#1: We all know Notre Dame lost QB Everett Golson before the season began. Now that senior Tommy Rees is once again the Irish signal caller -- does he have a different demeanor as the Irish quarterback? He’s been prone to make mistakes on the field in the past. What’s different about him this season? Can he take the Irish to another level?
Answer: It's not Rees' demeanor that worries Irish fans as much as his limitations, mainly his ability to avoid the rush (he doesn't get sacked often, but throwing it away is different than creating a first down from nothing, a la Golson and Gardner). Rees' arm also doesn't scare many defenses deep. Add the two together and you have a quarterback to defend on about a 35-yard plot of land, and he can't take off and pick up a cheap first down with his legs.
But there aren't any better than Rees pre-snap: If Michigan shows blitz, he'll get the Irish into the right play. If Michigan overloads a side on a short-yardage run, Rees will find a way to give the Irish an advantage opposite. He'll be a great coach someday, but Notre Dame needs him to stick about 10 throws into tight windows Saturday night, because by function of Brian Kelly's offense, he'll have 10 easy completions at his disposal as well.
I'd be shocked if Rees turns it over three times again as he did in 2011. I'd be surprised, however, if he doesn't give it up once.
#2: Notre Dame’s front seven is considered one of the top groups in the nation. We all know about senior DT Louis Nix, but who are some other guys that can make a name for themselves this Saturday? Can anyone replace MLB Manti Te’o?
Answer: Nix and Stephon Tuitt gain the All-America recognition but Prince Shembo is perhaps the most consistent player among the front seven group. He plays linebacker to the boundary when the Irish show a three-man front and defensive end when they go four-down and stays on the field as a pass-rusher in nickel and dime sets as well. Shembo is a rarity: an underrated Notre Dame football senior.
Tuitt is a 6’6” 322-pound monster at end -- common belief around South Bend, however, is that he was much more effective as a 6’6” 300-pound pass-rushing, 77-yard touchdown sprinting monster in 2012, pre-hernia surgery and the extra weight.
Regarding Te’o: The Irish will not effectively replace him this season. They employ a three-man rotation inside in his stead and while the tackle totals will likely be similar, Te’o accounted for 11 turnovers last season, including three vs. Michigan (two picks while forcing Vincent Smith into another). The drop-off in play at ILB vs. Temple compared to Te’o 2012 was staggering. It puts more pressure on the defensive line to excel vs. quality teams on nearly every snap.
#3: Graduated TE Tyler Eifert seemed like he was in South Bend forever, but now that he is gone on to the greener pastures of the NFL, who are the receivers that should pick up his slack this season? Will it be senior WR T.J. Jones? Will Jones be the go to guy this Saturday?
Answer: And he actually left early! (Could have stayed for a fifth year.) As the best route-runner, most confident (for good reason, not just bluster), experienced, and blessed with the best hands, Jones is the go-to guy as the season begins. He’s quicker than fast, and that’s probably a good thing at the college level.
But the most talented receiver on the squad is 6’2” 203-pound DaVaris Daniels. He finished fourth on the squad in receptions last fall as a redshirt-freshman, but too often was forced to leave games due to injury (sprained ankle vs. Purdue cost him 1.5 games; broken collarbone another 3). Against Temple Saturday, Daniels scored two 32-yard touchdowns on the game’s first two series -- he later pulled his groin running under what would have been an easy third to start the second quarter. Kelly promised he’s full strength, and Notre Dame needs him desperately to beat the likes of Michigan, Michigan State, Oklahoma, Arizona State, and USC over the next six games.
#4: With the Irish defense being so strong up front, the Wolverines will most likely have to attack through the air. Is the Notre Dame secondary an area of concern heading into this contest?
Answer: Unlike last season when defensive coordinator Bob Diaco protected his rookies at all costs (they had safety help throughout 2012), the Irish cornerbacks are experienced, battle-tested, and likely will provide and even matchup vs. most teams they face this fall, especially perimeter guys Bennett Jackson (a team captain) and Keivarae Russell, a freshman All-America pick from 2012.
What is of much greater concern this season is the safety position. Matthias Farley was forced into action in Game 3 (MSU) last season as a redshirt-freshman and he answered the bell alongside three-year starter Zeke Motta. Farley returns, Motta is gone, and newcomers Austin Collinsworth (a senior who missed 2011) and Elijah Shumate (a true sophomore) are the main question marks on the back line, splitting the role next to Farley. Shumate has more raw talent but endured a rough opener, allowing a 26-yard catch-and-run and interfering in the end zone.
Notre Dame didn’t give up a touchdown pass in excess of 25 yards during its run through the 2012 regular season (and that was to Navy!), and yielded just seven passing scores vs. those 12 foes. You can credit Motta for always remembering a safety’s first step is “back.: That won’t be the case again this season.
Also, Cole Luke is a true freshman in the nickel role (Shumate’s role last season).
#5: With all the talk of is this game being a regional rivalry or national rivalry, what’s the consensus from Notre dame fans? Do they consider this game a national rivalry? Also, this rivalry comes to an end next season in South Bend, but do Irish fans really want to see this series come to an end?
Answer: There are two camps, and I can’t rationally discuss it with the other side of the coin. No one intellectually honest about the sport, or that has watched this series unfold since it resumed in 1978 can call it anything but September’s greatest rivalry in the college game. If someone tells you that Purdue or Michigan State is a bigger rival to Notre Dame than Michigan, please let them know I have some tickets to trade this week and next season. Give me a break.
I recuse myself from all further discussion on the matter because this is a family website. No one that enjoys great football games wants to see the series end. If you’d like to discuss the machinations of schedule-making, why Fielding Yost and Knute Rockne didn’t like each other, or why Wake Forest, Duke and Virginia are beneficial to Notre Dame football, have at it.