The case for
Stephon Tuitt swears it was a healthy, enriching experience, one to be filed away for future reference and guidance. Even though the Fighting Irish were manhandled by Alabama in the BCS national championship game, he points to one positive he and his teammates took away from that 42--14 blowout in Miami: They know what to expect the next time they play for the national title, which, according to Tuitt, will be in January. "Now we have a taste of what it's like to be in that game, we all want to get back, and we're working harder than ever to do that," says Tuitt, a junior defensive end who led Notre Dame with 12 sacks last season. Though the Irish must replace eight starters from last year—including quarterback Everett Golson, who was suspended for the season for academic reasons—there shouldn't be a significant drop in overall talent because Brian Kelly's past three recruiting classes have been among the best in the nation.
The case against
Losing Golson, a difficult-to-defend pass-run threat, is a significant blow. Senior Tommy Rees, who has started 18 games for the Irish, isn't a running threat (--71 yards career), but he's the son of a football coach and usually makes sound decisions. His confidence could be low after he was benched last year.
Entering your fourth year, do you think your program-building is ahead of schedule?
You could make the case that we are, but there's much more work to be done. We need more depth, and that was really exposed in the national championship game. When you have 42 days to practice, you need the ample depth to tackle and be physical, and we just weren't there yet.
What did you learn from the loss?
We learned that at Notre Dame, we can play for and win national titles. The score didn't indicate that, but we're a lot closer after evaluating that game.
What do you expect of Tommy Rees?
He's a veteran guy who has played at USC and won. He's played against Florida State and played at Michigan and Michigan State. He's played a lot of football, and he has the ability to win.
What keeps you up at night?
There are always uncertainties when you ask a young player to step up. But the biggest component on this team is that they know how to win. I'd rather have that than anything else.
Player to Watch
Junior tailback Amir Carlisle gained 118 yards on 19 carries as a freshman at USC. He transferred to South Bend in 2012, then broke his ankle in spring practice and missed the season. Now the 5'10", 185-pound Carlisle is set to start.
MATT CASHORE/US PRESSWIRE (TUITT)
ROBERT BECK/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (KELLY)
Projected 2013 Stats
QB Tommy Rees
Pass: 2,735 yards, 20 TDs
Run: --50 yards, 1 TD
RB George Atkinson III
Run: 1,150 yards, 10 TDs
Rec.: 250 yards, 1 TD
WR DaVaris Daniels
Rec.: 730 yards, 4 TDs
Run: 25 yards, 0 TDs
A trip to Ann Arbor on Sept. 7 will be a test for Rees, as will back-to-back late-September home games against Michigan State and Oklahoma. Another undefeated run through a difficult regular-season schedule—which concludes at second-ranked Stanford—appears highly unlikely.
SI Power Ratings
[The following text appears within a chart. Please see hardcopy or PDF for actual chart.]