The Fighting Irish enter the preseason as the No. 11 team in the nation, according to the USA Today Coaches' Poll. For the Irish, that is a pretty nice start.
The Irish had an interesting offseason, to say the least. Critics rode Notre Dame's BCS Championship loss and its impact into the ground. The Irish's head coach, Brian Kelly, flirted with the Philadelphia Eagles before Chip Kelly took the job. Quarterback Gunner Kiel elected to transfer to Cincinnati. Defensive tackle recruit Eddie Vanderdoes elected not to attend Notre Dame and fought his way to UCLA, where he was recently granted eligibility, as Chris Dufresne of the LA Times reported.
Oh, and quarterback Everett Golson was dismissed from the team late in May, following an academic issue.
Coming in at No. 11 is nice, but losing Golson clearly cost the Irish when it boils down to where they stand nationally. Every team ahead of Notre Dame returns its quarterback; even the Florida Gators earned a nod over the Irish, despite more critical losses on defense and an equally jarring thumping in the Sugar Bowl.
Having an unknown at quarterback, or more accurately, the known commodity of Tommy Rees, limited just how high last season's BCS Championship runner-up could climb. Rees is not Golson: He limits what the offense can do, and combined with the need to replace Tyler Eifert, Cierre Wood and Theo Riddick's production, limiting the offense is a big negative.
On defense, there is little doubt that Notre Dame will again be among the nation's best. Even losing Manti Te'o does not hurt the perception of the unit, following his less-than-stellar performance in the BCS Championship Game. The loss of Te'o is far outweighed by the return of Louis Nix, Stephon Tuitt and Sheldon Day, three monsters up front who will power Notre Dame's front seven.
The defense is worthy of a top-10 ranking; unfortunately, the offense is the issue. Instead of the offense's major problem being the replacement of Tyler Eifert, they are now saddled with finding an answer to the quarterback question. Rees likely starts, but it will be interesting to see if Andrew Hendrix or freshman Malik Zaire get field time during the season.
Starting at No. 11 is no insult. The defense and Brian Kelly have helped keep the Irish just outside of the top 10, despite some big offensive losses. With games against No. 17 Michigan and No. 16 Oklahoma coming in the first five weeks, The Irish will get to prove they belong.
If Notre Dame can solve its quarterback issue the team will quickly move from No. 11 to a true top-10 unit.
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