IBG: Thankful for another year of football

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What a bizarre year of football. After months of anticipation, the season got off to its worst possible start, as the Irish stumbled out of the gate so badly that most casual football fans never even got a chance to hop on the Notre Dame bandwagon.

But of course, this website isn’t for the casual fan. We’re here — 365, 24:7, whatever term you prefer that means you’ve got something to read daily — and while two gut-punching losses took some wind out of our sails, we made it through another season, and for that, I’m immensely thankful. (Even if some of you like to write stupid comments during the live blog just to mess with my blood pressure.)

After being a passive participant all season, it’s my week to host the Irish Blogger Gathering, so if you don’t like the questions… well, it’s my fault. After eleven games, we’re running out of debate topics, but I feel like I’ve put together enough to make things interesting. I’ll continue to update this post with responses from other writers as they roll in, so be sure to check in and read everything by kickoff Saturday, if only to make fun of the poor prognostication of this group.

So loosen your belt, enjoy a lovely day of carb-loading, turkey, football and all the wonderful things that make the fourth Thursday in November one of the greatest days of the year.

Obviously, Saturday night’s game is massive. Win, and the Irish get to nine wins after starting 0-2, and you can make a really persuasive argument that they’re deserving of a BCS berth. Lose, and ND only makes incremental progress over last year’s 8-5 record. Three potential outcomes: Win, close loss, ten-point loss. How does your takeaway for the season change?

Saturday night’s game is definitely a tipping point in the Brian Kelly era. I don’t think there’s a way to understate the importance of the game. Win — and you’ll hear me bang the drum for a BCS bid, regardless of the three losses. Lose and it’ll give Irish fans a month to debate what exactly is wrong with another Irish head coach. Get blown out? Well, that’s one of those topics I’m not going down unless I’m forced to do it Saturday night.

Brian Kelly has spent over two decades as a head football coach. But this season probably added a few hundred grey hairs to his scalp, and for understandable reasons. Whether it was replacing his starting quarterback thirty minutes into the season, losing games because of defensive implosions or self-induced mistakes, it’s safe to say that the first two weeks of this season spun the year into such a weird place to start that in his wildest dreams, Kelly never saw this coming.

Still, give the team — and their head coach — credit for not packing it in. While the loss to USC was really disappointing, the Irish did exactly what everybody asked for: win a bunch of games and make the last Saturday of the year a compelling football game.

Right now the Irish have 15 prospects committed to the 2012 recruiting class. Let’s assume every starter with a year left is coming back (Cave, KLM, Cwynar and Slaughter) and the Irish end up signing 20 recruits. That’ll make 93 players technically available for the 85-man roster (With Mike Ragone potentially being No. 94). Assuming Te’o and Eifert are back next season, what reserves do you invite back for a fifth year? Why?

I don’t know why I do this to myself, as these are the kind of questions that make life really difficult. Notre Dame’s policy on fifth-year players is incredibly admirable, but it must make life hard for a head football coach.

If you’re in the business of coaching student-athletes and objectively deciding their ability to help your team, picking who stays around for a fifth year must add a lot of stress to your life. A football coach’s job is to believe in the students he brings to Notre Dame. It’s easy to decide that a wet-behind-the-ears freshman isn’t ready to play. It’s got to be a whole lot tougher to decide a mature, 22-year-old student isn’t deserving of one more opportunity for the light bulb to go off. It’s practically antithetical to your mission statement as a coach.

With that in mind, let’s get cold-blooded about an Irish roster that’s finally — this is a good thing — bursting at the seams.

Fifth-year candidates:

Dayne Crist — One of my favorite players on the team. I wish him well as he transfers and plays a final season to rebuild his NFL Draft stock.
John Goodman — One of the more difficult decisions on the roster. I’d cut bait with him depending on the wide receivers that came in during recruiting. Even though he’s the quintesential example of a “waiting for the lightbulb to turn on” kind of player, he just hasn’t been the athlete many thought he could be.
Deion Walker — Even though Walker was one of the most highly touted recruits in his class, he just hasn’t been able to work his way into the two-deep. This year is it for the other No. 1.
Mike Golic — Probably the toughest call in the group. I’d actually let Golic walk, and then spend all spring turning Bruce Heggie into the super-sub type player that can play center and guard. (That said, if he comes back, I’d completely agree with the decision.)
Lane Clelland — Let him walk. Clelland is one of those guys that just as easily could’ve turned into a first round pick. His pedigree is perfect: high school wrestler, big-bodied athletic lineman. The coaching staff thought he had a chance to make a difference at defensive end, but the experiment ended after spring ball, and injuries robbed Clelland of a final chance to contribute.
Hafis Williams — There are just too many youngsters that have jumped ahead of him in the depth chart.
Brandon Newman — Ditto. Although I will really miss his thoughtful personality, which is always on display in UND.com’s videos and Trick Shot Monday episodes.
Anthony McDonald — Another tough, but logical decision. McDonald got passed up by Carlo Calabrese and Dan Fox, not to mention youngsters like Kendall Moore. And he’s struggled with injuries.
David Posluszny — He’s not much smaller than his brother, but Poz just couldn’t work his way onto the field. Another guy that struggled with injuries.
Dan McCarthy — One of my favorite recruits when he signed on to play for the Irish, McCarthy battled a serious injury coming into Notre Dame and just never seemed to work his way onto the field. Even though his brother was a late-bloomer, Dan is far down the depth chart after four years. It’s a tough decision, but I’d let him go.
Mike Ragone (Sixth Year) — One guy I’d fight to bring back. He’ll help the running game just as much as the passing game, and he’s a perfect compliment to the offensive line, and an off the field leader for a team that could be in need of one.

