Preseason countdown: No. 20 Notre Dame

This doesn’t appear to be a mirage.

Ty Willingham’s first season as the Irish head coach in 2002 was full of smoke and mirrors with a 10-3 record with every bounce going the right way. Even though there were strong wins over Maryland, Michigan, Florida State and Pitt, the lack of top talent became evident late in the year when USC and NC State came up with stunningly easy blowouts. Notre Dame went 5-7 the next season, a bunch of alumni questioned Willingham’s recruiting skills, and in stepped Charlie Weis in 2005.

Captain Schematic Advantage took the talents that Willingham brought to South Bend and came up with a thrilling 9-3 inaugural season. The Irish didn’t actually beat anyone with a pulse, with the highlight of the season a thrilling 34-31 loss to a USC juggernaut, and finished up by getting blasted by Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl. A 10-3 mark in 2006 only made things worse, starting off 10-1 before USC and LSU showed just how big the talent gap was between the real BCS teams and the ones with a sweetheart of an exemption. That sparked a run of 11 losses in 12 games, and now Weis is in Gainesville.

So now, after a promising finish to the 2010 rebuilding campaign, it might be easy to assume that beating a wounded Utah, a mediocre USC, and a Miami team that had no interest in playing is just another case of Notre Dame being Notre Dame, but things appear to be different with this coach.

Brian Kelly really is able to recruit and he seems to bring a schematic advantage. He didn’t exactly bringing in the four- and five-star talents at Central Michigan and Cincinnati, but he went out and signed a tremendous 2011 class, especially for the defensive front. Okay, so Weis also lit up the recruiting services like a Christmas tree — Sam Young, your table is ready — but Kelly has proven he can coach his guys while Weis hadn’t earned those stripes. More importantly, at least in terms of winning and losing football games at Notre Dame, Kelly showed he’s able to compartmentalize as well as any coach in college football, and he showed he could win through the ultimate adversity.

There was one player Notre Dame couldn’t afford to lose last year: QB Dayne Crist. He injured his knee halfway through the season. The Irish lost Kyle Rudolph, arguably the best tight end in the country, early on to a severe hamstring injury. The consistency wasn’t there, there were too many mistakes, and the back-to-back gaffes against Navy and Tulsa were galling as the Irish started off 4-5, but the football problems were nothing compared to the real-life disasters that Kelly had to face.

The deaths of Declan Sullivan and Elizabeth Seeberg tarnished the Golden Dome after the shameful and unconscionable way the university and football program handled each tragedy, but for right or wrong, good or bad, Kelly and the football team were able to focus when it would’ve been easy, and excusable, to limp through the final month of the season.

Utah was trying to walk right after TCU applied a nationally-noticed 47-7 atomic wedgie, and the Irish took advantage with their sharpest performance of the season in a 28-3 win. After disposing of a decent Army team, Kelly was able to exorcise the USC demons that Weis and Willingham wrestled with in a 20-16 win. OK, so the Trojans probably would’ve won if Ronald Johnson and the rest of the Trojans receivers could’ve held on to the ball, but a win over USC is a win over USC. After embarrassing Miami 33-17 in the Sun Bowl, Kelly and the Irish finished on a nice four-game winning streak to take the pressure off this offseason, at least as much as it can be lessened at Notre Dame. Now Kelly and the Irish appear to be ready to rock.

There were some noticeable differences right away in the transition from the Weis era to the Kelly regime. On the plus side, the defensive backs improved immediately under the new staff, with the light going on for relatively disappointing players like corners Gary Gray and Robert Blanton; they’re now going to be possible stars. It took a little while, but the outside linebackers, particularly Darius Fleming, got comfortable in the 3-4 scheme and started to dominate at times. The offense started to click as the line started to jell, and the special teams became a strength with a tremendous kicking game and elite coverage teams. But the key under Kelly in the first year was how the team did most of the little things right. Kelly’s a taskmaster who demands perfection — making the Sullivan and Seeberg cases all the more galling — and it showed in the way his team turned the season around.

Notre Dame finished seventh in the nation in penalties, getting hit for a miniscule 40.85 yards per game, after finishing 73rd in 2009. The defense was great at getting off the field, finishing 28th in the nation in third down D after finishing 67th two years ago, and was great at holding up in the red zone.

Now the team knows what it’s doing. The offensive line could be special; the receiving corps has the potential to be great and the quarterback situation will sort itself out well enough to be a plus. Meanwhile, the special teams will be excellent if there can be just a bit more from the return game; Manti Te’o is a Butkus caliber linebacker to work around and the secondary should be terrific if it can build off a strong final month of the year.

Kelly is bringing in the talent, he’s doing a great job with the players Weis left over, and he’s at the point where he’s one of the hot coaches in all of college football because of his talents and abilities. It might take one more year, but the foundation is being set for the program to finally be a regular in the BCS.

