Is Notre Dame a national championship contender?

Published August 25, 2011

| Sports Network

Notre Dame improved its record by just one game in Brian Kelly's first season as head coach, but many preseason publications have the Fighting Irish ranked in the top 10. (They are 16th in the AP.) It is true the talent level in South Bend is as high as it has been in quite some time. Still, there are more than a few possible pitfalls in the schedule that should preclude them from finishing among the elite this upcoming season.

The Irish went 7-4-2 against-the-spread last year, but are 7-17-2 as home favorites the last five campaigns. The offense took a step back a season ago averaging more than a field goal less per game (compared to '09). However, most of that was due to breaking in two quarterbacks after Jimmy Clausen left for the NFL. Look for much higher totals this year as both Dayne Crist and Tommy Rees are more experienced. Furthermore, the offensive line should dominate once again. Don't forget, this group allowed just five sacks over the final six games.

Defensively, Notre Dame returns its top six tacklers from a unit that allowed 20 points per game - down six points from ���09. The defense will only get better, especially since the four new opponents on the schedule (South Florida, Wake Forest, Air Force, and Maryland) do not have the same explosiveness of the teams the Fighting Irish will not face this season.

The only knock against the Irish could be the schedule that has them on the road six times. Last year, they played just three true road contests.

Notre Dame is a high-quality football team that will win nine regular season games, but will not have a chance to compete for the national title.

Brigham Young makes its way into the land of independents after a 7-6 campaign, which included a 52-24 romp over Texas-El Paso in the New Mexico Bowl. The Cougars, 8-5 ATS a year ago, are 0-4 ATS in their last four games against teams from the WAC. Why is that an important number? Well, they have five games this season against teams from that conference.

For BYU to improve from its 6-6 regular season straight-up mark, the offense must pick up the pace after averaging only 26 ppg. The points did come in bunches the second half of the season and the Cougars lose only one starter - guard Jason Speredon. As will be the case with Notre Dame, look for massive offensive improvements in '11.

However, unlike the Fighting Irish, the defense will not dominate, particularly against teams that like to throw the football. BYU had one of the better pass defenses in the country last season ranking eighth nationally in defensive quarterback completion percentage. Three starters from the secondary have departed taking with them 15 interceptions over the last two years.

The Cougars, who finished last year covering their final five games, should start the new season strong against-the-spread. They'll also win seven games SU and play in the Armed Forces Bowl.

NAVY AND ARMY

Navy went 7-5 ATS last season. The Midshipmen are an amazing 18-6 as road underdogs since ���03. They also have had extremely consistent offenses the last three seasons averaging between 27 and 30 ppg. However, it might be difficult to reach those totals without quarterback Ricky Dobbs. Not only did he lead the team in rushing the last two years, but he also was one of the finest passers the team has had in recent memory. The offense will be more predictable this season so look for the scoring average to drop.

The defense allowed 4.6 yards per carry last season, its highest total since '01. Expect more of the same in '11 with the loss of eight starters. Navy has given up over 30 ppg just one time over the last eight years, but it could happen again, especially with South Carolina and Southern Miss added to the schedule.

Don't be shocked if the Midshipmen finish with only six straight-up victories after winning eight games or more each of the last eight years.

Army went 6-6 ATS last season. The Black Knights are 3-12 as home underdogs the last six years.

Despite outscoring their opponents (27 to 24), the Black Knights averaged almost a full yard less per play than the opposition. One main reason why they were able to win seven games was due to a plus 16 in the turnover department. With the loss of four offensive line starters, a more difficult schedule, and a slight reversal in the turnover ratio, Army's points-per-game average should drop from 27 down to 20.

Speaking of the schedule, the defense will really be affected by having to face the likes of Northern Illinois, San Diego State, and Northwestern. Furthermore, last year's unit returned five of its top six tacklers, and players who recorded 19 of 23 sacks. This season, the defense returns just two of its top eight tacklers and players who recorded approximately one-third of the 25 sacks. In addition, of the six players who intercepted a pass last year (14 total team picks), only Josh Jackson returns and he picked off just one pass.

Army will not come close to reaching a bowl game this season. In fact, the Black Knights will win only three of their 12 contests.

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