If you ran the website NDNation, what would you do with it? It’s the most prominent Notre Dame hub on all of the internet, but it’s got a very vocal faction of readers/fans that seem to control the agenda — most often with a significantly negative point-of-view. What would you do if that was your website?

This is one question I have no answer for. Unfortunately, there are certain vocal curmudgeons that make navigating their website a difficult task. For thousands of Irish fans, NDNation.com is a daily stop. Yet it’s probably been abandoned by just as many, with people simply growing disenfranchised after years of reading.

While it’s easy to say you’d nuke it and start over, it’s much harder to actually do it. I’d probably find myself deleting a few key posters, and then spend a few hours every day just challenging people to be rational, hoping that eventually people realize everybody wants the same thing: a winning football team.

You’re Brian Kelly. You spent last recruiting class successfully upgrading the front seven of the defense. Over the next two recruiting classes, what position groups do you absolutely need to upgrade to get the Irish over the BCS hump?

I take dead aim at the wide receiver position. My adoration for Michael Floyd is well known, but outside of him, I’m unimpressed with the athleticism of just about everybody playing the position. Kelly showed that he can find and bring in really impressive athletes at other positions — especially along the defensive line, one of the hardest places to bring in talent at Notre Dame. I’d focus my energy on bringing in a better breed of athletes at wideout, and watch how quickly the offense would take shape.

On the flip side of the ball, we’ll know if Brian Kelly is a success based on his evaluation of defensive backs. He’s basically been tasked with completely rebuilding the secondary for 2012, and we’ll know in about ten months whether he did a good job. Kelly has to replace a really veteran group, and if they can do it next yer, the team has a chance at being really, really good.

I’ve seen dozens of analogies used to describe the current state of the quarterbacking position at Notre Dame. What’s your favorite, or the one you think is the most appropriate?

I’m going to lean on the great Stephen Stills, who absolutely nailed how I feel about the current conundrum at quarterback:

“Well there’s a rose in the fisted glove.
And eagle files with the dove.
And if you can’t be with the one you love
Love the one you’re with.
Don’t be angry, don’t be sad.
Don’t sit crying over good times you’ve had.
There’s a girl right next to you
And she’s just waiting for something to do.

So many people are focused on what Tommy Rees can’t do. I always find myself going the other way. Let’s just enjoy the things that he can do, even if some Saturdays that feels awfully limited. I’ve said it a million times so once more won’t hurt: If Brian Kelly thought he had someone else that’d help the Irish win every Saturday, he’d play him.

Get out the crystal ball. Even after an unimpressive weekend, the Irish are right around a seven-point underdog to Stanford. Do the Irish leave Palo Alto victorious?

If I got paid to pick Irish wins, I’d be broke and living on a street corner. That said, we’re still waiting for this Notre Dame team to play their best football. Even without some key contributors, I really do feel like this Saturday can be the day.

If Notre Dame wins, it’ll be because they played well, not because Stanford played poorly. It’ll also be because the Irish defense did a good job with Andrew Luck, the best quarterback Notre Dame will see in quite some time. Lost in the offensive implosion of last year’s 37-14 loss was Bob Diaco’s very good day against Luck. Statistically, it was one of the three worst games Luck ever played, and if the Irish can force a few mistakes out of him, they’ll have a chance to win.

Gut feeling or deep-seeded hope I can’t be sure, but I’ve got a feeling that Notre Dame beats Stanford, putting this season’s trajectory right back on track.

UPDATING: THOUGHTS FROM PEOPLE LIKELY SMARTER THAN ME:

* Our friends over at Her Loyal Sons had a really thoughtful response to the NDNation question. But he also quoted Beautiful Girls, one of my favorite movies. So there.

* I actually really like Shamrock Head’s take on fifth-year players. Whether it works is a different story.

