CFT Top 25: No. 15 Notre Dame

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2013 record: 9-4
2013 postseason: Pinstripe Bowl vs. Rutgers (29-16 win)
2013 final AP/coaches’ ranking: No. 20/No. 24
Head coach: Brian Kelly (90-37 overall; 37-15 in four years at Notre Dame)
Offensive coordinator: Mike Denbrock (first season as OC; 5th year under Kelly at Notre Dame)
2013 offensive rankings: 81st rushing offense (150.92 YPG); 39th passing offense (254.8 YPG); 68th total offense (405.8 YPG); 74th scoring offense (27.2 PPG)
Returning offensive starters: RB Cam McDaniel, WR DaVaris Daniels, OL Ronnie Stanley, OL Nick Martin, OL Christian Lombard
Defensive coordinator: Brian VanGorder (first season at Notre Dame)
2013 defensive rankings: 71st rushing defense (168 YPG); 15th passing defense (198.2 YPG); 31st total defense (366.2 YPG); 27th scoring defense (22.4 PPG)
Returning defensive starters: DT Sheldon Day, LB Jaylon Smith, CB KeiVarae Russell, S Austin Collinsworth
Location: South Bend, Ind.
Stadium: Notre Dame Stadium (80,795, FieldTurf)

THE GOOD
Notre Dame’s offense should be much improved with Everett Golson at the helm — he’s the playmaking quarterback Brian Kelly has wanted ever since coming to South Bend from Cincinnati. In 2012, Golson “rode the bus” to the BCS Championship, as Kelly put it, running a relatively basic offense. And in 2011 and 2013, Tommy Rees quarterbacked the Irish to eight and nine — not where Notre Dame wanted to be in either year.

In Year 2 of Golson, even with his 2013 exile from campus, Notre Dame finally looks to have the kind of offense that can win the team big games. Golson has loads of talent around him, from sophomore running backs Tarean Folston and Greg Bryant to wide receivers DaVaris Daniels, Chris Brown and Corey Robinson to tight end Durham Smythe — remember that last name going forward. The offensive line looks solid, too, and there doesn’t appear to be a whole lot holding back the Irish offense outside of a little inexperience heading into the fall.

Notre Dame has a number of stars on defense, too: Linebacker Jaylon Smith is the best player on the team, while defensive tackle Sheldon Day looks primed for a breakout season if he can stay healthy. The Irish secondary is stout, led by junior cornerback KeiVarae Russell, sophomore safety Max Redfield and graduate student/Florida transfer Cody Riggs. It’s a deep unit, too, and one that should play well in Brian VanGorder’s aggressive defensive scheme.

THE BAD
I mean, have you seen Notre Dame’s schedule? Road games at Florida State, Arizona State and USC — all of which come in the second half of the season — are tough as it is, but throw in home games against Michigan, Stanford, North Carolina and Louisville and the Irish have an awfully difficult minefield to navigate this fall.

There’s a chance Notre Dame actually is a better team than it was last year — the Irish finished 26th in F/+ — but wind up with the same 9-4 record…or worse. The toughest stretch comes in early to mid October, when Notre Dame faces Stanford and UNC at home on back-to-back weekends before traveling to Florida State.

Stanford and Florida State certainly are tough, but that North Carolina game has all the makings of a dangerous trap game for the Irish. UNC has a good enough offense to give the Irish defense fits, and if Notre Dame goes into Oct. 11 looking ahead to Florida State the Tarheels could be primed for an upset.

THE UNKNOWN
Notre Dame lost five starters off its front seven from a year ago: Louis Nix, Stephon Tuitt, Prince Shembo, Carlo Calabrese and Dan Fox. Sliding in for those guys is a group of inexperienced players who potentially could be good…but also who could potentially struggle to stop a number of the high-powered offenses Notre Dame has to face.

Guys like defensive tackle Jarron Jones and linebacker Joe Schmidt performed well in limited duty a year ago, but will they be able to succeed in larger roles? Can a converted safety (John Turner) and a converted wide receiver (James Onwualu) play Sam linebacker? Will freshmen defensive linemen Daniel Cage, Pete Mokwuah, Jonathan Bonner and Andrew Trumbetti be ready enough to provide much-needed depth up front?

