The Notre Dame Fighting Irish have all the pieces necessary to return to the spotlight of a BCS bowl game next season, with the exception of one.
The defense figures to be incredibly stout again. Manti Te'o may be gone, but Louis Nix's and Stephon Tuitt's presence up front will ease that transition. They're the same behemoths that allowed Te'o to run free.
The return of stars like Prince Shembo, Bennett Jackson and Bob Diaco will once again have this unit ranked among the top defenses in the country.
On offense, there's no shortage of playmakers. George Atkinson returns as the speedy home run threat in the backfield while TJ Jones and Davaris Daniels return as the team's top wide receivers.
Replacing Tyler Eifert won't be an easy task, but at this point last season everyone wondered how they would replace Michael Floyd's production.
Add an experienced coach with BCS experience in Brian Kelly to the equation and everything appears lined up for the Fighting Irish to once again wind up in a marquee bowl.
Well, everything that is except for quarterback.
Much to the dismay of some Irish fans, Tommy Rees figures to be the trigger man of Kelly's offense this season.
Rees was the team's starter during the 2011 season, when he threw for 20 touchdowns and 14 interceptions before ultimately losing the job in 2012 to the more athletic Everett Golson in the 2012 season that saw the Irish make an appearance in the national championship game.
While some may think that the loss of Golson immediately sinks Notre Dame's shot at BCS glory, a look at their seasons as starters by the numbers reveals that they are a bit closer than some might think.
An argument could be made that Rees is actually the better passer. He had a better quarterback rating, threw for more touchdowns (20 compared to Golson's 12) and completed a higher percentage of his passes.
The primary difference, and the one that will determine whether Notre Dame can return to the national spotlight, is in turnovers. Golson was excellent at taking care of the ball. What he lacked in success as a passer he made up for by taking care of the ball.
In 12 games Golson had just six interceptions. Rees more than doubled that output with 14. In fairness, Rees had nearly 100 more pass attempts (411 to 318), but that's a marked difference between the two signal-callers.
For a team that won with a great defense and physical running game, the quarterback simply has to manage the game without turning the ball over. Rees has shown that he's capable of putting up good numbers as a passer but gets in trouble when he tries to do too much.
The good news here is that Rees is now two years older since the last time that he was the starting quarterback for the Irish.
If he can prove that he has learned to play within the offense, Kelly is more than capable of masking any weaknesses that may be in Rees' game. If he still forces the ball into bad situations and turns the ball over with regularity, the Irish will have a hard time repeating their success from last season.
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