Opponent preview: South Florida

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This is the first of twelve opponent previews, profiling Notre Dame’s 2011 opponents. Get ready for a heavy dose of reading as we lead into the September.

The Overview:

The season opener won’t be shy on storylines when Notre Dame welcomes South Florida to South Bend for the first time in the program’s history. With former Irish player and coach Skip Holtz on the sidelines for the Bulls, even casual followers will take notice as Dr. Lou‘s son gets his first chance to lead a team against the family’s favorite team. USF is building off some late season momentum, as the Bulls won five of their last seven games in 2010, capping the season with a bowl victory over Clemson. A Big East darkhorse, Holtz will need to get more from an offense that struggled, while riding a defense that was one of the top 25 in the country last season.

Last time against the Irish:

This is the first time South Florida has played Notre Dame.

Degree of Difficulty:

Of the 12 games the Irish play this season, I’ve got South Florida ranked as the seventh toughest opponent on the 2011 slate.

The Match-up:

Athletically, B.J. Daniels is one of the most dangerous quarterbacks the Irish will face this year. It’ll be up to Holtz and offensive coordinator Todd Fitch to help Daniels assimilate into the offense better than he did last year, a step back statistically for the redshirt junior. Helping make Daniels more comfortable will be a running game anchored by Demetris Murray and transfer Darrell Scott, the former all-everything five-star recruit who failed to make an impact at Colorado. Auburn transfer Dontae Aycock, who looked like a another power option, walked away from the team in fall camp, making depth in the backfield a question mark, to go along with an offensive line that needs to replace three starters, including two-time All-Big East center Sampson Genus. The passing game will rely on A.J. Love‘s recovery from a torn ACL as well as converted quarterback Evan Landi, the team’s leading returning receiver. Diminutive Lindsey Lamar was the Big East’s special teams player of the year, and will likely spend more time with the offense.

Defensively, the Bulls will need to replace Terrell McClain, an All-Big East defensive tackle that went in the third round of the NFL Draft. They’ll try to do it with speed, as linebackers DeDe Lattimore and Sam Barrington return, as do a plethora of defensive ends with pass rush ability, led by sophomore Ryan Giddins. Anchoring the secondary will be safety Jerrell Young, with upperclassmen Quenton Washington and Kayvon Webster starting at cornerback. Coordinating the unit will be former Marshall head coach Mark Snyder, who spent a long time with former Ohio State coach Jim Tressel at both Ohio State and Youngstown State.

How the Irish will win:

With the Bulls breaking in a new offensive line and the Irish stout against the run, Notre Dame will use the same blueprint they did against Miami, confounding an athletic quarterback and forcing him to make a few big mistakes through the air. If the Irish can jump out front with a few quick scores, forcing USF into a one-dimensional offensive attack doesn’t bode well for Skip Holtz’s squad. Behind a strong defensive performance, and a balanced offensive performance, the Irish should be able to coast to an easy victory.

How the Irish will lose:

It isn’t hard to imagine Skip Holtz getting his team awfully fired up to play in Notre Dame Stadium and awaken a program that many think is a sleeping giant. Special teams ace Lindsey Lamar could break something open in the return game and quarterback B.J. Daniels has the legs to make it a very long day for the Irish defense. The Bulls have speed to burn on defense and if they force the Irish into passing situations they’ll be able to disrupt an Irish offense that needs balance to be successful. If Holtz and the Bulls get off to a quick start, they could shock the Irish, springboarding USF to a season that could end with a BCS appearance.

Gut Feeling:

The wise guys in Las Vegas have Notre Dame a little bit more than a ten-point favorite. That feels about right to me, with the Irish showing a far more explosive offense on opening day than they showed throughout all of 2010.