* Our friends at the Irish Round Table make a really interest point: You can be anti-Brian Kelly or anti-Tommy Rees. You can’t be both.

* Here’s a Tommy Rees comparison that I really like from One Foot Down, comparing the quarterbacking situation to the cast of Saturday Night Live. Is Tommy Rees Kristen Wiig? To some, she’s a one-note comedian worth a couple laughs. Then again, she’s the brain/star behind Bridesmaids, the biggest comedy of the year.

* The Subway Domer gives us the three different places the Irish will be depending on what happens Saturday night.

* Blog Davie (now moving to New Mexico!) and the Gameday 40 crew still think the Irish should concentrate on recruiting quarterbacks, something Brian Kelly agrees with as he takes dead aim at Gunner Kiel.

Notre Dame’s Opponents: Wake Forest

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Have you heard? Notre Dame hired Wake Forest’s defensive coordinator Mike Elko during the offseason. Let’s mention that up top here on the nearly-impossible chance you read this space but missed that news.

Without Elko, it will be curious to see how, or if, the Demon Deacons defense continues to improve. Though without the orchestrator of the defense, Wake Forest is also without someone exposing the defense’s tendencies to opponents before the games. That certainly cannot hurt its performance.

2016 REVIEW
Years from now, only the “WakeyLeaks” controversy of the Demon Deacons’ 2016 season will be remembered. The 4-0 start, 7-6 finish including a 3-5 mark in conference play, and the first touchdown scored in a conference victory under head coach Dave Clawson will all be forgotten. Still less than a year removed from the season, let’s not forget them here.

Indeed, in the two previous ACC wins under Clawson in his first two seasons, Wake Forest had managed only field goals. The Deacons topped Duke 24-14 to record a more-legitimate feeling in a conference victory in the season’s second weekend.

Aside from the 34-26 win over Temple in the Military Bowl, the two other 2016 results warranting mention are the 17-6 loss at Florida State, simply because Elko’s defense held the Seminoles to a mere 17 points, and the 44-12 defeat at Louisville. In the latter loss, Wake Forest led 12-10 with only 11 minutes left before the Cardinals ran away with it.

That defeat prompted the first allegations that the Deacons’ radio analyst was slipping intel to opponents. Indeed, he was. Obviously, that led to his departure from the gig. In 2017, it should hold no pertinent effect aside from remaining an intriguing, noteworthy and hard-to-believe story.

A more pertinent note: Wake Forest went 4-2 in one-possession games last season.

WHAT WAKE FOREST LOST
In addition to Elko and his right-hand man, new Irish linebackers coach Clark Lea, the Deacons lost significant players from their defense. No. 1 tackler and inside linebacker Marquel Lee heard his name called in the NFL Draft’s fifth round, a deserved honor after totaling 105 tackles, 7.5 sacks and 12.5 more tackles for loss last season.

Their No. 3 tackler and linebacker Thomas Brown (65 tackles, four sacks, 4.5 tackles for loss) and No. 4 tackler and cornerback Brad Watson (63, six pass breakups, two interceptions) also graduated from the program.

Offensively, Wake Forest returns much more intact, losing only its center and left guard.

WHAT WAKE FOREST GAINED
In the No. 74 recruiting class in the country per rivals.com, the Deacons signed only one four-star prospect, defensive lineman Mike Allen. Listed at 6-foot-5, 245 pounds, it may take some time into the season for Allen to become a prominent contributor.

HEAD COACH
Clawsen enters his fourth season with the Deacons, having come from Bowling Green. His 13-24 Wake Forest record may be dismal, but 2016 could have marked a turning point for the program. Not only did the Deacons win their first bowl game since 2008, but Clawsen notched his first winning record in Winston-Salem, following two consecutive 3-9 seasons.

To mention this odd factoid again: Clawsen’s first two ACC victories came entirely thanks to field goals, a 6-3 victory vs. Virginia Tech in double overtime in 2014 and a 3-0 win at Boston College in 2015.

OFFENSIVE SUMMARY
Wake Forest literally returns all its contributing skill players from last year’s offense. That unit may not have been dynamic, averaging only 20.4 points per game, but the offense has improved each year under Clawsen, and returning so much of the roster implies it should again. In 2014, the Deacons averaged 14.8 points per game, raising that to 17.4 in 2015.

Even the running game, though still hampered by limited yards per carry averages, has improved every season under Clawsen, rising from 40 rushing yards per game in 2014 (yes, you read that correctly) to 105 a year later and 146 a year ago. That may be very gradual improvement, but it is improvement, nonetheless.

John Wolford (Getty Images)

What may hamper the Wake Forest offense would be a quarterback controversy. Senior John Wolford has started 33 games in the last three years, including 11 last year. His statistics were lacking, though, finishing with only nine touchdowns against 10 interceptions and a 55.5 percent completion rate. Undoubtedly somewhat due to those struggles, Clawsen named junior Kendall Hinton the starter before preseason practice.

