The latest in our preseason Q&A is SB Nation's Notre Dame blog, One Foot Down (because the USF blog hasn't responded). Eric Murtaugh was kind enough to answer some questions about the Irish. You can read my answers to his questions here.
1. Obviously, the biggest news this offseason has been the loss of Everett Golson. How much of a dropoff do you really expect between him and Tommy Rees? Because Rees has won a lot of game and put up big numbers (including turnovers).
I guess it depends upon how you define drop-off. The offense last year was quietly very effective (12th in FEI) but was painfully conservative for long stretches and didn't finish off many long drives with touchdowns. So if we're looking at the Irish staying around 12th in the nation according to FEI offense, I doubt that happens. On the other side of the coin, Notre Dame only averaged 25.8 points per game and I really don't see them dropping below that number either.
Rees has proven he can put up some big passing numbers and he has plenty of experience heading into his senior season. As always, the drop-off might come down to turnovers. I expect the running game to be a little less effective but the passing game is probably in line for a healthy boost. Both would have been boosted with Golson under center, so there's that angle as well, but Rees can be quite capable if he's not throwing dumb interceptions.
The loss of Golson also puts more pressure on playmakers outside of Rees to step up, particularly new players who haven't seen the field for Notre Dame. Two players in particular, USC transfer Amir Carlisle and incoming 5-star running back Greg Bryant, have the ability to make a big impact right away and add a new athletic dimension to the Irish offense.
2. Notre Dame was carried by its defense last year. Manti Te'o is gone, but a number of starters returns. Will this again be one of the top defenses in the nation? What has made it so good over the past few years?
I don't know if we'll see the Irish defense keep opponents under 13 points per game like they did last year but in most respects I think the defense can indeed be better than in 2012.
I expect the defense to be more aggressive and take more chances. Whether that leads to more sacks and interceptions or long touchdowns given up we will have to see but the pieces are there for a dominant unit.
They've been so good over the past couple years because they've been able to stop the run on a regular basis. That has always been the coaching staff's goal and everything else has worked off that achievement. Personnel-wise, the Irish have really had a few studs in the front seven that have wreaked havoc on opponents beginning with nose guard Louis Nix. At defensive end, Stephon Tuitt adds a combination of size and speed that is pretty ridiculous. Those 2 blue-chippers really anchor the whole defense.
Losing Te'o will hurt of course but the defense does have co-starters coming back at the Will linebacker spot opposite that opening Manti left, and the coaches are very high on the projected starter Jarrett Grace.
The secondary really looked frightening before the season but they held up really well---with help from that front seven. Both starting corners are well regarded and rising sophomore KeiVarae Russell has the talent to be the best at this position at Notre Dame in a very long time. They'll have to replace one safety but the secondary as a whole returns a ton of bodies and everyone seems quite pleased with the progress of sophomore Elijah Shumate---plus freshman Max Redfield arrives as the highest-rated safety recruit for Notre Dame in many years.
Overall, losing just 1 players at each level of the defense and literally no one else should equal a very, very good defense again for Notre Dame.
3. ND wasn't expected to "make it" last year, but a number of close wins and impressive wins resulted in an appearance in the national championship. Although the quarterback is gone, can this year's team be better than last year, even if the record doesn't show it? What are the expectations?
Who knows what expectations are from this fan base! Personally, I just want them to keep the good mojo going. They've certainly had their fair share of bad mojo since the New Year began and it'd be nice to at least win 9 or 10 games and maybe get a major bowl victory. Even after last year I can't raise my expectations to the point where I'm expecting another 12-0 regular season---especially after losing the quarterback of the future.
It's been said elsewhere but there's a good chance that this 2013 team (and maybe the next couple Irish teams) are technically "better" in many areas but won't have the shiny record that Notre Dame had last fall. Brian Kelly has continued to improve the program in so many areas---and at some point there will be a leveling off---but this will be the first year where his recruits are starting to take on major roles on the field and with leadership. We might not see a 12-0 season, and I don't expect one, but I do expect continued and sustained success---something Notre Dame has missed out on for 15 years.
4. ND won't be playing Michigan in the future, but it looks likes the series against MSU and Purdue will continue with some breaks from time to time. How much of this was because of history between the latter two teams, and how much was about Michigan being a historically stronger program?
There are a lot of reasons why Notre Dame is choosing to blaze the path that they are and they all have some truth. In regards to Michigan I think Notre Dame was looking at it like this: We're going to diversify our schedule, we're going to try and move away from playing so many games in the Midwest, and we could never really trust Michigan to remain a solid partner on the schedule. So Michigan can whine that the Irish were "chicken" of them and don't want to keep a tough game on their schedule but the Wolverines had already backed out of games first, the series was ending anyway, and Notre Dame just pulled the trigger on ending the series a little shorter than scheduled. Anyone with a history of the ND-UM rivalry knows that if ND didn't pull the trigger Michigan would have tried to do the same after hosting the last home game.
In contrast, there is much more trust and respect with Michigan State and Purdue---and I think both schools genuinely want to keep the rivalry going. It may not seem that important to some people but I think Notre Dame really values that type of relationship and that's why the Spartans and Boilers are getting priority today.
It's pretty clear that Notre Dame is making room for the 5 ACC games and carving out who the true rivals are: USC, Navy, Stanford, with Michigan State and Purdue bringing up the rear.
5. MSU had owned South Bend for a while, but has lost the past two games there. What are your early thoughts on that game?
I'm a pretty big believer in Michigan State's defense and as I wrote in my summer preview a few weeks ago I expect that dominant defense to continue---and maybe get even better. With a strong defense anything can happen.
Looking at the MSU offense, I feel pretty good about the game mostly because I thought the Spartan offensive line has left a lot to be desired in the past and I don't know how much that will change this year. With the loss of Le'Veon Bell and a quarterback that isn't striking any fear into opponents I really like Notre Dame's chances of playing well and keeping the points down on defense.
Thanks again to Eric for taking the time to answer some questions. Check out One Foot Down for all things ND.