CBR’s ‘Way Too Early’ 2013 Top 10: No. 9 Notre Dame Fighting Irish

CBR’s ‘Way Too Early Top 10’

No. 9 Notre Dame

Ask anyone around the Notre Dame football program, and they’d tell you no one is surprised the Irish found success under third year coach Brian Kelly…they were surprised how fast it happened however.  Most fans, media members and Notre Dame administration themselves had pegged the Irish as a legitimate 2013 title contender, making the 2012 season a truly present surprise.

Of course as fun as this past year’s run was, now comes the hard part: Duplicating it. Few fan-bases have higher expectations for their team than Irish fans do, and now that they’ve tasted success at the (near) highest levels of college football, they’re only going to want more. As they say, it’s harder to stay at the mountaintop than get there in the first place, and that’s the reality that Kelly and the Irish will face in 2013. To many, anything short of a National Championship run will be considered a disappointment.

Can Kelly and the Irish live up to the expectations? Let’s take a look at their 2013 profile.

The Good: The Irish should be led by another strong defense in 2013, where Louis Nix and Stephon Tuitt will both return as All-American candidates along the front-line. Defensive backs Bennett Jackson, KeiVarae Russell and Matthias Fairley also return in the secondary, transforming what was considered a weakness in 2012 (the pass defense) into a strength.

In addition, it’s hard not to see the offense getting better in 2013 after it struggled at times this past season. Optimism is especially high for Everett Golson, who didn’t put up spectacular stats in 2012, but did seem to get better every single week during the season. Irish fans are drooling at what Golson may look like by December after another off-season of practices, weight-training and film room study.  

It also doesn’t hurt that Golson will have plenty of help around him. Skill-position players T.J. Jones, DaVaris Daniels and George Atkinson III all return to South Bend, and former five-star recruit DaVonte Neal could emerge as a breakout candidate for 2013.

The Bad: As good as those skill position players are, the Irish do lose a ton along one of college football’s most underrated offensive lines. Notre Dame will see three seniors depart from the 2012 squad and because of it, it’s hard to imagine the Irish running the ball nearly as effectively as they did this past fall, where they averaged 202 yards a game on the ground during the regular season.   

Also, we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention the departure of senior linebacker Manti Te’o. No, Te’o didn’t have his best game Monday night against Alabama, but for anything he lacked in pure skill (which over the course of his career wasn’t much) he made up for in heart and leadership. The Irish would’ve been a good team without him 2012, but Te’o made them great.

The Irish will also load up with another daunting schedule in 2013, with visits to Michigan and Stanford, as well as home games against Oklahoma, USC and Michigan State.

The Uncertain: It has to be Brian Kelly himself, who apparently turned rumor into reality Wednesday with reports that he interviewed for the Philadelphia Eagles head coaching vacancy. Kelly is also expected to interview with the Chicago Bears at some point as well.

Frankly, this all seems like a big ploy by Kelly to get himself and his assistants a raise from the school, and at least for now Irish fans have little to worry about. But on the off-chance Kelly did leave for the NFL, it would be a crippling blow to a program which is just starting to hit its stride under his watch.

Verdict: So we’re going to go ahead and make a tiny assumption here, and assume that after a lot of flirting and some heavy petting, Kelly eventually does end up back in South Bend for the 2013 season. And if he does, we see no reason why the Irish can’t continue to pick up where they left off. Like every other program in college football the Irish have work to do (especially on the offensive line and in replacing Te’o’s leadership on defense) but at the same time few programs return more in 2013 either. Golson should only be improved next fall, the defense will again be talented and a top-ranked recruiting class should plug in the holes from there.

Everything is in line for the Irish to make another serious run at the title next fall.

You know, assuming their coach sticks around to see it all through.

Be sure to check out the rest of CBR’s ‘Way Too Early Top 10’

No. 10 Florida Gators

For all his opinion, analysis and insight on college football, be sure to follow Aaron on Twitter @Aaron_Torres.

About Aaron Torres

Aaron Torres works for Fox Sports, and was previously a best-selling author of the book 'The Unlikeliest Champion.' He currently uses Aaron Torres Sports to occasionally weigh-in on the biggest stories from around sports. He has previously done work for such outlets as Sports Illustrated, SB Nation and Slam Magazine.