The X-Factor with Notre Dame’s defense is how the unit performs running a defense that’ll take more chances under VanGorder than it did under Bob Diaco. The last few years of stats don’t really apply to Notre Dame’s defensive outlook this fall, given there’s a greater emphasis on forcing turnovers and sacks rather than two-gapping and preventing big plays. We won’t know how this defense really shakes out until it actually takes the field this fall under VanGorder, so that makes it very much an unknown.

MAKE-OR-BREAK GAME: Nov. 29 at USC
Hypothetically, if Notre Dame heads to Los Angeles with one loss (likely to Florida State), a win over USC and an 11-1 season could be enough to get the Irish into the four-team playoff.

That’s the best-case scenario for Notre Dame. But there are plenty of other hypotheticals that involve Notre Dame either salvaging a disappointing season (say, a 7-5/8-4 year) or generating some early hype for 2015 (say, a 10-win year) that involve beating USC. That it’s a rivalry game doesn’t hurt, either.

There are plenty of other games that could’ve fit here: Michigan, Stanford, Florida State and Arizona State. But given it’s the final game of the season and Notre Dame-USC always carries weight, it gets a make-or-break designation.

HEISMAN HOPEFUL: Quarterback Everett Golson
Six hundred days will have passed since Golson last played in a competitive game when he takes the field for Notre Dame Aug. 30 against Rice. But that long layoff hasn’t prevented Golson from seeing his name pop up as a Heisman dark horse, and the latest Bovada odds have him at 20/1 to win the trophy.

Golson threw for 2,405 yards with 12 touchdowns and six interceptions in 2012, but expect those numbers — as well as his rushing totals — to go up this fall. It’ll take a big leap for Golson to legitimately get in the Heisman competition, but if Notre Dame has a better season than most are expecting Golson very well could find himself in the discussion.

(Click HERE for the CFT 2014 Preseason Preview Repository)

JJ Stankevitz is CSNChicago.com’s Notre Dame Insider. Follow him on Twitter @JJStankevitz.

Syracuse makes hiring of D-II Coach of the Year official

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Dino Babers‘ second coaching staff is whole once again.

Following up on reports that first surfaced late last week, Syracuse confirmed in a press release that Justin Lustig (pictured, left) has left his job as the head coach at Div. II Edinboro (Pa.) College to take over as Babers’ running backs coach.  Additionally, Lustig will serve as special teams coordinator for the Orange.

Lustig replaces Mike Hart, who left earlier this month to take the running backs coach job at Indiana.

“The job Justin did as a first-time head coach was fantastic,” Babers said in a statement. “He’s also been a highly-successful assistant coach. The running backs he has coached have performed extremely well, and his special teams units have consistently ranked among the nation’s best. We’re very excited to welcome Justin and his family to Syracuse.”

Hired in January of last year, Lustig took over an Edinboro team that finished 0-11 in 2015 and turned them into a 9-2 squad one year later.  For that turnaround, he was named the Div. II Coach of the Year.

Lustig’s last job at the FBS level came at Ball State, where he served as running backs coach/special teams coordinator from 2011-15.  He also earned the title of assistant head coach prior to the start of the 2015 season.

This will mark Lustig’s first job of any kind at a Power Five program.

“My family and I are excited, honored and grateful for the opportunity to come to Syracuse and join Coach Babers’ staff,” Lustig said. “He is building a championship program there. The future of Syracuse football is very bright and I’m thrilled to be a part of it.”

UNLV ‘very excited’ to share Las Vegas stadium with Raiders

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The biggest news of the day in the NFL has a decidedly college football connection.

By a 31-1 vote, NFL owners approved the Raiders move from Oakland to Las Vegas later this decade.  The new stadium that will eventually serve as the home for the NFL club is expected to be ready for play for the 2020 season.

As expected, it will also serve as the new home for Sin City’s FBS team, a fact that UNLV’s hierarchy was quick to point out and highlight in the hours after the vote was officially confirmed.  Below are the statements from the three main characters involved with the football program.

Len Jessup, UNLV President
UNLV and the entire Rebel family welcome the Oakland Raiders to Las Vegas. We look forward to a long-term partnership with the Raiders and the Stadium Authority Board to give UNLV football access to a world-class stadium and accompanying game day experience that will rival the best in college football. We also recognize and thank the numerous stakeholders – including the Adelson family – who invested their time and energy toward this vision. This is an historic day for Nevada and another example of how Las Vegas continues to reinvent itself.

