After posting an undefeated regular season and earning a berth in the 2013 BCS National Championship Game, the Notre Dame football program had plenty of reason for optimism as it looked ahead to the upcoming campaign.
However, the Fighting Irish were delivered an unexpected blow earlier this week when it was announced that starting quarterback Everett Golson is academically ineligible for the fall semester.
Golson addressed his suspension in a statement released by the school.
"I have been informed by the University of Notre Dame that due to my poor academic judgement that I have been suspended from the University for the 2013 fall term," Golson said. "I take full responsibility for my poor choices and will do all that is asked of me to regain the trust of my family, friends, teammates, coaches and the entire Notre Dame community."
"There have been many lessons learned as I worked to become the starting quarterback at Notre Dame and each was a result of Coach (Brian) Kelly's belief in me as an athlete and a person," the statement continued. "At this point, I understand how my integrity could be in question, but I want to reassure my supporters that through this experience I will return a better student-athlete as well as a better individual."
Following Golson's suspension, rumors of his inevitable transfer began to swirl, with CBSSports.com reporting that an unknown SEC coach was in contact with him over the weekend. However, although nothing is official, it appears Golson will ride out his suspension and return to the team in 2014 to finish his remaining two years of eligibility.
"I want to thank the University of Notre Dame for the opportunity already granted and also the opportunity going forth to regain my eligibility in the winter of 2014," Golson said.
While the Irish will certainly welcome Golson's eventual return to the football field, who will take the reins under center this season?
As a redshirt freshman in 2012, Golson made his claim to the starting job early on and put together impressive dual-threat numbers, finishing the season by completing 58.8 percent of his passes for 2,405 yards with 12 touchdowns against only six interceptions. He also added nearly 300 rushing yards and six more scores on the ground.
While his production will surely be missed, the cupboard isn't completely bare in South Bend. At this time last year, the Irish were also unsure of who their signal-caller would be, and after starting the season ranked outside the AP Top-25, they pieced together a fantastic season.
The way Brian Kelly's offense is constructed -- nearly 54 percent of his plays in 2012 were rushing - the quarterback isn't always the focal point, so another strong season with a fresh gun-slinger isn't out of the question.
After the departure last month of former high school All-American Gunner Kiel, who transferred to Cincinnati after being buried on the Notre Dame depth chart as a freshman in 2012, Kelly has just three quarterbacks on the roster. Now he'll just need to decide whether Tommy Rees, Andrew Hendrix or Malik Zaire will be the answer.
Rees appears to be the overwhelming leader at this point, as the senior brings plenty of experience to the table. He was the starter as a sophomore in 2011, amassing a solid campaign (.655 completion percentage, 2,871 yards, 20 TDs, 14 INTs). Last season, he filled in for an injured Golson on Oct. 20 against BYU, and while he was impressive at times (117 yards, TD), he was inefficient overall (7-of-16, INT).
The competition is far from over, however. Just as Golson swooped in and took the job from Rees in 2012, someone else can do the same in 2013.
Hendrix, also a senior, has certainly paid his dues, but he has attempted just 44 passes in his career. He also failed to capitalize on his opportunity during Notre Dame's spring game last month, completing just 5-of-10 tosses for 59 yards while being sacked three times.
The wildcard is Zaire, who enters the season as a true freshman. He was expected to designate a redshirt behind Golson this year, but now he will be thrown into the fire with a chance to win the job outright. Zaire was a top recruit out of Archbishop Alter High School in Kettering, Ohio and is said to have a similar skill set as Golson, and while it's unlikely he'll have enough of a grasp on the playbook to be named the starter by Notre Dame's opener at home versus Temple on Aug. 31, Kelly could be turning to him sooner rather than later if Rees or Hendrix fail to perform.
Fortunately for the Irish, they still retain plenty of talent to help mask their potential deficiencies at quarterback. Even with the loss of Manti Te'o, the defense will still be among the best around, with Stephon Tuitt (13 TFL, 12 sacks), Prince Shembo (10.5 TFL, 7.5 sacks) and Louis Nix III (50 tackles, 7.5 TFL) expected to put up big numbers once again. The team is also very strong along the offensive line, with experienced seniors at left tackle (Zack Martin), right tackle (Christian Lombard) and left guard (Chris Watt), all of whom will do their best to protect their signal caller, as well as create holes for a running game that averaged 4.9 yards per carry a season ago.
Golson's absence has caused a ripple effect not only in the Notre Dame locker room but throughout college football, as now Notre Dame has gone from a clear BCS contender to a huge question mark, However, it would be foolish to count out Kelly and his crew this early in the process.
The Irish blazed a trail across the FBS landscape in 2012, and there is no reason to believe they can't do it again.