Last year, Hinton suffered a knee injury, thus pushing Wolford into the starting position. More of a dual-threat, Hinton presents an arguably-higher ceiling. Wolford, meanwhile, has performed so well in preseason practice, Clawsen may have to reevaluate his decision and perhaps give both quarterbacks chances this season. He has said he expects to need both, and thus has given both first-team repetitions in practice, but that may simply be a precaution given Hinton’s injury history.

DEFENSIVE SUMMARY
Similar to the gradual offensive progression, Elko’s defense improved consistently during his Deacon tenure. In 2014, they allowed 26.4 points per game, dropping that to 24.6 in 2015 and 22.2 last year. Mirroring that trend, the Wake Forest defense gave up 183 rushing yards per game in 2014 before lowering that to 161 in 2015 and 142 last season.

Now, former Minnesota defensive coordinator Jay Sawvel takes over the unit. As it will likely come up in November conversations, let’s note now: Sawvel was a Notre Dame graduate assistant from 1996 to 1999.

Duke Ejiofor (Getty Images)

He inherits a roster led by senior defensive end Duke Ejiofor, who filled the stat line in 2016, recording 10.5 sacks, 6.5 tackles for loss, four pass breakups and one interception.

Sophomore safety Jessie Bates broke onto the scene as a freshman, finishing second on the team in tackles with an even 100, while adding five interceptions and four pass breakups. Sawvel coached defensive backs at Minnesota before being promoted to defensive coordinator in 2016, so he should see the block of marble that is Bates and marvel at what he could become.

SEASON OUTLOOK
The over/under win total for Wake Forest is set at 5.5, and this scribe has already made it clear he expects the Deacons to fail to meet that mark. That is in no small part due to the schedule. Wake Forest travels to Clemson, Georgia Tech and Notre Dame while hosting Florida State, Louisville and North Carolina State.

If the Deacons fail to win any of those games, they would need to run the table to reach bowl eligibility and exceed that win total. Even a theoretical “gimme” game will not be such for Wake Forest, which travels to Appalachian State within the first month of the season. Unlike the Deacons, the Mountaineers received votes in the preseason polls du jour.

Monday, the 14th: Temple
Tuesday, the 15th: Georgia
Wednesday, the 16th: Boston College
Thursday, the 17th: Michigan State
Friday, the 18th: Miami (OH)
Saturday, the 19th: North Carolina
Monday: USC
Yesterday: North Carolina State
Tomorrow: Miami (FL)
Friday: Navy
Saturday: Stanford (The same day as Stanford’s opener vs. Rice in Australia.)

Notre Dame’s Opponents: North Carolina State

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When opponents are described as “trap games,” that typically indicates the foe is only an average team, but Notre Dame will play down to its level for whatever scheduling or otherwise reason. Make no mistake about it: When the Irish host North Carolina State on Oct. 28, they will not be entering a trap game. The Wolfpack will be anything but average this season.

Come year’s end, NC State’s record may be only 8-4 or perhaps 9-3. More than a reflection of the team’s overall talent, that will be an effect of playing in the ACC’s Atlantic Division.

2016 REVIEW
That division ground down the Wolfpack last year. If a particular field goal had found its mark, though, current projections would likely be far more optimistic. Such are the perils of college football and its small sample size.

NC State finished 2016 with a 7-6 overall record, 3-5 in the ACC. If deferring to advanced metrics, it could be quickly argued the Wolfpack performed such they should have won eight or nine games, losing four separate contests by one possession or less while winning only two such games.

The first of those losses came in the season’s second week, 33-30 at East Carolina. From there, NC State rattled off three wins, culminating with the 10-3 victory over Notre Dame in a literal hurricane.

A week later, the aforementioned fateful field goal missed its mark, allowing eventual national champion Clemson to sneak into overtime when hosting the Wolfpack, later prevailing 24-17. That started a four-game losing streak for NC State, including a 54-13 shellacking at Louisville (44-0 at halftime) before stumbling 21-14 vs. Boston College.

Looking to end that disappointing stretch, NC State led Florida State late in the fourth quarter before giving up a touchdown, falling 24-20.

The Wolfpack ended the season with a 41-17 victory over Vanderbilt in the Independence Bowl.

WHAT NC STATE LOST
This section will be quick today, as the Wolfpack lost only three players of distinct note. Running back Matthew Dayes heard his name called in the NFL Draft’s seventh round after leading NC State with 1,166 rushing yards, a 4.7 yards per carry average and 10 touchdowns.

