SQ College Football Top-25 Preview: #15 Notre Dame

The college football staff at SQ have put together a ranking of the top-25 teams heading into 2015. To get our readers prepared for the upcoming season, the staff has created a preview for each one of these teams. Today’s focus is on #16 Arizona State.

Team: Notre Dame

SQ Ranking: 15

2014 Record: 8-5

Finish in AP Poll: Not Ranked

Head Coach: Brian Kelly (6th year)

Key Arrivals: DL Jerry Tillery, TE Alize Jones, CB Shaun Crawford, QB Brandon Wimbush

Key Departures: QB Everett Golson, CB Cody Riggs, C Christian Lombard, TE Ben Koyack

Previewing the Notre Dame Offense: Everett Golson is gone and now begins the Malik Zaire era at the quarterback position for Notre Dame. Last season, although they saw an improvement on offense -- the team averaged 32.8 ppg (first time the team has done that since 2009) and averaged 444.9 yards per game, compared to 405.8 in 2013 -- Notre Dame still played with much inconsistency thanks to Golson.

Zaire doesn't have the cannon that Golson has, but his arm is strong enough to make the throws he needs in order to move the ball effectively. He can also make plays with his legs, as was evidenced in the Music City Bowl against LSU when he rushed for 96 yards.

Even with the little experience that Zaire has, he has veterans on the offensive line that will help protect him as he continues to get comfortable under center. The line will be anchored by LT Ronnie Stanley, a guy who many think will be a first round draft pick in 2016, C Nick Martin, and RG Steve Elmer.

Returning both Tarean Folston and Greg Bryant to the backfield will help take the pressure off of Zaire as well. Folston had a respectable season, rushing for 889 yards and six touchdowns, while Bryant made his impact felt in just 54 carries, averaging 5.35 yards per carry. 

Receiver Will Fuller returns to lead the receiving corp after catching 76 passes for 1,094 yards, and tied a school-record with 15 touchdown receptions. Slot receiver C.J. Prosise is an interesting player to watch this season, especially with his versatility of sliding into the backfield, as well as averaging 17.79 yards per reception last season.

Previewing the Notre Dame Defense: Notre Dame's defense looked stellar in their first five games last season, giving up no more than 17 points, while also shutting out Michigan. But in the team's remaining eight games, the lowest amount of points the defense allowed was 28. Clearly, Notre Dame's defense did a complete 180 from where it started, allowing 12 ppg in its first five games to allowing more than double through the end of the season.

The question in 2015 is "can the defense perform the way it did at the beginning of 2014?"

If Notre Dame's defense is going to be a true threat, it has to be better up front and get more pressure on the opposing quarterback. Notching just 26 sacks as a team in 2014 won't do the Irish any good if it wants to get to the College Football Playoff. Leading the line will be DT Sheldon Day (2 sacks, 11 QB hurries), who forwent the 2015 NFL Draft, and will be counted on in a big way this season. Pressure will come from ends Isaac Rochell (2.5 sacks, 10 QB hurries in 2014) and Romeo Okwara (3 sacks, 4 tackles for loss), both of whom will need to be better at getting in the backfield.

Linebacker is Notre Dame's deepest position on defense with Jaylon Smith, Joe Schmidt, Jarrett Grace, Greer Martini, Nyles Morgan and James Onwualu each having starting experience. Smith led the team in tackles (111) last season after moving to the inside, but could move back to the outside to better utilize his pass rushing abilities. Schmidt was named the team's defensive MVP despite missing the last five games of the season, but is expected to be back at full-strength come fall. 

In the secondary, Notre Dame gets a familiar face back as CB KeiVarae Russell returns after missing all of last season due to academic suspension. Russell joins fellow corner Cole Luke, who notched 4 interceptions and 48 tackles, to form one of the better duos in the game.

Safety may a bit of a concern for the Irish as Max Redfield and Elijah Schumate are likely to start again, despite being benched in last November. Redfield, a former 5-star recruit, might be considered a bust if he can't get on track this season. Schumate can be a great player, however, if he can cut down on the mental mistakes.

Three Key Games:

1. Notre Dame at Clemson, October 3rd - Going up against Clemson on the road will be a true test for the Irish. Clemson is currently the favorite to win the ACC and would love to add a win against Notre Dame to its belt in hopes of eventually reaching the College Football Playoff. Clemson QB Deshaun Watson could prove too deadly for the Irish defense with both his arm and legs.

2. Notre Dame vs. USC, October 17th - Last season, USC completely manhandled the Notre Dame defense, torching the Irish for 49 points. Even though this game will be played in South Bend, Notre Dame still isn't looked at as the favorite, at least according to ESPN's FPI (Football Power Index). Expect this game to be a lot closer than it was a season ago, as Malik Zaire is a year older and will have a lot more starts under him than he did when he went up against the Trojans in 2014.

3. Notre Dame at Stanford, November 28th - Stanford is the last team that Notre Dame put up a good defensive showing against last season, only allowing the Cardinal offense to s core 14 points. This season should be another close battle between the two rivals. Facing Stanford late in the season usually isn't a good idea.

The Cardinals spoiled UCLA's chance not only to play in the PAC-12 championship game, but the College Football Playoff in the final regular season game last season. If Notre Dame goes on a run to where it has the potential to play in the College Football Playoff, Stanford could once again be the one to ruin their dream.

Final Analysis: In Brian Kelly's sixth season as the head coach at Notre Dame, he could possibly have the deepest team he's had yet. There's only been one season under Kelly in which the Irish have finished the season with fewer than four losses, and that was the season in which the team was beaten by Alabama in the national championship game. However, 2015 could see a return to glory for the blue and gold.

Malik Zaire and the offense are ready to roll. The Irish have enough weapons for him to be successful this season, with a consistent ground game and reliable receivers that will help him move the ball down the field. On defense the Irish should be more like they were early on in 2014, as long as the defensive backs can keep the mental woes to a low.

If the offense can continue its improvement from last season and keep the defensive mistakes at a minimum, Notre Dame has a good shot to win between 9 and 10 games. That should put them in contention for a New Year's Six Bowl at the least. However, I wouldn't count a run to the College Football Playoff out of the question either.

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