This time it’ll be for real.

What to watch for on offense: The quarterback situation. If Notre Dame could package all four of its strong quarterbacks into one player, he’d be special. Crist is a terrific leader with a strong personality that’s perfect to be the team’s spokesman and main man, but his knees are banged up and he makes too many mistakes in his reads for a player of his tenure. Tommy Rees is a terrific passer, doing a good job stepping in as a true freshman and going 4-0 as a starter, but he threw too many picks and he’s not the type of runner Kelly would like under center. Andrew Hendrix is a runner, and Everett Golson is a bomber who can take off when needed. Offensive coordinator Charley Molnar might create a few packages for Hendrix and/or Golson, but he has also praised Crist for his smarts and his savvy. Crist will almost certainly be the No. 1 man when all is said and done, but the other options are getting their chances, too.

What to watch for on defense: The true freshmen. The Irish have a strong starting defensive 11 as is, and now there’s an upgrade and infusion of talent. The strength of the good recruiting class is for the defensive front led by end Aaron Lynch, who got to school early and destroyed the Irish offensive line. Fellow end Stephon Tuitt is a bit raw, but he’s a next-level prospect who could be a devastating pass rusher right away, while Ishaq Williams is a dream of a hybrid who’ll be a perfect fit on the outside in the 3-4. The new guys might not be needed, but they could take the good defense to another level.

The team will be far better if: The turnover margin could improve. Cincinnati was 13th in the nation in turnover margin under Kelly in 2009. Last year the Bearcats were 119th, while Notre Dame finished a mediocre 51st in the nation. The quarterbacks threw too many picks (16) and the defense didn’t come up with enough big plays until late in the year, helped by safety Harrison Smith turning into one of Miami’s top receivers in the Sun Bowl. No, the turnover margin wasn’t awful, but for a team and a coaching staff that likes for all the little things to be done right, the difference between 8-5 and a good season and 10-3 and a special campaign will likely come down to limiting the errors.

The schedule: Where are the breathers? When the weakest team on the slate is a BCS school — Wake Forest — there are plenty of reasons to be concerned. The Irish start out with a nasty home test against Skip Holtz and an athletic South Florida team that’s good enough to win the Big East, and then comes the start of the Big Ten slate with a trip to Michigan likely to make or break the program’s mood in September. Michigan State always gives the Irish a hard time, and going to Purdue won’t be a breather. The key will be to get through the first five weeks, and while things don’t get much easier, at least there’s a nice three-game home stretch — including the USC game — and with four home dates in six weeks before closing out against Stanford. In all, Notre Dame plays nine bowl teams and a USC team that would’ve gone bowling if it wasn’t on suspension.

Best offensive player: Senior WR Michael Floyd. The big issue, at least outside of the courtroom (Floyd was suspended for a driving while intoxicated charge but has since been reinstated), will be staying healthy after missing a chunk of 2009 and being banged up a bit last year. Even so, once Floyd’s back and he has the size, the hands, and the talent to be an All-America target after breaking out with a 79-catch, 12-score season. He should be playing in the NFL right now.

Best defensive player: Junior LB Te’o. Weis brought in some top-shelf recruits during his time, but Te’o might turn out to be the best of the lot. The 6-foot-2, 255-pounder from Hawaii was always able to hit, but last year he showed off more of the sideline-to-sideline range and playmaking skills that made him such a hotshot recruit a few years ago. If anything, his issue is being too aggressive, overpursuing from time to time and struggling a bit against the quicker ball carriers. Whatever. He’s a special defender to revolve the entire defense around.

Key player to a successful season: Senior NT Hafis Williams. There are other options to take over on the nose for Ian Williams, but Sean Cwynar is trying to come back healthy and massive prospect Louis Nix is still looking to make an impact. Hafis Williams doesn’t have the raw bulk, but he’s versatile and his motor is always running. Even though he’s not the prototypical anchor to work a line around, he has to prove he can consistently hold up against the run in the 3-4.

The season will be a success if: The Irish win nine games. The schedule is too tough to ask for the BCS or any sort of a run at New Orleans, but the team is top-to-bottom better than last year when it won eight games. It might take an 8-4 regular season and a bowl win to get it done, but anything less than nine victories will be considered a step back.

Key game: Sept. 10 at Michigan. This is the game to show how far the program has come. Denard Robinson threw for 244 yards and ran for 258 yards and two scores in the Michigan win last season, starting a trend for an Irish defense that struggled against the more mobile quarterbacks like Tulsa’s G.J. Kinne and Navy’s Ricky Dobbs. This will be the statement game early on for Brady Hoke at Michigan, but after losing two straight and three of the last four to the Wolverines, Notre Dame will be looking to show how much it has improved before dealing with Michigan State.