Defensive backs Josh Jones and Jack Tocho also enjoyed the NFL Draft, going in the second and seventh rounds, respectively. Jones led the Wolfpack with 109 tackles last season, adding eight pass breakups and three interceptions, matching Tocho’s nine pass breakups and two interceptions.

WHAT NC STATE GAINED
The Wolfpack signed 20 commits in the class of 2017, the No. 53 class in the country per rivals.com, including two four-star recruits. Defensive tackle Grant Gibson will not see much action this year, but receiver Antoine Thompson could find himself in the mix.

UPDATE: the dismissal of two freshmen and the suspension of threeEarly Tuesday afternoon NC State announced more following an investigation into sexual assault allegations from an incident occurring during the summer. Thompson was one of the two dismissed from the team.

HEAD COACH
Dave Doeren enters his fifth year at NC State with a middling 25-26 record. Even if removing his 3-9 debut, the resulting 22-17 record includes only ho-hum seasons of 8-5, 7-6 and 7-6. Nonetheless, he has a contract through 2019.

Dave Doeren (Getty Images)

This year’s Wolfpack present Doeren his best chance yet to break into the Clemson and Florida State controlled upper-ranks of the division, let alone of the conference. Louisville also remains just below those two powers, however above NC State in recent years.

OFFENSIVE SUMMARY
For a team known for its defense, the Wolfpack still present a dynamic offense. In theory, it should only improve on last year’s 27.0 points per game, now entering offensive coordinator Eliah Drinkwitz’s second season. Drinkwitz came from Boise State, where he held the same role, and now-junior quarterback Ryan Finley followed him in the move. Finley completed 60.4 percent of his passes last season, throwing 18 touchdowns and eight interceptions.

Ryan Finley (Getty Images)

Though Finley loses his most-productive offensive weapon in Dayes, he does return his top-four pass-catchers, with two of them also filling in for Dayes in the backfield. Junior Jaylen Samuels led NC State with 55 receptions last year, taking them for 565 yards and seven touchdowns while also adding 189 rushing yards and six touchdowns on a 5.7 average per carry.

At 5-foot-11, 223 pounds, Samuel will be a bruising back defenses have to fear in all aspects of the game. While keeping an eye on him, they may struggle not to lose senior running back Nyheim Hines, all 5-foot-9, 197 pounds of him. Hines caught 43 passes for 525 yards last season, and will be as much a preferred target of Finley’s as he will be a ballcarrier, if not more so.

Senior receiver Stephen Louis used his deep-threat abilities (19.4 yards per catch) to lead the Wolfpack in receiving yards, totaling 678, while sophomore Kelvin Harmon will line up opposite Louis, fresh off a debut campaign complete with 27 catches for 462 yards and five touchdowns.

With all of these weapons, Finley will have one more luxury: time. The NC State offensive line allowed only 17 sacks last year and returns four starters to continue that trend.

DEFENSIVE SUMMARY
It is the Wolfpack defensive line that remains the entire team’s greatest strength. Four seniors start, led by defensive end Bradley Chubb. In 2016, Chubb managed 10.5 sacks and 11.5 more tackles for loss. If trying to run away from him, opposing offenses find Kentavious Street, who totaled 30 tackles, 5.5 sacks and 3.5 tackles for loss last year. Street may be a preferable choice, but he is not exactly an ideal one.

Bradley Chubb (Getty Images)

On the interior, tackle Justin Jones recorded 43 tackles, three sacks and 3.5 tackles for loss while 6-foot-4, 315-pound BJ Hill fills the middle.

Hill absorbs blockers, freeing the linebackers, primarily senior inside linebacker Jerod Fernandez. He was second on the team in tackles in 2016 with 88. Classmate Airius Moore finished third with 86, not to mention 2.5 sacks and 11 tackles for loss, yet Moore may not even start this year with the return of senior Germaine Pratt from a shoulder injury. Pratt offers more of a coverage set of skills than Moore’s physical game. In some respects, that physicality becomes an expendable luxury thanks to the dominant defensive line.

Some coverage help may be needed thanks to losing both Jones and Tocha. If the secondary does hold up, the Wolfpack could lower an already-impressive average of 22.8 points allowed per game from a year ago. During Doren’s tenure in Raleigh, along with defensive coordinator Dave Huxtable, that average has fallen every season. Their first year saw a mark of 30.2 before improving to 27.0 in 2014 and 25.8 in 2015.

SEASON OUTLOOK
Being competitive will not be enough for NC State this year. Defensive front sevens like this group are rare commodities not to be wasted on psychological breakthroughs. The Wolfpack need to win in 2017, even if the over/under win total is only at 7.5.

That number is low because of the division. NC State’s schedule includes a trip to Florida State and visits from both Louisville and Clemson, as well as North Carolina at the end of the season. If adding in the trip to Notre Dame to that listing of games, the Wolfpack may realistically think of winning three of the five, and a 10-2 record could be enough to land in a top-tier bowl game. Managing only two losses in conference play might also position NC State to be the beneficiary of the division cannibalizing itself.

