Brian Kelly will try to become one of the youngest head coaches in college football history to register his 200th win as he leads the 14th-ranked Notre Dame Fighting Irish against the visiting Temple Owls in the 2013 season opener for both teams.
Kelly, who ranks fourth among active head coaches at the Football Bowl Subdivision in terms of total wins (199-68-2), saw his Irish emerge from almost nowhere last season in order to compete for the national championship. A year after finishing 8-5 and losing to Florida State in the postseason, Notre Dame responded by running the table during the 2012 regular season, piling up 12 straight wins.
There were more than a few close calls a season ago however, the team needing overtime to beat Stanford (20-13) and then requiring three additional OTs to take down Pittsburgh (29-26), but still Notre Dame was perfect when postseason bids were handed out.
Unfortunately, the Irish were saddled with having to deal with Alabama in the BCS title tilt and the Crimson Tide took no pity on their opponent as they raced to a lopsided 42-14 victory, their third championship in the last four years.
While Notre Dame has a familiar face in coach Kelly roaming the sidelines, the same cannot be said for Temple for this first-ever meeting between the two programs.
A year ago Steve Addazio was in his second season with the Owls and had the team off to a 3-2 start while operating in the Big East Conference, but after slipping by UConn in the middle of October, Temple went into a tailspin. The program dropped four straight decisions before crushing Army (63-32). With a 38-20 setback to Syracuse to close out the campaign, the Owls finished just 4-7 overall, 2-5 in conference.
Barely two weeks after losing to the Orange, Addazio resigned to take the head coaching job at Boston College, opening the door for the hiring of Matt Rhule as the 26th head coach in school history.
"When the opportunity came to return and serve the Temple student-athletes and the greater University community as a whole; I knew it was right," Rhule said after being brought back from a position in the NFL. "I am extremely grateful for the opportunity and look forward to continuing the program's upward momentum as a member of the Big East Conference."
Just to be clear, Temple now operates in the newly-formed American Athletic Conference which consists primarily of programs from the Big East and Conference USA.
The odds are heavily stacked against the Owls in this meeting when you consider the team has clashed with a nationally-ranked program a total of 77 times since 1974 and won only twice against 14th-ranked Virginia Tech (28-24) in 1998, and 16th-ranked Pittsburgh (24-21) 11 years earlier.
Among the man changes taking place with the Temple program, one of the most pronounced is the move to a new starting quarterback in Connor Reilly. Pushed by P.J. Walker and Clinton Granger for the starting job throughout camp, Reilly takes over despite having no game experience with the Owls.
Hoping to find open space for Reilly to throw to, Ryan Alderman, Jalen Fitzpatrick, and John Christopher bring spirited effort to the wideout positions, despite being slight in size.
"We take pride in being smaller and underrated, so we play hard and that's why I think our team respects us," Fitzpatrick states.
Kenny Harper figures to carry much of the load at running back following the departure of key performers in the role, but also look for Jamie Gilmore and Zaire Williams to possibly make an impact.
On the defensive side of the ball, the Owls need to make significant strides from last season when they were 100th in the country in stopping the run (199.8 ypg) and 115th in pass efficiency defense (154.39). Unfortunately, there is youth and inexperience all over the depth chart, so fans need to be patient during this time of growth.
Perhaps one positive for the Temple defense is that they won't have to go up against Everett Golson at quarterback after he was dismissed from the team. Instead, the Fighting Irish will be plugging in senior Tommy Rees at the position. Rees isn't completely new to the situation however, already with a record of 14-4 as a starter and one of the most accurate passers in the history of Notre Dame football.
T.J. Jones, a candidate for postseason recognition, caught 50 passes for 649 yards and four TDs a year ago, while DaVaris Daniels made a name for himself in the BCS title game with six catches for 115 yards.
George Atkinson III settles in as the primary ball carrier for the Irish, having started three games in 2012 and placing third on the unit with 361 rushing yards. More importantly, Atkinson averaged better than seven yards per carry.
While the offense deals with the change at quarterback, the defense for the Fighting Irish tries to move beyond linebacker Manti Te'o who, before heading to the NFL, captured a record seven individual major awards -- the Walter Camp, Maxwell, Lombardi, Butkus, Nagurski, Bednarik and Lott trophies.
Because of Te'o and his teammates, Notre Dame finished seventh in the country in total defense last year, allowing just 305.5 ypg, and second in scoring defense with a mere 12.8 ppg. Five times the program held an opponent to seven points or less in 2012, with much of the credit going to Te'o.
Returning to patrol the middle of the field for the Irish are linebackers Dan Fox and Prince Shembo. While Te'o was taking home all of the postseason awards, Shembo ranked second on the squad with 10.5 tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks, not to mention pacing the group with 12 quarterback hurries. A quick and lively bunch at the line of scrimmage, UND recorded 70 TFL overall and had almost twice as many sacks (34) as the competition (18).
Danny Spond was supposed to be among the returning starters at linebacker, after posting 38 tackles a year ago, but he just recently informed the team that he was retiring from the game after dealing with concussions and severe migraines over the last two campaigns.
"What was pretty apparent was that it was an emotional decision and it didn't come without a lot of thought," coach Kelly told the Chicago Tribune. "He spent the day speaking to a lot of specialists and his family was here. This was not a decision that came easy. He loves his teammates. But what's most important is he did what's in his best interest for the future. He's got a bright future."