CFT preseason No. 18: Notre Dame

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2010 record: 8-5

2010 bowl: 33-17 win over Miami (Fla.) in the Sun Bowl

2010 final AP/coaches’ ranking: unranked/unranked

Coach: Brian Kelly, second year; 8-5 overall

Offensive coordinator: Charley Molnar, second year

2010 offensive rankings: 67th, scoring offense (26.3 ppg); 61st, total offense (379.7 ypg); 92nd, rushing offense (126.6 ypg); 34th, passing offense (253.1 ypg)

Defensive coordinator: Bob Diaco, second year

2010 defensive rankings: 23rd, scoring defense (20.2 ppg); 50th, total defense (357.2 ypg); 50th, rushing defense (142.2 ypg); 54th, passing defense (215.1 ypg)

Returning offensive starters: 9

Returning defensive starters: 8

Location: Notre Dame, Ind.

Stadium: Notre Dame Stadium (grass; 80,795)

2011 schedule: [view]

2011 roster: [view]

2010 statistics: [view]

Snapshot: There will be many a voter in the polls that “matter” who will place the Irish firmly inside the Top 10 based solely on the fact that they have 17 returning starters — 19 if you include kickers. I’m not of those individuals, even as my vote doesn’t mean squat as I don’t have one.

A four-game winning streak to end the season — with backup quarterback Tommy Rees under center — certainly lends an air of optimism for the Irish’s prospects for the 2011 season, and I’m really close to drinking the green Kool-Aid. The defense certainly isn’t a cause for not taking a sip, however, as Brian Kelly returns more than three-quarters of a defense that finished in the top 25 nationally in scoring — well, preventing it. Health is likely the only concern on that side of the ball as the Irish are somewhat thin at certain positions.

Speaking of health, and despite Rees’ heroics as a true freshman, the starter at the position will likely depend on Dayne Crist as he recovers from a season-ending knee injury that set the table for his young understudy to close out the year in winning fashion. There’s also the possibility sophomore Andrew Hendrix and/or freshman Everett Golson could work their way into the mix by being perhaps a better fit athletically for what Kelly would ultimately like to accomplish with his version of the spread.

Of course, there’s a lot of the optimism on the offensive side of the ball because of the return of Michael Floyd. The star wide receiver was fully reinstated to the program Aug. 3 following his third alcohol-related brush with the law since coming to South Bend. With Floyd, there’s a talented veteran target for whatever QB wins the job. No, Floyd’s presence won’t mean that much to the won-loss bottom line, but it surely couldn’t hurt as the Irish attempt to claw their way back into national prominence sooner rather than later.

Make-or-break game: Oct. 22 vs. USC

For the sake of argument, we’re going to assume the Irish will be able to get through their first six games of the season — including the first night game in the history of The Big House against Michigan — relatively unscathed, with “relatively unscathed” for our purposes being 5-1 or better. If that were to happen, their annual showdown with the Trojans looms very large. A home win over what will be a very good USC team (you’ll see how good in very short order) could potentially send the Irish shooting toward what could become a (gasp!) BcS berth. Could, mind you; a lot of other variables would be involved, mainly that six-game stretch to start the season that includes USF, road dates with Michigan and Pittsburgh and games with two teams in my Top 25 in Michigan State and Air Force. Of course, there’s also that regular-season finale against a team that’s in my Top 5, but the Irish will have to navigate a schedule full of potential potholes before chopping down that particular tree.

Heisman hopeful: Floyd

Floyd should be able to put up numbers — he’s already on the verge of shattering every major school receiving record that he doesn’t currently already own — that would garner some attention from Heisman types, particularly if the Irish are winning and especially because the Irish are winning as there is still a certain block of voters who hold a special place in their football hearts for South Bend and would love nothing more than a player from that school to be relevant again.

Postseason projection: Champs Sports Bowl

Special section: Notre Dame Central

Return to CFT’s preseason Top 25

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Division II, Division III and NAIA title games set while FCS heads into semifinals

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Outside of a thrilling Army-Navy game and the Heisman ceremony, it was an empty Saturday at the highest level of college football.

But no so at the lower levels.

The divisional playoffs are cranked into high gear. Let’s take a brief look at where everything stands in each division.

FCS

Top-seeded and defending champion James Madison needed a last-second field goal to survive visiting Weber State, 31-28, on Friday night, while No. 5 seed South Dakota State routed New Hampshire, 55-14.

On the other side of the bracket, No. 2 seed and winner of five of the last six national titles North Dakota State walloped Wofford, 42-10 in Fargo. No. 6 seed Sam Houston State outlasted upstart Kennesaw State, 34-27, to send the Bearkats into their fifth semifinal game in the last seven years.

Semifinals: No. 5 South Dakota State at No. 1 James Madison — 4:30 p.m. ET Saturday, ESPNU; No. 6 Sam Houston State at No. 2 North Dakota State — 8 p.m. ET Friday, ESPN2.

Division II

No. 4 seed West Florida traveled north and upset top-seeded Indiana (Pa.), 27-17 on Saturday, to send the Argonauts into their first championship game. No. 2 seed Texas A&M-Commerce fended off the option attack of No. 3 Harding (Ark.), 31-17, putting the Lions in their first title game as well.