Monday, the 14th: Temple
Tuesday, the 15th: Georgia
Wednesday, the 16th: Boston College
Thursday, the 17th: Michigan State
Friday, the 18th: Miami (OH)
Saturday, the 19th: North Carolina
Monday: USC
Tomorrow: Wake Forest
Thursday: Miami (FL)
Friday: Navy
Saturday: Stanford (The same day as Stanford’s opener vs. Rice in Australia.)

Notre Dame’s Opponents: USC

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This fall’s schedule places Notre Dame’s bye week directly before the matchup with USC. Spending two weeks preparing for this rendition of the Trojans will be a nice, and likely a needed, luxury. USC is deservedly mentioned in any conversation on College Football Playoff contenders.

2016 REVIEW
Part of the reasoning to holding the Trojans in high esteem entering this season ties to how they ended last year. That strong finish stands in stark contrast to how they opened 2016.

Replacing an NFL-bound quarterback in Cody Kessler and a second-round pick of a linebacker/safety who led their defense in every way in Su’a Cravens, USC struggled on both sides of the ball to begin last season. Frankly, describing the season-opener as a struggle is charitable. The 52-6 loss to Alabama was a complete and utter rout, exactly as the score implies a year later.

A win over Utah State a week later did not give USC enough momentum to handle the following two contests, losses at Stanford and Utah to drop the Trojans to 1-3 after having started the year in the top 20 of both the coaches and the AP polls.

Enter then-sophomore quarterback Sam Darnold. His first career start came against the Utes, and while his presence did not yield a victory that week, he did proceed to lead USC to nine straight wins, culminating with a 52-49 topping of Penn State in a back-and-forth shootout in the Rose Bowl. That positive ending bumped the Trojans to No. 3 in the final coaches poll and No. 5 in the AP.

Also included in the winning streak was a 26-13 victory at Washington, a win USC nearly had a chance to repeat in the Pac 12 championship game, except Colorado finished a game ahead of the Trojans in the South Division. The Buffaloes’ one previous loss in the conference? It indeed came at the hands of Darnold’s group.

WHAT USC LOST
Darnold will need to turn to new targets this year, having lost his top two receivers from 2016. JuJu Smith-Schuster and Darreus Rogers combined to catch 126 passes for 1,610 yards and 14 touchdowns with an average of 12.8 yards per reception.

Juju Smith-Schuster (Getty Images)

Darnold will also be protected by a few new offensive linemen, losing left tackle Chad Wheeler, right tackle Zach Banner and left guard Damien Mama, a former Notre Dame recruiting target.

Defensively, cornerback Adoree’ Jackson was a first-round draft pick. Not only did he have five interceptions last year, but he also had two punt returns and two kick returns for scores. His secondary compatriot, safety Leon McQuay, heard his name called in the sixth round.

WHAT USC GAINED
The country’s No. 6 recruiting class, per rivals.com, featured 23 commits total and 17 four-star prospects. The most-likely of those to see a genuine role this season is running back Stephen Carr. While he will not start or become the primary ballcarrier, barring injury, Carr will likely contribute to the Trojans offense beginning early in the season.

Defensive tackle Marlon Tuipulotu could open the season as a starter, filling in where Stevie Tu’ikolovatu left off.

HEAD COACH
If USC had not turned its season around last September, it is likely Clay Helton would have spent this offseason sweating. Instead, he has found a grip on the position he twice held on an interim basis.

This will be his second full season as the Trojans head coach, following three years as the offensive coordinator under Lane Kiffin, Ed Orgeron and Steve Sarkisian, and three years as Kiffin’s quarterbacks coach.

OFFENSIVE SUMMARY
Darnold has gotten the most hype this offseason, and it is warranted after he completed 67.2 percent of his passes in his 10 starts, throwing 31 touchdowns and only nine interceptions. Yet, Darnold may not be the biggest key to the USC offense. That would be junior running back Ronald Jones. Jones notched 1,082 rushing yards and 12 scores last year, averaging 6.1 yards per carry.

Ronald Jones (Getty Images)

Hence, no matter how highly-touted Carr is, he will not usurp Jones.

Receivers senior Steven Mitchel and junior Deontay Burnett will attempt to keep opposing defenses from focusing only on Jones, along with sophomore tight end Daniel Imatorbhebhe. Burnett caught 56 passes for 622 yards and seven touchdowns last season while Imatorbhebhe averaged 14.7 yards on his 17 catches, finding the end zone four times.

