The Notre Dame Fighting Irish displayed immaculate potential last season, but that will make repeating perfection in 2013 extensively difficult.
Anticipate every scheduled opponent to bring its best versus the Irish, because knocking off the BCS runners-up and preventing consecutive undefeated seasons can save a team's season. Regardless of how a program may finish this fall, overcoming the Irish is a big victory to build confidence.
So, Notre Dame must be prepared accordingly. Despite facing some tough tests when 2013 kicks off, the Irish still possess the talent to run the table.
Let's check out some crucial aspects for coach Brian Kelly's squad to echo 2012's regular season.
Don't Constantly Rely on Everett Golson
Irish fans have every reason to expect more from Everett Golson in 2013.
He dazzled defenses enough throughout 2012, which ultimately made a significant impact in Notre Dame's Cinderella run. That said, Golson doesn't have the playmakers such as Tyler Eifert, Theo Riddick or Cierre Wood to rely on this fall.
The Irish also graduated Braxston Cave and Mike Golic to pro football.
Well, that makes Golson an obvious solo threat to make more plays with his feet, as well as attempt tougher throws to move the rock downfield.
That approach is what every opponent will be expecting. Defenses will then contain the edges more up front, blitz inside and disguise coverage to interrupt Golson's pre-snap reads. In short, isolating him to make other players step up.
So, counting on running back George Atkinson III will build effectiveness.
He did average 7.1 yards per rush last season and Atkinson's ability to bounce outside and explode between the tackles will keep the ground game strong. Also, in an article by Pete Sampson of Irish Illustrated last month, Atkinson is developing quite well:
The coaching staff not only sees a different back physically this spring, they see a new back mentally. It’s both what the program needed and wanted from Atkinson, who’s trying to be Riddick and Wood rolled into one.
Not only will that keep the Irish physical, but the ground game will set up the pass. Enter TJ Jones and DaVaris Daniels who possess the talent to stretch the field and win against man coverage.
Build on Red Zone Efficiency
The red zone was Notre Dame's forte on the defensive side in 2012. There, the Irish ranked No. 8 in red zone scoring percentage allowed (68.4) and gave up a mere 13 touchdowns.
Equaling this performance in 2013 will not be easy.
With Manti Te'o and Zeke Motta gone, the Irish have to get much more from their defensive line.
Fortunately guys like Louis Nix and Stephon Tuitt provide the experience and size to plug gaps and collapse the pocket's interior.
Those in coverage have to completely isolate man-to-man, because Notre Dame must apply more quarterback pressure: More on that in a bit.
When backed inside the red zone, though, pressing in Cover 1 and manipulating in Cover 2 will complement the defensive line to asphyxiate the trenches.
Offensively Kelly's team was not as dominant.
Notre Dame did sport an 80 red zone scoring percentage, but 19 scores came on field goals. This is why the Irish ended up winning six games by fewer than 10 points.
Here, the Irish simply need to cross the goal-line when the opportunity arises. A prime example was Wood's fumble at the one-yard-line in overtime against Pittsburgh. Another was counting on five field goals from Kyle Brindza versus USC: Four of which were from inside 35 yards.
Notre Dame will get into touchdown position, it's just actually scoring six points that will take Kelly's offense to another level.
Last season coach Bob Diaco's defense recorded only 34 sacks. Given the presence of Te'o at linebacker and Motta at safety, however, the Irish need not blitz too often.
As for 2013, turning up the aggression will help screen the vulnerabilities in coverage.
Cornerback Bennett Jackson defended eight passes a year ago, but no one else in the secondary had more than four. Even the big man Nix had five when smashing along the line of scrimmage.
With Jackson's potential for locking down half the field, Notre Dame blitzing often will help create more turnover opportunities. With the defensive line looking to suffocate the ground game and get interior pressure, attacking more from the outside and rolling a safety down to the intermediate level establishes a Cover 2/3 shell.
This style takes away quicker developing pass plays over the middle, while also giving the pass-rushers more time to get pressure. And linebacker Jarrett Grace is expecting big numbers as well, per ESPN.com's Joe Schad in late April:
Joe Schad @schadjoe
ND MLB Jarrett Grace (Cincy native) has studied Luke Keuchly (also Cincy) and said he also aims to be "tackling machine."4/21/2013, 6:12:06 PM
The end results will be greater control of up front and fewer coverage vulnerabilities exploited.
Ultimately, winning the field position battle to complement the offense.