide receiver. The Irish need to continue to develop sophomore Duval Kamara along with one more outside threat - incoming freshman Michael Floyd maybe - to go with senior David Grimes. However, if the offensive line does not turn things around, there won't be much the skill guys can do.

The Spartans edge the Panthers here based on the offensive line and the experience of the quarterback. Javon Ringer has been the Spartans' most productive back since he arrived on campus and he will have an even larger impact in his final year. Quarterback Brian Hoyer has shown that he has talent and with 14 career starts behind him, he could make some big strides as a fifth-year senior. The offensive line lost a number of key performers, but the newcomers appear to be ready to step up. The key for Mark Dantonio's offense this year could be developing a number one receiver to replace Devin Thomas, who left early for the NFL.

Like Michigan State, the Panthers will be led by a premier running back. LeSean McCoy will be the guy that opposing defenses gear up to stop, but few will be able to. Pitt does bring back quarterback Bill Stull, who was the starter heading into last year, but he was injured for the season in the very first game. One of the advantages that the Pitt offense has is at wide receiver where an injury to Biletnikoff candidate Derek Kinder in 2007 may help the Panthers in 2008. Kinder was limited to work in the gym all of last year and has returned in better shape than ever, while younger receivers got invaluable experience in 2007. There are some question marks on the line, but if certain guys can step up and the Panthers can stay balanced on offense, it shouldn't be too much of a problem.

Senior quarterback Curtis Painter is undoubtedly the leader of the Boilermakers' offense, but with his top two targets gone and two experienced running backs returning, could Purdue lean on the ground game more in 2008? Greg Orton will lead a wide receiver corps that will try to work in a couple of junior college transfers. Kory Sheets and Jaycen Taylor bring back 40 career rushing touchdowns between them and could be even more valuable in 2008. Purdue lost a pair of three-year starters from last season's offensive line, but virtually everyone else is back.

The Tar Heels bring back a record-setting quarterback and two record-setting talents at wide receiver along with a dynamic running back prospect that has been compared to Willis McGahee. T.J. Yates is back after setting school passing records as a freshman. He'll be throwing to Hakeem Nicks, who caught more balls in 2007 than any other Tar Heel receiver in history, and Brandon Tate, who already owns the ACC kick return yardage record. Greg Little has been shifted from receiver to running back and Butch Davis has shown confidence in Little by shifting last year's top runners to corner and fullback, respectively. The big question will be how quickly the offensive line can grow up.

Of all of the players that Notre Dame will face this year, probably none is more valuable to their team than Husky quarterback Jake Locker. Locker's original skill set should help everybody else around him, but he will not be able to do it alone. With the top runners and receivers graduating, Washington will need some more skill players to become threats to prevent teams from limiting their focus to Locker alone. The Huskies could find their answer in incoming freshman receiver Chris Polk or with some of their young talent at tight end. The offensive line brings back some experience, but the return of their top player is still up in the air.

The Eagles lost an All-American quarterback in Matt Ryan, but the inexperience at the running back position could be BC's biggest problem this year. Chris Crane has backed up Ryan for the last couple of years and finally gets his chance to be the guy. Crane will have many of the same targets to throw to as Ryan did, and while they received some criticism last year, they will have a solid year of experience heading into 2008. The graduations and suspensions of members of last year's backfield leave the Eagles with incoming freshman Josh Haden as the number one guy. Haden will be fortunate to run behind a formidable offensive line that also lost a first round pick, but should improve in the second year of a new system.

Few know exactly what to expect out of Rich Rodriguez's offense his first year in Ann Arbor. Will he try to do what made him successful at Morgantown with the spread option or will he tailor his system around the talents of his team, which should lead him to more of a passing attack? Michigan has plenty of young offensive firepower at the running back and receiver position, but the Wolverines will be able to rely on them for only so much. The offensive line is being revamped as Rodriguez is replacing the hulking maulers with thin bodies that can run. While it will be interesting to see what Rodriguez chooses to do, Michigan figures to be a year or two away from being able to run his offense the way he wants.

10. NAVY
There will be no secret in what the Midshipmen will do. Even with a new coach, Navy will be sticking to that triple-option attack that has formed the nation's top rushing team for the last three years. With the quarterback and leading rusher back along with experienced slot backs, the Midshipmen have the runners to do it, but do they have the guys up front? Navy lost three full-time starters, including its center and has had to shift some guys around in an attempt to find the right combination.

The Cardinal offense has the potential to be good, but right now there is too many areas of concern, starting at quarterback. While competition is a good thing, controversy is not and that is what Stanford could be heading toward by waiting until the fall to name a starting quarterback. Stanford brings back some experience in the backfield, but durability has been a question. Health is also a concern at offensive line where Stanford's most talented player, tackle Allen Smith, could be out for awhile with a fractured kneecap. Stanford does bring back its top wideout, but with the number two and three guys graduating, the Cardinal will have to develop some players behind him.

The Orange lost their top receiver and top overall player to an academic issue. Their best running backs are coming off of injuries. Their quarterback has been inconsistent and their offensive line was just terrible last year. Head coach Greg Robinson brought in a new offensive coordinator, Mitch Browning from Minnesota, to try to fix it, but it may be beyond repair. Still, if the line can become solid and the running backs stay healthy, perhaps quarterback Andrew Robinson can become more reliable. Maybe.

The Aztecs ranked 73rd in total offense in 2007 and and lost 77% of last year's production with the graduation of quarterback Kevin O'Connell. Redshirt freshman Ryan Lindley won a three-way race to replace O'Connell and has a strong arm, but will have a lot of pressure on him. The San Diego State running backs are talented, but injuries have prevented them from being consistent. The wide receivers should be good, but they lost a pair of NFL Draft picks from a year ago. The true weakness could be on the offensive line, where the Aztecs will be forced to play a bunch of youngsters.

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