If they can match the production lost from Smith-Schuster and Rogers, the Trojans should be able to exceed last year’s 477 yards per game. For that matter, when Darnold took over as starter, USC’s output jumped to 523.3 yards per game, including 225 rushing yards each week.

DEFENSIVE SUMMARY
Only a third of the teams in the country can claim a linebacker on the Butkus Award Watch List. The Trojans trot out three in junior Cameron Smith (83 tackles, six for loss), junior Porter Gustin (68 tackles, 5.5 sacks, 7.5 tackles for loss) and senior Uchenna Nwosu (53 tackles, three sacks, 4.5 tackles for loss). The trio will ease some of the pressure felt by USC’s secondary as it works to replace Jackson and McQuay.

Overall, the Trojans defense spreads the wealth. Last season nine defenders made at least 50 tackles, five of which return. For context: The Irish had six such tacklers in 2016, four of which return.

SEASON OUTLOOK
USC will have a good 2017. The question is just how good. The coaches poll slotted the Trojans at No. 4. The AP poll, set to be released today (Monday) at noon Eastern, should offer a similar gauge.

If USC gets past Stanford in week two, it will be well on its way toward clearing an over/under win total of 9.5. In the Pac-12 South, the greatest competition will be Utah, who the Trojans host the week before they head to Notre Dame.

Monday: Temple
Tuesday: Georgia
Wednesday: Boston College
Thursday: Michigan State
Friday: Miami (OH)
Saturday: North Carolina
Tuesday, 22nd: North Carolina State
Wednesday, 23rd: Wake Forest
Thursday, 24th: Miami (FL)
Friday, 25th: Navy
Saturday, 26th: Stanford (The same day as Stanford’s opener vs. Rice in Australia.)

Notre Dame’s Opponents: North Carolina

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It illustrates the nature of the NFL Draft that No. 2 overall pick quarterback Mitch Trubisky and eventual second-rounder and former Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer were hardly ever in the same conversation about the 2017 first overall pick. Trubisky rose up draft boards after, and possibly partly due to, Kizer had already fallen down them.

No matter where the two passers went in April’s draft, both their former teams are now adjusting to life without them. Notre Dame’s response to that is clear: Plug junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush into an offense that did not lose much else. North Carolina, meanwhile, has a lot more questions to answer in addition to the quarterback quandary.

2016 REVIEW
In the span of the first week of October, North Carolina went from a possibly program-defining victory to a harsh reminder it is not yet joined the ACC’s elite. From there, the season stumbled forward, culminating in a three-game FBS-level losing streak.

The Tar Heels upended Florida State on Oct. 1 in Tallahassee thanks to a 54-yard game-winning field goal from senior Nick Weiler. Suddenly at 4-1 — with the only loss being a respectable 33-24 defeat to then-No. 18 Georgia in a season kickoff special — North Carolina could think big picture.

Virginia Tech had other ideas. Only a week later, the same team that had just scored a road upset of the No. 12 team in the country fell at home to the No. 25 Hokies by a not-as-close-as-it-sounds score of 34-3.

In the first paragraph of this section, it notes the Tar Heels “stumbled forward” after that loss. That phrasing was chosen to indicate North Carolina did not outright collapse. It, in fact, followed up the clunker with a 20-13 win at No. 16 Miami (FL), raising the Tar Heels’ record in one-possession games to 3-0. Somewhere in the next few weeks, though, that clutch ability disappeared.

North Carolina lost its final three games against FBS foes — the distinction is needed since the Tar Heels slipped in a 41-7 victory over Football Championship Subdivision power The Citadel before their regular season finale — all by one score. Included in that streak: Losses to each of North Carolina’s biggest rivals, 28-27 at Duke and 28-21 vs. North Carolina State.

A 25-23 defeat to No. 16 Stanford in the Sun Bowl dropped the Tar Heels’ record to 8-5, quite a disappointment if looking back on the excitement of the Oct. 1 triumph.

WHAT NORTH CAROLINA LOST
Including Trubisky, six North Carolina contributors were drafted by the NFL this spring. Essentially, all of the Tar Heels’ offensive skill position players departed, including four of their top-five receivers and their top-four rushers (with Trubisky third).

Ryan Switzer (Getty Images)

Ryan Switzer stands out as the most notable receiver, pulling in 96 catches last season for 1,112 yards and six touchdowns. He was also the long-established punt returner, someone who Notre Dame game-planned around controlling back in 2014, and game-planned around successfully, it should be remembered. Elijah Hood, a former Notre Dame commit, and TJ Logan combined to rush for 1,508 yards and 15 touchdowns last year before both hearing their names called at the draft.

On the other side of the ball, North Carolina lost far less, most notably third-round draft pick defensive tackle Nazir Jones, who had 2.5 sacks and 7 more tackles for loss.

The aforementioned Florida State hero, kicker Weiler, also departed.

