Senior Writer

Independents preview: South Bend hype reasonable this time


Senior Dayne Crist and sophomore Tommy Reese are locked in an August QB battle. (US Presswire)  
Senior Dayne Crist and sophomore Tommy Reese are locked in an August QB battle. (US Presswire)  

This being August, there are a few certainties in South Bend: Hope, optimism, and unbridled, wide-eyed, foam-at-the-mouth, car-honking anticipation.

This being August, it's also time to issue this rejoinder: As you were, Irish.

Give a Domer a whiff of promise and pretty soon he's on a street corner somewhere sniffing it out of a paper bag. Hooked. Point is, it doesn't take much for Notre Dame honks to look at the bright side of life this time of year. Especially with the Irish coming off a four-game, season-ending winning streak topped by a Sun Bowl victory over the program formerly known as Miami.

This is not to doubt the Irish could play in another BCS bowl game (their third) after a five-year absence. Notre Dame being Notre Dame, all it would take is something like a 9-3 record.

But there is the dreaming of August and the reality of December. That's when the BCS bowls will make their picks. True, ND has the schedule, momentum and maybe even the players to make a run, but let's slow down a minute.

If you believe in Brian Kelly, the only way it happens this year is if he has a quarterback -- a difference-making quarterback. Kelly came to South Bend because he was perhaps the best developer of that position in the country. That, and he's a turnaround artist. Kelly leaves programs better than he finds them.

Neither has happened yet at Notre Dame. There's time, though not much of it as Kelly will tell you.

"We know what the expectations are at Notre Dame," the coach said, "but we're still building this football team for 2011."

The good: Notre Dame enters the season with its highest ranking (No. 18 in the coaches' poll) since 2006. Kelly enters the season as the fourth-winningest active coach (by winning percentage), slightly behind Joe Paterno.

The bad: Only once since 2003 has Notre Dame finished the season ranked higher at the end of the season in the AP poll than it began.

And about that quarterback thing, there is still uncertainty. Senior Dayne Crist and sophomore Tommy Rees are running even 15 days before the Sept. 3 season opener against South Florida. Crist, 4-5 as a starter in 2010, is back from surgery to repair a ruptured patellar tendon in a knee. Rees is making a bid after throwing for eight touchdowns in the final four games.

Either guy could become a star but, so far, neither has. And it has to be troubling that neither has taken the lead at this point in camp. Kelly is hinting at playing both after huddling with Urban Meyer in the offseason. Meyer was in town for a speaking engagement during the offseason and still loves Notre Dame from his time there as an assistant (1996-2000).

His advice: Remember Tim Tebow complementing Chris Leak in 2006. There is no national title for Florida that year without a young Tebow being Leak's big-play sidekick.

"Your first inclination has been that Dayne has slipped," Kelly said. "He has not. He's much better ... But Tommy Rees came in as a blank slate. He didn't have any other systems that we had to flush out. So Tommy has really hit the ground running."

Neither will do much of anything unless Michael Floyd returns as the game-changing wideout he began developing into in 2010. That Floyd is returning at all is a huge boost. Following a third alcohol-related offense, he made it through Notre Dame's notorious Office of Residence Life and Kelly's suspension to get back on the field.

"The past is the past," Floyd said. "I just have to make sure that the decisions I make are good because they are going to follow me forever."

It seems like he gets it. Now if either quarterback can get him the ball consistently, Notre Dame could fulfill that BCS dream. Floyd has that classic receiver's body (6-foot-3, 224) that allowed him to break out last season with 79 catches and 12 touchdowns.

Kelly might even have a bit of swagger back in his offense. There's a chance that fans will love celebrated 2009 recruit Cierre Wood as much has he loves himself.

"I don't think, I know I'm beautiful," the running back told Irish Sports Report. "I like to see myself on camera, on TV ... Not to be conceited but I like the way I look."

Fans will like him more if he improves on last season's 603 rushing yards.

