The Orlando Sentinel has ranked all 120 Football Bowl Subdivision teams in the country. The Sentinel staff will take a closer look at a new team daily, counting backward from No. 120 to our projected No. 1 team. We will not be including the four teams the NCAA lists as still reclassifying to the Football Bowl Subdivision level.
Today at No. 29: Notre Dame
Coach: Brian Kelly (16-10, third season; 69-32 overall)
2011 record: 8-5
Look back: Year Two of the reclamation project for Brian Kelly didn’t go as smoothly as some thought it might. Turmoil at quarterback presented Kelly with challenges as starter Dayne Crist was replaced by Tommy Rees in the early part of the season. Rees had his moments as well but turnovers became an ongoing theme for this team. Miscues cost Notre Dame several opportunities including in games against USF and Michigan. Losses to Stanford and Florida State to finish out the season left this program with more questions than answers going into 2012.
Offensive starters lost/returning: 3/8
Defensive starters lost/returning: 5/6
Key losses: WR Michael Floyd, QB Dayne Crist, TE Mike Rogone, S Harrison Smith, CB Gary Gray
Top returnees: QB Tommy Rees, RB Cierre Wood, TE Tyler Eifert, LB Manti Te’O
Strengths: The offensive side of the ball was suppose to be one of the strengths of Kelly’s coaching although it hasn’t translated onto the field quite like he has hoping for. Take quarterback Tommy Rees, who completed 65 percent of his passes for 2,871 yards and 20 touchdowns but also made poor decisions including throwing 14 interceptions as well as his offseason troubles with the law. Kelly experimented with junior Andrew Hendrix, a more mobile threat at quarterback, and with freshman Everett Golston and Gunner Kiel this spring. The competition will be fierce in the fall but one thing is certain, Kelly needs to pick with the best player and stick with him. … While the quarterback position is up in the air, the running back position is strong as ever with Cierre Wood returning. The junior rushed for 1,102 yards and nine touchdowns last season and will receive some help from senior Theo Riddick.
Weaknesses: There’s no way to replace the caliber of talent like Michael Floyd at wide out but Kelly will have to try. Tight end Tyler Eifert (803 yards, five touchdowns) always seemed to find an opening and could get hard-fought yards. His decision to return for this senior season was huge for the Irish. Junior TJ Jones and senior Robby Toma combined for 57 catches for 573 yards and four touchdowns last season and will need to step up to help out whomever will start at quarterback. … Linebacker Manti Te’o was the heart and soul of the defense, leading the squad with 128 tackles. He’ll be called upon for an even bigger role with five starters from last year’s unit gone including up-and-comer Aaron Lynch, who transferred to USF in the offseason. The secondary lost major experience with the departures of safety Harrison Smith and cornerback Robert Blanton.
Outlook: It’s Year Three for Brian Kelly and that normally spells trouble for coaches at Notre Dame however I think fans are willing to be patient. There have been improvements with the program although they don’t seem like it. The fluidity at quarterback is a major concern going into the fall and finding someone to take the reins whether it’s Rees or someone else is a must. Especially with a schedule that features games against teams that appear to be top 25 contenders in Michigan State, Michigan, Stanford, Oklahoma and USC.
Sept. 1 vs. Navy
Sept. 8 Purdue
Sept. 15 at Michigan State
Sept. 22 Michigan
Oct. 6 vs. Miami
Oct. 13 Stanford
Oct. 20 BYU