WHAT NORTH CAROLINA GAINED
The Tar Heels incoming graduate transfers warrant as much, if not more, recognition as the recruiting class. Head coach Larry Fedora seemingly raided the SEC’s cupboards for any suitable spare ingredients, coming away with LSU quarterback Brandon Harris, Florida center Cameron Dillard and Auburn running back Stanton Truitt.

Brandon Harris (Getty Images)

Truitt will need to compete with freshman Michael Carter, who turned down offers from Florida, Tennessee and Louisville to join a 20-member North Carolina recruiting class, rated No. 30 in the country by rivals.com. Receiver J.T. Cauthen joined Carter in the class rather than head to Michigan, Oklahoma or Virginia Tech and considering the exodus of receivers this offseason, could become an immediate contributor.

HEAD COACH
In Fedora’s five seasons at Chapel Hill, he has amassed a 40-25 overall record, making last year’s 8-5 tally exactly average for his tenure. He has led North Carolina to four bowl games in those five years, but making it five out of six will be a difficult task this season.

It should be noted Fedora has shown to prefer a mobile quarterback, even getting 308 yards and five rushing touchdowns out of the prototypical-passer Trubisky. Harris may fit that mold perfectly.

OFFENSIVE SUMMARY
Losing four of its top-five receivers, top-four rushers and quarterback would be hard for any offense to recover from. In order to do so, starting with the offensive line makes sense, and the Tar Heels return three starters plus a promising sophomore right tackle, in addition to the Florida transfer Dillard.

What will remain unclear at least until North Carolina’s opener against Cal, and will probably remain muddled well into the season, is who exactly that line will block for. Truitt and Carter are competing with sophomore Jordan Brown for top running back honors. Shoulder injuries hampered Truitt throughout his time at Auburn. Once finally healthy last season, he took 31 carries for 187 yards and two touchdowns while catching seven passes for another 100 yards and a score. Those numbers may be modest, but they easily trump Brown’s totals of 20 carries for 45 yards and a touchdown.

Of the three, Carter has received the most hype. He may not be the lead back to begin the season, but six weeks in it is distinctly possible the freshman will have absorbed enough to take that role.

Presumably, Harris will start at quarterback. It is not a sure thing, and junior Nathan Elliott has reportedly been given an equal share of repetitions in preseason practice, but the dual-threat Harris makes the most sense. Either way, the quarterback will be looking to an inexperienced receiver corps led by senior Austin Proehl, the son of former NFL receiver Ricky Proehl. The younger Proehl totaled 43 catches for 597 yards and three touchdowns last year, finishing third on the team in both of the first two categories.

DEFENSIVE SUMMARY
On the complete opposite end of the returning players spectrum when compared to the offense, North Carolina’s defense returns its top three tacklers and all of its linebackers, led by senior Cole Holcomb (115 tackles) and junior Andrew Smith (113). Century tacklers are somewhat rare in college football, making it even more notable the Tar Heels return a third in senior safety Donnie Miles and his 102 takedowns.

Cole Holcomb (Getty Images)

Losing Jones in the middle is no small thing, but then again, this defense allowed 227.3 rushing yards per game in 2016. Plugging in junior Aaron Crawford (6-foot-1, 310 pounds) could bolster that aspect of containment, even if he is not necessarily as much of a presence in the backfield as Jones was.

Senior cornerback MJ Stewart could have probably declared for the draft, instead opting to return to build on a season in which he broke up 11 passes, leading a secondary that rated No. 12 in the country against the pass.

The Tar Heels defense did lose one more additional piece: Defensive coordinator Gene Chizik retired. Linebackers coach John Papuchis takes over, meaning continuity should lead to little drop-off.

SEASON OUTLOOK
North Carolina scored 32.3 points per game in 2016, a low in Fedora’s time there. It is hard to believe an entirely new offense will top that number this season, putting even more pressure on the defense. That defense, however, performed at a level consistent with Fedora’s tenure, allowing 24.9 points per game. Aside from 2014’s 39.0 points allowed per game, which led to Chizik’s arrival, Fedora’s defenses have given up between 24.5 and 25.7 points.

All this is to say, matching last year’s 8-5 seems a tall order. It is more likely the Tar Heels fall short of their over/under win total of 7, finishing fifth or sixth in the ACC’s Coastal Division.

Monday: Temple
Tuesday: Georgia
Wednesday: Boston College
Thursday: Michigan State
Yesterday: Miami (OH)
Tomorrow: Bye Week
Monday, the 21st: USC
Tuesday, 22nd: North Carolina State
Wednesday, 23rd: Wake Forest
Thursday, 24th: Miami (FL)
Friday, 25th: Navy
Saturday, 26th: Stanford (The same day as Stanford’s opener vs. Rice in Australia.)