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.

New contract for Florida-Georgia game finally set for approval by city of Jacksonville

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Crossing a few t’s and dotting a few i’s appear to be all that is left to be done on a new contract for one of the most well-known neutral site rivalry games in the country.

According to the Jacksonville Business Journal, a contract has been sent to the city for approval of a new five-year deal in the annual contest between Florida and Georgia. Terms of the agreement were actually agreed to by both schools last year but it is just now making its way to the city for the final signature.

Each side is set to receive as much as $2.75 million in incentives over the next five years for the series, which takes place annually in Jacksonville at the Jaguars’ home field, Everbank Field. The Gators and Bulldogs are expected to get a $125,000 payment once the contract makes its way through the city bureaucracy and a further $250,000 in guaranteed money each year through 2021.

Also interesting to note that both schools are also getting an increase in their travel budget in the form of a nice $10,000 bump over the amount from previous agreements. The city also covers Georgia’s air travel costs up to $350,000 each year per the Business Journal.

The series, colloquially known as the World’s Largest Cocktail Party, takes place annually in Jacksonville between the two SEC East rivals and often decides the division. Florida has won three straight in the rivalry with the next edition set to take place on Saturday, October 28, 2017.

Next up on Jim Harbaugh’s world tour? An overseas football game and South Africa

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Jim Harbaugh and Michigan recently wrapped up most of their activities in Italy over the weekend and it appears the grand world tour will continue in the coming years for the Wolverines.

Next up on the travel docket? Apparently it’s South Africa.

“We’ll get together as a team and decide, but I’d really like to go to Cape Town or Johannesburg,” Harbaugh told MLive.com in Rome. “One of those two.”

A trip to Brazil is reportedly under consideration as well. Given how the current trip has already ruffled some feathers across college athletics though, one wonders if the NCAA will move to prevent such trips before Michigan has a chance to go abroad once again in 2018 though.

Either way, one interesting tidbit Harbaugh mentioned was how neat it would be to play an actual college football game overseas at some point in the future, especially one in Italy. We’ve already seen Cal, Hawaii, Stanford and Rice schedule games in Australia so it’s not exactly out of the realm of possibilities that exporting Harbaugh’s game day tactics across the pond happens in the coming seasons.

Safe to say that Michigan fans better make sure their passports are up to date as a result of this week’s festivities over in Italy because the Wolverines show no signs of slowing down with the globetrotting.

After 2017 NFL Draft, Florida State assistant takes Orange Bowl shot at Michigan

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One of the big winners on the college football front when it came to the 2017 NFL Draft was Michigan. Jim Harbaugh‘s team had a draft-high 11 players taken by NFL teams and several more Wolverines signed as undrafted free agents.

While that’s an large number, it seems not everybody was all that impressed and no we’re not even counting Ohio State fans.

Florida State assistant and former Minnesota coach Tim Brewster is never afraid to mix things up on social media and unleashed this dig at Michigan after the draft on Saturday.

The coach is of course making a not so subtle reference to the Seminoles victory over the Wolverines in the Orange Bowl last season. It’s not a bad shot by any means but a little funny considering how many draft picks FSU regularly produces each year and how much that is a part of their recruiting pitch.

Harbaugh is still in Italy at the moment so perhaps he wasn’t aware of what Brewster sent on Saturday night. As a result, perhaps we should brace for a response from Ann Arbor in the coming days because we all know Big Blue’s coach loves to have the last word.

Former Baylor athletic director denies mishandling sexual assault claim, says he told Art Briles

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Baylor’s sprawling sexual assault scandal is increasingly starting to make its way through the court system and one major trial is already forcing several former school officials to defend themselves in their handling of the matter.

Ex-Bears athletic director Ian McCaw, who now holds the same position at FCS program Liberty, made a court filing in one such case on Friday according to the Associated Press. Not surprisingly, McCaw claimed that he properly handled the case of former player Tevin Elliott, who was convicted in 2014 of raping a woman and is currently behind bars.

McCaw told the court that upon learning of the allegations in one specific case at the time, he told then-head coach Art Briles about the matter and Elliott was subsequently suspended from the football team.

While Elliott was convicted on criminal grounds, former student Jasmin Hernandez has sued Baylor by accusing the university of violating Title IX as a result of keeping Elliott around despite multiple rape claims against him. It is one of several cases set to take place over the coming years in a scandal that led to the departures of McCaw, Briles and school president Ken Starr.