Notre Dame expects to make it back to the BCS Championship after January's 42-14 throttling by Alabama -- the game is, quite literally, on their schedule. But if they're going to reach that goal, or at the least a berth in a BCS bowl, they'll have to answer these five questions:
1. Can Tommy Rees cut it?
Front and center this fall is Rees, two years removed from a turnover-riddled stint as Notre Dame's starting quarterback and an 8-5 season. But that was 2011, under a different offensive coordinator and with an offense featuring a completely different makeup. He's two years older, has the respect and trust of his teammates...but none of that will matter if he throws 14 interceptions again.
Consider this: SB Nation's Matt Hinton put together a neat little graphic comparing Rees in 2010-2011 to Golson in 2012. There are plenty of similarities, and Rees scores better in a few categories. Where Golson won out: Interceptions. That's not the only reason for a four-win bump, but it's certainly a big one.
2. Who emerges as a playmaker?
In the last few years, Notre Dame's had the luxury of having Michael Floyd, Tyler Eifert, Theo Riddick and Cierre Wood on its roster -- all go-to offensive options who could be generally be counted on to make a play when necessary. The Irish don't have any established options anymore, outside of senior wideout T.J. Jones. For instance, none of its six running backs had a carry (or, in the case of Greg Bryant and Tarean Folston, were with the team) in the BCS Championship.
DaVaris Daniels showed flashes of promise, while Chris Brown did as well in very limited time. Freshman receivers Corey Robinson and James Onwualu are likely to get in, but are still green. Coaches like Jones -- Brian Kelly said he thinks he'll be a first-round pick next year -- but can his crisp route-running translate into more than 50 catches, his total last year? Can Troy Niklas, who caught five passes last year, step up along with Alex Welch and Ben Koyack to fill Tyler Eifert's shoes?
The good news here is that there's such a wealth of talent at the skill positions that the best bet is someone will emerge. And whoever that is, the other bit of good news is that there will be plenty of depth behind him.
3. Can Stephon Tuitt hold up?
Tuitt was on pace to break Justin Tuck's single-season school sack record last fall, recording 8 1/2 sacks in Notre Dame's first seven games. But he was slowed partly by a hernia in the latter half of the season and didn't register a sack in four of Notre Dame's final six games. He missed time in spring practice as he recovered from surgery, and put on nearly 20 pounds in the offseason as his operation continued to limit him in summer workouts.
His weight could be a non-issue a few weeks from now, but the Irish have precariously thin depth at defensive end now that Tony Springmann is out for the season. At his best, Tuitt is an elite defensive end, someone who was a bit overlooked last year in light of all the (deserved) Jadeveon Clowney hype. But if he can't stay on the field consistently and his production slows again, it'll be an added headache for a team without a large margin for error in their quest to make a BCS bowl.
4. Will special teams improve?
Last year, Notre Dame was about average in field goal kicking and punting and bad in kick and punt returns. The field goal kicking will be handled by either Kyle Brindza or Nick Tausch (the best bet, right now, is on Tausch) while Brindza or Alex Wulfeck will take over punting duties. Improvement in kicking and punting would help, but more notably, the Irish could stand to generate more yards on kick and punt returns.
Notre Dame's offense needs to score more points -- that's been Kelly's mantra for months -- and getting some better field position of punts and kicks would be a nice boost to those efforts.
5. Can they win the close ones again?
I covered this earlier this week, but for a team that's strength will be its defense, Notre Dame can expect to be in plenty of close games again this fall. The Irish won all five games decided by seven points or fewer last year, something players chalked up to a combination of preparation, skill, mentality and, of course, a bit of luck.
Notre Dame would certainly prefer to not play in so many tight games, but few teams can navigate a 12-game regular season schedule without a nail-biter or two. Winning those games, ultimately, will likely be what separates Notre Dame from a BCS bowl and a lower-tier game.