Like Notre Dame, South Florida had a new coach in 2010, and Skip Holtz proved to be a worthy successor to Jim Leavitt, the architect of the Bulls' program. Holtz and his club finished 8-5, and the season concluded with a victory over Clemson in the Car Care Bowl. With a respectable amount of talent back in place, the Bulls are expected to at least maintain that win total.
Notre Dame hasn't been ranked higher to start a season since 2006. Like Holtz, Kelly led his new team to an 8-5 finish in 2010, and the former Cincinnati leader is the first coach to record a bowl victory in his first season on the Irish sidelines. This 2011 Notre Dame squad is loaded with talent on both sides of the ball, and while fans of the Irish are viewing this season with guarded optimism, at least the skill level seems to warrant the hype.
This clash marks the first-ever meeting between the Bulls and the Irish on the gridiron.
Holtz benefited at times from having a young star in quarterback B.J. Daniels, but the mobile sophomore signal caller had his share of growing pains. Daniels threw for over 1,600 yards with 11 touchdowns and five more on the ground, but he threw 13 interceptions, including untimely picks against Florida and West Virginia. Daniels was hurt in a win over Miami, but he came back to lead South Florida in the bowl win, setting up the right segue into his junior season. Holtz will be pushing for an elevated performance this year out of his quarterback.
"Being in coaching for 25 years, there haven't been many quarterbacks that I've been around that have that type of athleticism to turn and go play any position on the field athletically, but can then turn and throw the ball," says Holtz of Daniels, who will be under center despite a sore hamstring.
The Bulls' second-leading receiver, Evan Landi, is back after recording 13.9 yards per catch average a year ago, and sophomore Sterling Griffin and senior AJ Love return to the starting lineup following season-ending injuries in early 2010. Also, USF will have some athleticism to help Daniels in the backfield. Darrell Scott, a transfer who made four starts at Colorado, will provide a solid complement to the club's leading returning runner, Demetris Murray.
On the defensive side of the ball, the Bulls lost a significant amount of talent up front, but end Patrick Hampton and tackle Keith McCaskill are skilled enough to soften the blow. Cory Grissom returns after starting 13 games at nose tackle a year ago, and the Bulls are expecting big things from end Ryne Giddins, who sat out 2009 and played in 12 games a year ago.
The Bulls return their second-leading tackler in outside linebacker Dede Lattimore, who is just a sophomore. Sam Barrington is back for his senior season after registering 65 tackles in 12 starts as a junior. In the defensive backfield, keep an eye on junior strong safety Jon Lejiste, a 2010 Third Team All-Big East pick.
The USF defense figures to have its hands full on Saturday, as Notre Dame welcomes back nine starters on offense. Last year, for the first time since 1983, Notre Dame had two quarterbacks each pass for over 1,000 yards. Both are back, and senior Dayne Crist (nine starts, 2,033 yds, .592, 15 TDs, seven INTs) has gotten the nod over Tommy Rees (four starts, 1,106 yds, .610, 12 TDs, eight INTs) to start this opener against the Bulls.
Crist will clearly benefit from the presence of star wideout Michael Floyd, who was reinstated on August 3 from a suspension in March following a drunk driving arrest. Last season, Floyd had 79 catches -- the second highest single-season total in school history -- for 1,025 yards and 12 touchdowns. The 6-3 senior has 171 catches for 2,539 yards and a school-record 28 touchdowns in his career.
Add tailback Cierre Wood to the mix and the Irish certainly aren't short on playmakers. Last season, Wood averaged 5.1 yards per rushing attempt in a time-share situation and is the top back on the depth chart this season.
Switching focus to the Notre Dame defense, there is a wealth of returning talent with nine starters back in place. Notre Dame went back to a 3-4 base defense in 2010, and Manti Te'o clearly flourished in that scheme. The star linebacker registered a team-high 133 tackles in 2010, which included 9.5 TFLs. Te'o was held out of spring drills while recovering from a knee injury suffered in the Sun Bowl, but he is expected to be at full speed for this opener, bad news for the Bulls.
All four starters return in the secondary, led by senior safety Harrison Smith, who ranked second on the team with 93 tackles and led the squad with seven interceptions (fourth nationally) and seven pass breakups. Of his seven picks, five came during Notre Dame's four-game win streak to close out the season. The defensive front line is strong as well with senior defensive end Ethan Johnson leading the way.