Tina Kunzer-Murphy, UNLV Athletics Director
We are very excited to welcome the Raiders to our great city of Las Vegas. Our community is on the rise and that has clearly been recognized by the NFL owners with today’s vote. We can’t wait for the day our UNLV football program has a new home, sharing the new world-class stadium with the Las Vegas Raiders. What a great day for the NFL, our city and our university.

Tony Sanchez, UNLV Football Head Coach
Today is a huge development for UNLV Football and the city of Las Vegas. Sharing a state-of-the-art stadium with the Raiders is another thing that will allow us to recruit at a high level. The combination of an NFL stadium and our upcoming Fertitta Football Complex brings so much energy to this program and campus. As someone who has lived here for eight years, I’m also excited for this community. This is a great place to live and the pride of being an NFL city will make it an even better place.

In addition to being tenants in a new state-of-the-art stadium, the university will soon begin construction on an on-campus football practice facility.

There are five FBS teams that will share stadiums with NFL teams on at least a part-time basis in 2017 — UMass (New England Patriots, Gillette Stadium), Miami (Miami Dolphins, Sun Life Stadium), Temple (Philadelphia Eagles, Lincoln Financial Field), Pitt (Pittsburgh Steelers, Heinz Field) and USF (Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Raymond James Stadium).  Georgia State had shared the Georgia Dome with the Atlanta Falcons but are moving to the new Turner Field this season, while San Diego State will still call Qualcomm Stadium home even as the Chargers have bolted the facility for Los Angeles.

There has been chatter that both Temple (HERE) and USF (HERE) could find themselves in a position to build an on-campus stadium at some point down the road — although the latter could extend its agreement with its current home as it continues to evaluate its long-term plans.

The Los Angles Rams are also temporarily crashing at the home of the USC Trojans, Memorial Coliseum, until their new stadium is completed.

Kaylee Hartung leaves ESPN sidelines for CNN

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ESPN’s roster of college football talent has taken a bath lately. Sean McDonough and Chris Spielman broke up their critically acclaimed team for NFL work at different networks. Brad Nessler left for CBS. Brent Musuberger left for Vegas. Samantha Ponder has joined McDonough on the Worldwide Leader’s NFL team and, now, Kaylee Hartung is leaving the network as well.

Hartung confirmed her departure from ESPN on Monday. Though she did not name her next employer, it’s been an open secret within the industry for nearly a month Hartung will leave for CNN.

“Last night I worked my final event with ESPN,” Hartung announced on her Twitter page. “The decision to leave a job I love and take on a new challenge has been incredibly emotional but the overwhelming feeling I have today is gratitude. I am so grateful for the experience I’ve had within the ESPN family for 5 years. I’m grateful for the people I’ve worked with who have supported me, made me a better reporter, made me a better person and became my friends. I’m grateful for the coaches, athletes, staffers, and university officials who’ve shared their stories with me and let me be a part of their magical moments. I’m grateful for the fans who have embraced me and shared their passion with me. Thank you to everyone who’s been a part of my life during this incredibly fun and exciting chapter. I can’t wait to see what this next chapter has in store… Now I get to be a fan of you all!”

Hartung started with Longhorn Network and since moved to SEC Network and the mothership. Her final event for the network was Sunday night’s Women’s Elite Eight match between Mississippi State and Baylor. Hartung worked in the political media prior to landing with the Longhorn Network as an associate producer for the CBS program Face the Nation.

Final Four forces South Carolina to postpone indoor facility groundbreaking

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File this one under the most first world of all problems: the South Carolina football program is having to adjust its plans because the Gamecocks’ basketball team has been more successful than anticipated.

With Frank Martin‘s hoops headed to Phoenix for this weekend’s Final Four and taking all the Palmetto State’s attention with them, Will Muschamp‘s football program has been forced to alter what had been a big day planned.

The Gamecocks were scheduled to break ground on their announced indoor practice facility; those plans have now been postponed.

With only six days between South Carolina’s clinching of a Final Four berth and the football team’s planned Garnet-White game, the spring game will have to remain slated for Saturday. But it has been bumped forward to a noon kickoff.

Muschamp did not make the trip to Madison Square Garden for Sunday’s Elite Eight win (Florida’s Jim McElwain was in attendance) and Saturday’s spring game will also preclude his attendance, meaning the head football coach must wait until a possible national championship berth to support the basketball team in person.