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.

Father of USC freshman WR is dubbed “the Lavar Ball of college football”

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The basketball world got to know LaVar Ball quite well the last few years. If there is a college football of that on the horizon, the LA Times seems to think they found him.

John Brown, the father of USC Class of 2018 wide receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown, has drawn comparisons to LaVar Ball for a variety of reasons that include the demand and vision for excellence in professional sports for his son. St. Brown was a five-star recruit for the Trojans in the most recent recruiting cycle, according to his Rivals profile. He was also ranked as the top recruit in the state of California and the top wide receiver in the nation. That alone brings reason to expect big results for St. Brown at USC.

The genes are certainly running in the family. John Brown is a former championship body builder. St. Brown’s oldest brother is former Notre Dame wide receiver Equanimeous St. Brown. Osiris St. Brown, the middle son in the family, will be a redshirt freshman this fall at Stanford. With so much talent in the family, John Brown may be tapping into his inner Lavar Ball by suggesting Amon-ra could play in the NFL right now.

This is, of course, a ridiculous thought considering that even the most talented college freshman still have a long way to go to be ready to compete at the high level the NFL demands. But where Brown differs from Ball is he expects his sons to have to earn any accolades that may come their way.

“I’m going to request [USC head coach Clay Helton] put his butt at the bottom of the charts and see what he’s made of,” John said in a featured story published by the LA Times this week. “Make him fight. Sharpen the knife.”

John even goes so far to suggest Amon-ra has his eyes on making some unprecedented (and likely impossible) college football history.

“He’s serious about everything,” John says.

Ask Amon-ra what his goals are for his first year with the Trojans. With an unblinking, straight stare he will tell you, “I want to win the Heisman. All three years.”

All three years, eh? Putting aside the prediction that Brown is already predicting his son is jumping to the NFL after his junior season (an idea that is not at all far-fetched if St. Brown plays out the way recruiting experts and USC expect he will), we have to smile at the historic bar Brown is setting for his son.

Only one player has ever won the Heisman Trophy twice (Ohio State’s Archie Griffin in 1974 and 1975). It is also worth noting the last wide receiver to win the Heisman Trophy was Michigan’s Desmond Howard in 1991. Tim Brown of Notre Dame (1987) and Johnny Rodgers of Nebraska (1972) are the only other receivers to win the award since the Heisman Trophy was first presented in 1935. This may not go down in the history books alongside Beano Cook predicting two Heisman Trophy awards for former Notre Dame quarterback Ron Powlus (which never came close to happening, of course), but that does set the bar high for Amon-ra’s personal goals.

Brown may lay the foundation for athletic success for his sons, but fortunately for the college football world, he seems to be far more tolerable than LaVar Ball.

Jim Harbaugh invites Chris Webber to be honorary captain; Webber accepts

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Former Michigan basketball star Chris Webber wasted no time accepting an invitation from Wolverines head coach Jim Harbaugh to be an honorary captain. During a radio interview on Friday, Harbaugh extended the invite to Webber and Webber quickly accepted.

“I definitely am honored,” Webber said to Harbaugh on Friday during a segment on WTKA (as quoted and reported by The Detroit News). “As you know, and getting to speak to you over the years, I love what you’ve done with the program. Good luck, and yeah, I’m definitely going to be a part of it.”

Webber was an in-studio guest on the radio station Friday. Harbaugh reportedly called in specifically to extend the invitation to Webber during a radio marathon event. For Harbaugh, this is once again striking at an opportunity to generate some buzz for the football program, but including Webber in such a role is worth noting. Webber was required to have a 10-year separation from the University of Michigan due to his connection to a booster scandal associated with the basketball program. Webber continues to rebuild his relationship with the school and other members of Michigan’s famed Fab Five.

What game Webber will attend as an honorary captain will be decided at a later time.

Texas A&M bride trolls LSU fiancé with groom’s cake

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The tradition of the groom’s cake shaped like a football stadium is nothing new, but one bride-to-be had a little more fun with her groom’s cake planning than others we have seen through the years.

The groom’s cake for an LSU fan is a nice replica of LSU’s Tiger Stadium (for a cake, of course), but this Texas A&M bride made sure to include Aggie representation in a visiting fan’s section. But that’s not all. A closer look at the scoreboard even reveals the score to be in favor of Texas A&M, 42-28. I had to zoom the image pretty far just to confirm myself, but I was able to make out the 42 under the Texas A&M side of the scoreboard. I’ll trust ESPN’s Darren Rovell on the other half of the score.

Of course, this may be the only way the bride can get the upper hand in this football series. LSU has won seven straight meetings in the series dating back to the 2011 Cotton Bowl just before Texas A&M joined the SEC in 2012. Also, the last time Texas A&M scored over 40 points on LSU was in a 45-7 victory in College Station in 1991.

I just want to know if former Les Miles got a chance to taste test the field portion of the cake.

BYU AD confident in getting home game vs. Notre Dame

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Back in 2010, BYU and Notre Dame agreed to a six-year football contract that was supposed to include a home game for BYU before 2021. With two games already played in South Bend, BYU fans are getting a little curious as to when exactly the Irish will make their trip to Provo, Utah. BYU Athletics Director Tom Holmoe said on Friday during BYU’s football media day he is confident BYU will get that anticipated home game on the schedule.

Holmoe said he continues to have “good discussions” with Notre Dame in hopes of scheduling a future home game against the Irish. As Holmoe put it, the end result for BYU should be “better than a check.” If a game can’t be agreed upon, whether it be a true home game for BYU or a potential neutral site game in an NFL stadium, then Notre Dame will have to buy out of the game. It seems as though Holmoe is determined to not have that be the reality.

The original deal signed between BYU and Notre Dame essentially lined up a pair of 2-for-1 arrangements to give Notre Dame two home games for each BYU home game (or a neutral site location in its place). The second half of the agreement has since been wiped out once Notre Dame lined up a scheduling agreement with the ACC to play five ACC opponents each season. Notre Dame also has games against USC, Stanford, and Navy that the school has preferred to keep on the schedule. With the way Notre Dame has organized its schedule, staying faithful to an agreement with BYU was seemingly not a top priority.

Notre Dame’s 2019 schedule is already booked with 12 games including matchups against Louisville, Georgia, USC, Michigan, Virginia Tech, Navy, and Stanford. The 2020 schedule for the Golden Domers is also full with matchups against Arkansas, Wisconsin, and Clemson in the mix. If Notre Dame is going to make room for a game against BYU, it won’t be happening until at least 2021, which currently has one game still to add. Notre Dame will already have one neutral site game that season, with a matchup against Wisconsin in Chicago.