A year after rapidly climbing the polls to ultimately grab a berth in the BCS National Championship Game, expectations are sky-high in South Bend as Notre Dame gets set to embark on the 2013 season. While they were perhaps the biggest surprise story in the country last season, the Fighting Irish won’t be sneaking up on anyone this season, as they ranked 11 in the USA Today preseason coaches’ poll.
Although Brian Kelly’s team proved that the Irish have indeed returned to glory after an unblemished regular-season record a year ago, they will again have a tough task ahead of them if they are to realize their title aspirations in 2013, as the team will lose several leaders from the magical 2012 run.
Check out our preview of what to expect from the Irish this season, including a breakdown of key returners, newcomers to watch, top games, and more. To watch live as the season unfolds, visit the Vivid Seats marketplace today, which contains a wide variety of Notre Dame football tickets on sale now.
Last season, the Irish owned the second-best scoring defense in the NCAA, holding opponents to under 13 points per game. Fortunately, ND will welcome back many of the players who helped the team achieve that ranking, with the notable exception of middle linebacker and Heisman finalist Manti Te’o.
Stephon Tuitt (12 sacks) and Louis Nix III (50 tackles) teamed up along the defensive line to manhandle opposing O-lines last year, and will be counted on to do much of the same in 2013. Prince Shembo (7.5 sacks) will return to anchor the linebacker unit, while the team will bring back three of four starting defensive backs from a year ago, including Bennett Jackson, who picked off four passes in 2012.
While the offense will lose a significant amount of production from 2012 – running backs Theo Riddick and Cierre Wood and wide receiver Robby Toma all graduated, while Tyler Eifert elected to enter the NFL Draft – the Irish will have plenty of young talent ready to step into more prominent roles.
George Atkinson III saw time primarily on special teams a year ago, but will now assume the starting running back duties after rushing for a 7.1 yard-per-carry average with five scores in 2012. At wide receiver, DaVaris Daniels will step into Toma’s vacated spot and will look to build on his totals from last season, which included 31 catches for 490 yards. The offensive line emerged as a strength in 2012 under the tutelage of legendary O-line coach Harry Hiestand, and returns three starters in Zack Martin, Chris Watt, and Christian Lombard.
NEWCOMERS TO WATCH
After Notre Dame’s special season in 2012, Kelly had his pick of the litter from the incoming freshmen class, eventually signing some of the most highly touted high school prospects in the country en route to securing the third-ranked class according to Rivals.com. Two names Notre Dame fans should keep their eyes on are Greg Bryant and James Onwualu.
Bryant, a 5’11, 200-pound running back, could push for early playing time in the backfield, while Onwualu, a speedy wideout, is likely to earn snaps on offense from the outset while also bringing his rare combination of strength and athleticism to the special teams units to help replace former standout Chris Salvi.
With 2012 starting quarterback Everett Golson forced to sit out this fall, the QB spot will be in familiar and capable hands, as Tommy Rees figures to take the reins in his senior season. Rees has had an up-and-down career up to this point, throwing 34 touchdowns and 24 interceptions while serving as starter on and off over the past three seasons.
Rees’ unexpected insertion into the starting role will fundamentally change the offensive scheme; whereas Golson is a dual-threat quarterback who prefers to operate in the open field, Rees is at his best inside the pocket.
Notre Dame’s status as an Independent gives it the opportunity to play whomever it would like from conferences across the country, something the program took full advantage of when scheduling 2013 opponents. Kelly’s squad will take on teams from a total of seven different conferences, while also playing two fellow Independents. As usual, there is no shortage of high-profile games on the Notre Dame football schedule.
@ Michigan Wolverines | Sept. 7
While this historic series, which dates back to 1887, is always one of the most highly anticipated matchups of the season, it is especially noteworthy this year. This 2013 contest will mark the final time the Irish will visit the Big House for the foreseeable future, as the last scheduled game between the two teams is the 2014 matchup in South Bend. Notre Dame defeated the Wolverines, 13-6, in a tight game a year ago.
Oklahoma Sooners | Sept. 28
It’s always a special occasion when two perennial powers of the college football world meet up for a non-conference showdown, and such will be the case when the Oklahoma Sooners invade Notre Dame Stadium on Sept. 28. The Sooners will undoubtedly have this game circled on their calendars after the Irish kept their perfect season alive with an upset victory in Norman last season.
vs. Arizona State Sun Devils @ AT&T Stadium | Oct. 5
The latest installment in the Shamrock Series will see the Irish take on the Sun Devils of ASU in a packed house at AT&T Stadium – formerly known as Cowboys Stadium – in Arlington, Texas. This will mark the fifth entry in the Shamrock Series, with past games taking place at historic venues like Yankee Stadium and Soldier Field. Notre Dame has won each of the previous four games in the annual series, including a 41-3 rout of the Miami Hurricanes last season in Chicago.
USC Trojans | Oct. 19
The battle for the Jeweled Shillelagh always takes center stage of the college football world, and that will certainly be the case again when the Fighting Irish host the USC Trojans this October. Last season, Notre Dame defeated USC, 22-13, in Los Angeles to put the finishing touches on a perfect regular season. It will take an equally inspired effort for ND to top the Trojans in 2013, as the Irish haven’t beaten USC in South Bend since 2001.
@ Stanford Cardinal | Nov. 30
Notre Dame and Stanford faced off in one of the most memorable games of the season in 2012, as the Irish staged a fourth-quarter comeback to tie the game and eventually defeated the Cardinal in overtime, thanks to a dramatic game-ending goal-line stand. With Stanford ranked fourth in the preseason coaches’ poll, this matchup at Stanford Stadium could have huge implications by the time late November rolls around.