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TODAY at No. 19: NOTRE DAME Coach: Brian Kelly (45-20, entering sixth season; 216-77-2) 2014 record: 8-5, Independent Look back: Notre Dame opened last...

college football free pickTODAY at No. 19: NOTRE DAME

Coach: Brian Kelly (45-20, entering sixth season; 216-77-2)

2014 record: 8-5, Independent

Look back: Notre Dame opened last season by winning its first six games and quickly climbed the top 25 rankings. The Irish reached as high as No. 5 before facing No. 2 Florida State on the road. A back-and-forth contest ended with Notre Dame dropping its first game of the season by a score of 31-27 following a controversial offensive pass interference call. cracks were beginning to show and the team dropped four of its last five games, including losses to Northwestern and Louisville. But Brian Kelly’s team bounced back for a thrilling 31-28 win over LSU in the Music City Bowl.

Offensive starters returning: 8

Offensive starters lost: 3

Defensive starters returning: 10

Defensive starters lost: 1

Key losses: S Austin Collinsworth, OL Conor Hanratty, OL Matt Hegarty, TE Ben Koyack, OL Christian Lombard, RB Cam McDaniel, CB Cody Riggs, S Ernie Soto, DL Justin Utupo, K/P Kyle Brindza,

Top returnees: QB Malik Zaire, RB Tarean Folston, WR Chris Brown, WR Will Fuller, OL Ronnie Stanley, OL Nick Martin, OL Steve Elmer, DE Isaac Rochell, DT Jarron Jones, DT Shelton Day, LB Jaylon Smith, CB Cole Luke, S Elijah Shumate, S Max Redfield

Strengths:
Notre Dame took a major step backward defensively last season, allowing more than 29 points and 400 yards per game – both program highs under Brian Kelly. After starting out strong, the defense appeared to lose steam later in the season. Defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder shouldn’t have that problem this season, with a more experienced line. The group features four players with more than 57 career starts, led by senior Sheldon Day. The unit had nine of the team’s 26 sacks while combing for 26 quarterback hits in 2014.

Junior Jaylon Smith is back anchoring the linebackers after leading the team in tackles (112). Last season, Notre Dame allowed 233 yards per game through the air while allowing teams to complete more than 60 percent of their pass attempts. The secondary features three starters from last season, including safeties Elijah Shumate (66 tackles, INT) and Max Redfield (68 tackles, INT). The group will also get back cornerback KeiVarae Russell, who sat out last season due to an academic suspension.

Weaknesses: The challenge faces Kelly and his staff is moving on without Everett Golson, who chose to transfer to Florida State for his final year of eligibility. Golson’s departure eliminates any controversy surrounding who will start in 2015. That job falls to Malik Zaire, whose first career start was during Notre Dame’s win over LSU in the Music City Bowl, where he earned most valuable player honors. The junior’s experience is limited – five career games played – but he’s shown hints he can do big things in those games.

Meanwhile, Notre Dame continues its search for a solid rushing attack. The Irish haven’t had a 1,000-yard rusher since Cierre Wood in 2011 and a program known for its ground game hasn’t been able to find its stride as of late. Tarean Folston was the team’s leading rusher with 889 yards and he rushed for at least 100 years in four games last season.

Kyle Brindza was Notre Dame’s jack-of-all-trades in the kicking game, handling kickoffs, punts and place-kicking duties. His departures means the Irish will turn to freshman Justin Yoon.

Outlook: There’s no denying all eyes will be on Zaire this fall. Golson’s exit seemed inevitable thanks to a season-high 22 turnovers last season. Despite the quarterback change, this is one of the deepest and most-experienced teams Kelly and his staff have had to work with since arriving in South Bend. Anything less than a double-digit win season seems like a letdown.

2015 SCHEDULE

Sept. 5 Texas

Sept. 12 at Virginia

Sept. 19 Georgia Tech

Sept. 26 UMass

Oct. 3 at Clemson

Oct. 10 Navy

Oct. 17 USC

Oct. 31 at Temple

Nov. 7 at Pittsburgh

Nov. 14 Wake Forest

Nov. 21 vs. Boston College

Nov. 28 at Stanford

Vincent Rizzo

College Football / College Basketball Handicapper. 2011 won 74%, 2012 won 72% 2015 SPECIAL. CALL, 877.WIN.ATS9 EMAIL,V@VincentRizzoSports.com

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