At Cincinnati, Kelly's offense had to outscore other teams. At Notre Dame this season, he has a legitimate defense. Eight starters return from a group that got steadily better as the season went on. In the last three regular-season games the D allowed 160 yards less per game than it did in the first nine.

"I think you are going to see a completely different team," linebacker Manti Te'o said. "We will be more seasoned and confident."

Irish honks just want a whiff of that success because they're already hooked on 2011.'s Jerry Hinnen rates the independents

1. Notre Dame

While much of the preseason discussion surrounding the Irish has focused on the quarterback battle (see above), just as key for the Irish's BCS hopes -- as has been the case for years -- will be the continued improvement of the Notre Dame defense. After giving up 63 points in back-to-back losses to Navy and Tulsa, Bob Diaco's unit responded by allowing just 39 in their final four games of 2010. With eight starters returning, junior linebacker Manti Te'o poised to become a national breakout star, and blue-chip recruits at each and every position (particularly defensive end, where Aaron Lynch highlighted the nation's best DE haul last spring), there's no reason the Irish can't maintain their late-2010 defensive surge. The schedule isn't exactly welcoming -- even if every game is winnable, nearly all of them are loseable, too -- but if Te'o and company perform to their ample potential, the Irish could manage it to the tune of double-digit wins all the same. Get real-time Notre Dame updates

2. Brigham Young

After the most un-BYU season in memory (when was the last time it took the Cougars nine weeks to top 25 points? Or they finished outside the top 70 in total offense?), offensive coordinator Robert Anae is out and Brandon Doman is in. And Doman couldn't ask for much more to work with -- his offense returns 10 starters, including rapidly-improving sophomore quarterback Jake Heaps and leading rusher/receiver (yes, both) J.J. DiLuigi. But even if the Cougars look more like BYU on the scoreboard, they might not yet in the win column; their road slate of Texas, Ole Miss, Oregon State, TCU, and Hawaii ranks among the nation's most difficult. With a defense hamstrung by a gutted secondary, it will be tough for the Cougars to do much better than their already-guaranteed Armed Forces Bowl berth.

3. Navy

The academic standards and lineup turnover endemic to a service academy wouldn't seem to lend itself towards making one of the nation's most consistent programs, but that's just what the Midshipmen have become in the Paul Johnson/Ken Niumatalolo era. Navy hasn't won fewer than eight games or more than 10 since 2002, and even without Ricky Dobbs and 11 other 2010 starters, don't expect that to change this season. Four returning starters make the offensive line as experienced as it's been in years, and Alexander Teich is a star-in-waiting at running back. Despite being a new starter, senior quarterback Kriss Proctor already knows the triple-option system inside-and-out. And senior end Jabaree Tuani should give Navy a potent pass rush. No, they might not be quite the caliber of the Dobbs-led Midshipmen of the past two seasons ... but they'll still be Navy.

4. Army

Is this the year the streak ends? Though it's got a ways to go to match Navy's famous losing run against Notre Dame, the Black Knights' nine-year drought against their Annapolis archrivals no doubt feels almost as long in West Point. Having narrowly outgained the Midshipmen in the 2010 meeting, and with the potent 1-2 rushing punch of junior quarterback Trent Steelman and junior running back Jared Hassin still intact, the Knights surely believe this is their time. But it won't be easy: the lines return just one starter apiece, the defensive center may not hold with both middle linebackers and both safeties gone, and random chance dictates Army won't have the benefit of a plus-16 turnover margin again. Combine those losses with a schedule that drops a few easy wins for tougher opponents like San Diego State, Northern Illinois, and Northwestern, and Rich Ellerson will have done a fine job if he gets his squad back to the postseason -- regardless of whether the streak ends or not.

Anyone in need of a credential from all the BCS title games? Dennis Dodd has them. In three decades in the business, he's covered everything from the Olympics to Stanley Cup to conference realignment. Just get him on campus in a press box in the fall. His heart lies with college football.

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