The Notre Dame Fighting Irish are coming off an extremely successful campaign overall, finishing the previous regular season undefeated before unfortunately losing to powerhouse Alabama in the BCS national title game.
Several prominent contributors from last year are no longer with the team, and due to the 42-14 thrashing at the hands of the Crimson Tide, Brian Kelly's bunch opens the 2013 preseason polls as the No. 11-ranked team in the country.
Quarterback Everett Golson won't be leading the offense due to a fall semester suspension, which puts senior Tommy Rees in the saddle to keep the positive momentum going. That will be difficult without tight end Tyler Eifert, who was drafted by the Cincinnati Bengals in the first round.
Reigning Maxwell Award winner Manti Te'o also won't be anchoring the defense at linebacker, so others will have to step up to fill the void.
A rather difficult schedule presents plenty of opportunities for the Irish to prove themselves, though. Below is a breakdown of the biggest games of 2013 for the Irish and their prospects of winning each one.
Game 2, Sept. 7: at Michigan
The Te'o-less defense will be tested early against the likes of the Wolverines, who sport a possible Heisman Trophy contender at quarterback in Devin Gardner.
With prototypical arm strength, a strong frame and fantastic speed that allowed him to play wide receiver in 2012, Gardner presents plenty of problems for the Irish as a dual-threat quarterback. In Brady Hoke's pro-style system, he will test the Notre Dame secondary by throwing deep down the field.
Although Michigan lost star safety Jordan Kovacs to graduation, it still had one of the premier pass defenses, which will require George Atkinson III and Co. to pick up the slack in the Notre Dame running game.
If Rees is put in a position where he has to throw the ball a lot to lead the Irish on a comeback charge, it could be bad news and a disappointing early loss.
Thankfully, Rees flashed clutch ability in relief of Golson last season, but with the weight of expectations and a lack of proven playmakers outside of DaVaris Daniels and experienced yet modestly productive TJ Jones, pulling this one out in Ann Arbor could be very difficult.
This is a sort of a rivalry game, and Michigan will be seeking revenge for last year's gritty 13-6 loss. Expect this to be a higher-scoring affair, with Notre Dame needing a strong running game to keep Gardner off the field as much as possible to seal a victory on the road.
Game 7, Oct. 19: vs. USC
Speaking of rivalries, the Trojans are one of the Irish's arch-nemeses. Each year, the schedule alternates between Notre Dame taking on Stanford and USC in the season finale, and this time around the Irish will do battle with Lane Kiffin's team after the bye week.
There are other important contests following the Michigan game—which is important to establish early-season momentum. However, setting the tone following the bye week might be mot important.
Being well-rested should bode well for Notre Dame's chances, and defensive coordinator Bob Diaco can dial up the pressure against whomever the Trojans have under center.
A quarterback competition is taking place between Max Wittek and Cody Kessler.
Wittek was unimpressive against Notre Dame at home last season, throwing two costly interceptions in a 23-14 loss after guaranteeing a victory. The Irish won't forget that, regardless if he's on the sidelines or under center.
Kessler is athletic and an intriguing talent as a precocious sophomore, but he's only thrown two passes in his short career.
However, containing superstar playmaker Marqise Lee will be easier said than done. If the Irish can keep him under wraps, the Trojans probably won't be able to muster much firepower.
The defense is also a huge question mark for Southern California, which is transitioning to a new scheme after struggling in Monte Kiffin's 4-3, Tampa 2 alignment a season ago.
Game 12, Nov. 30: at Stanford
The physical brand of football that the Cardinal play must be matched by the Irish in the trenches, and it will be critical for nose tackle Louis Nix and defensive end Stephon Tuitt to stymie the Stanford running game.
Running back Stepfan Taylor is no longer in the fold, but senior Tyler Gaffney returns from professional baseball after averaging 6.1 yards per carry and scoring seven touchdowns in 2011.
Kevin Hogan is a dangerous runner at quarterback for the Cardinal, too, and also completed 71.4 percent of his passes in his limited action a season ago.
Despite a small sample size, Hogan has the promise to be a breakout star this season.
After supplanting Josh Nunes as starter in the middle of 2012, Hogan guided Stanford to impressive victories at Oregon and in the Rose Bowl over Wisconsin. He went 4-0 as a starter and replaced Nunes early in a 48-0 rout of Colorado.
The good news for Notre Dame? Stanford's own star tight end, Zach Ertz, also moved on to the pros, and four of the team's top five receivers are no longer on the team.
Rees came off the bench for Golson, completed all four of his passes for 43 yards and the game-winning touchdown to Jones to boost the Irish to a 20-13 win in overtime last year.
Hogan's lack of weaponry and Diaco's exotic 3-4 schemes may be enough to prevent the Cardinal from getting redemption, even at home in a low-scoring, hard-hitting showdown.
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