National championship: No. 2 Texas A&M-Commerce vs. No. 4 West Florida — 6 p.m. ET Saturday on ESPN2 at Children’s Mercy Park in Kansas City, Kan.

Division III

In a similar dynamic to FCS, the defending champion is on a collision course with the traditional champion. In the first semifinal, defending champion Mary Hardin-Baylor (Texas) blanked Brockport (N.Y.), 24-0. The Crusaders will make their third trip to the Amos Alonzo Stagg Bowl, looking to win their second title.

In the other semifinal, Mount Union (Ohio) overcame a 21-10 deficit to beat Wisconsin-Oshkosh, 43-40. The Purple Raiders will play in their 20th Stagg Bowl — all of them coming since 1993, and 19 of them since ’96 — with a shot at their 13th national championship. However, Mount Union has won just — “just” — two national championships since 2009.

National championship: Mary Hardin-Baylor (Texas) vs. Mount Union (Ohio) — 7 p.m. ET Friday on ESPN at Salem Stadium in Salem Va.

NAIA

The NAIA was off this weekend, taking a break in between last week’s semifinals and Saturday’s national championship. Defending champion Saint Francis (Ind.) out-gunned previously-undefeated Morningside (Iowa) 43-36 in the first semifinal, while Reinhardt (Ga.) held off undefeated Southern Oregon, 37-34 in double overtime.

National championship: Saint Francis (Ind.) vs. Reinhardt (Ga.) — 6 p.m. ET Saturday on ESPN3 at Municipal Stadium in Daytona Beach, Fla.

Minnesota lands commitment from 6-foot-8, 395-pound offensive tackle

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P.J. Fleck is going to need a bigger boat.

Minnesota has landed a commitment from the largest recruit on record, as 6-foot-8, 395-pound offensive tackle Daniel Faalele has committed to the Gophers. Faalele made the announcement on his Twitter page on Saturday night.

A 3-star recruit, Faalele is rated as the No. 29 offensive tackle in the country, according to 247Sports. He listed 20 offers, including from the likes of Alabama, Georgia, Michigan and LSU.

As the story goes, Faalele did not find football; football found him. He was discovered by a recruiter from Hawaii working out at a gym in his native Melbourne, Australia. He attended a Michigan satellite camp in Australia and played this season — his first season in pads — at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla.

In making the trip from the Land Down Under to the Land of 10,000 Lakes, Faalele will be joined by a pair of IMG Academy teammates in offensive lineman Curtis Dunlap, Jr., and quarterback Zack Annexstad, who also committed to Minnesota on Saturday.

Those pledges now give Minnesota the 26th best recruiting class in the country and the sixth best in the Big Ten — but the No. 1 class in the Big Ten West — in the 247Sports Composite rankings.

Minnesota’s class may not be the best in the country, but it’s among the biggest — both in size (the Gophers have 25 pledges thus far) and stature.

Texas A&M suspends DT Zaycoven Henderson amid felony gun charges

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Texas A&M defensive tackle Zaycoven Henderson was suspended amid multiple felony charges on Saturday.

As detailed by Ben Baby of the Dallas Morning News, witnesses say Henderson pointed a rifle at one person outside College Station’s Campus Village Apartments and threatened to kill two others and allegedly threw the gun out of a fleeing car as police arrived on the scene. The car was later tracked down by College Station officers, who discovered marijuana in the car.

He was charged with aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, tampering with evidence and marijuana possession. The first charge is a second-degree felony punishable by up to 20 years in a prison. The second is a third-degree felony and the third is a misdemeanor.

He was booked into the Brazos County (Texas) jail at 9 a.m. on Sunday morning.

Texas A&M has suspended Henderson indefinitely, which really only lasts one game as the senior from Longview, Texas, was set to close his Aggies career in the Belk Bowl against Wake Forest on Dec. 29 (1 p.m. ET, ESPN).

Henderson made 35 tackles with five TFLs and 2.5 sacks in 12 starts this season. He was honored as a member of Texas A&M’s senior class at the annual team banquet earlier this weekend.

UCLA reportedly hires Paul Rhoads as defensive backs coach

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Chip Kelly has reportedly hired one of the most respected men in the business to his staff. According to a report from Sports Illustrated‘s Bruce Feldman, Paul Rhoads is on his way to Westwood to coach UCLA’s defensive backs.

Rhoads spent the past two seasons at Arkansas, the first as defensive backs coach and the second as defensive coordinator in addition to his duties with the secondary. He’s best known, of course, for his 7-year run as the head coach at Iowa State, where he took the Cyclones to three bowl games and created this viral moment before any of us knew what “going viral” went.

In addition to Arkansas, Rhoads also owns defensive experience at Auburn, Pittsburgh, Iowa State, Pacific, Ohio State and Utah State.

UCLA finished last season ranked 74th in pass efficiency defense, yielding a 57.1 percent completion rate for 7.3 yards per attempt with seven interceptions against 18 touchdowns.