Preseason countdown: No. 30 ND

What’s the point of being an independent if you’re going to put together a schedule like this?

Notre Dame has been building and building well talent-wise under Brian Kelly. He has improved the speed and athleticism across the board, especially on defense, and he has enough returning starters and enough talent to ask for more production from a potentially high-octane offense to go along with more toughness from a decent defense.

The problem for the program, though, has been being able to take the next step forward as too many self-destructive moments have proved costly. Last year the Irish would’ve beaten USF and Michigan if they didn’t do everything humanly possible to give the ball away at the worst possible times, and it’s not like they were blown out by USC, Stanford or Florida State. This was a good team with a mediocre record, and in 2012 this could be a great team with a lousy record.

Yes, the coaching staff has to decide on a quarterback, but when the No. 1 prospect in the nation — freshman Gunner Kiel — is probably the fourth-best option, that isn’t really a problem. The O-line is experienced and effective, and the running backs are going to be terrific with a nice blend of talents. The receiving corps might need some work, but Tyler Eifert should be the best tight end in college football to help ease the loss of Michael Floyd.

The defense should be great against the run with Manti Te’o leading a big and nasty-looking front seven. There might be issues getting into the backfield without top pass rusher Aaron Lynch to rely on anymore – he transferred to South Florida – and the secondary doesn’t have a ton of depth, but overall it’s an athletic enough D to get by.

But none of the improvements made by Kelly are going to matter without a few monster upsets and no slips. Notre Dame made its own scheduling bed, and if it manages to get through it with a 10-2 record it deserves a BCS slot without question, along with all the credit in the world for challenging itself each and every week.

It’ll also deserve all the blame if the Irish come up with yet another 8-5 campaign under Kelly.

What to watch for on offense: The backfield. The running game never got enough credit for being effective last year, with Jonas Gray averaging 6.9 yards per pop with 12 scores and Cierre Wood rumbling for 1,102 yards and nine touchdowns averaging 5.1 yards per carry. Gray is done, but Wood should be in line for another 1,000-yard season. Receiver Theo Reddick and kickoff returner extraordinaire, George Atkinson III, will be in the rotation to help provide more flash. Of course, the big story all season long will be the quarterback situation with four good young players all battling for the gig. Even when a No. 1 guy is named, that won’t settle the issue with the other three options good enough to step in and produce if needed.

What to watch for on defense: Where’s the pass rush going to come from? The departed Aaron Lynch came up with 5.5 sacks last season and Te’o made five. The rest of the defense nickel-and-dimed its way up 14.5 more sacks, but it would be nice if one of the linemen could replace what Lynch provided. Kapron Lewis-Moore is a nice all-around defensive lineman, but he’s not necessarily a pure pass rusher. Stephon Tuitt could be main man on one end, and tweener linebacker Ishaq Williams could blossom into a superstar, but they haven’t done it yet. The defense that couldn’t come up with enough big plays needs to be active enough to force the game changers.

The team will be far better if: It commits less turnovers. The Irish gave away 17 picks and 12 fumbles with 10 of the turnovers coming in losses to South Florida and Michigan to start the season. Just when it seemed like the problems slowed down, the picks kicked back in late in the year. On the plus side, the fumbling all but stopped over the final six games, but with a defense that couldn’t seem to come up with the big takeaway at the right time – with just eight picks and six recovered fumbles on the season – the offensive mistakes were a killer.

The schedule: What kind of sick and twisted sadistic joke is this? Again, it’s as if Notre Dame decided the schedule wasn’t quite difficult enough, so it kept on finding new and creative ways to make it even harder. It’s by far the nastiest schedule in America that doesn’t include a team from the SEC. Even the supposedly easy games have issues with Boston College on the road and Wake Forest coming a week before USC. The opener against Navy is in Ireland, and then the Irish have to get past the long flight home to deal with Purdue at home before gearing it up for a road trip to Michigan State and a showdown against Michigan. The week off before going up the road to Chicago to play Miami will be desperately needed. BYU should be even better than the 10-3 version of last season and then comes the real fun with a brutal trip to Oklahoma to follow. If all of that wasn’t enough, there’s still the road game at USC lurking as the final act. In all, it’s not a stretch to project that the Irish will end up playing at least 10 bowl-bound teams, two of the preseason top five teams in America in OU and USC, and four possible conference champions in OU, Michigan or Michigan State, Pitt and USC.

Best offensive player: Senior TE Eifert. The Irish really needs one of the four good quarterback options to become the star of the show, but whoever is under center will end up relying on Eifert early and often. The 6-foot-6, 251-pound senior should’ve been off to the NFL early after catching 63 passes for 803 yards and five touchdowns, but instead he should be the nation’s best all-around tight end and a lifesaver for an offense that needs a No. 1 receiving target.

Best defensive player: Senior LB Te’o. Talk about living up to the hype, everyone wanted Te’o, and it was a bit of a shocker when he didn’t choose USC, and he has shown why with 324 career tackles with seven sacks and 28.5 tackles for loss. Big, strong, consistent and fast, he has all the tools and all the potential to break through and win the Butkus as the nation’s top linebacker. At the very least he’ll be the leader of a good front seven that was good against the run last year and should be dominant at times this season.

Key player to a successful season: Junior QB Tommy Rees … or redshirt freshman QB Everett Golson … or junior QB Andrew Hendrix … or freshman QB Kiel. It doesn’t really matter which one ends up holding down the job — they can all lead the way to wins. But if the Irish are going to get through their nasty slate, and if they can go from eight-win good to 10-win great, then the starting quarterback has to be more than just a decent choice among the flock. The QB has to be fantastic and has to be the reason the team is ale to win. Most of the key pieces are in place, and now it’s time to find the right guy to run the show.

The season will be a success if: The Irish win 10 games. Yeah, yeah, yeah, the schedule is a nightmare. However, broken down, if Notre Dame really is good enough to think about going to a BCS game, it should be good enough to win at least nine regular season games. Chalk up the road games at Oklahoma and USC as losses, but the Irish should be favored in every other game with the possible exception of the road trip to Michigan State and the date with Michigan the week after. Notre Dame is better than Navy, Purdue, Miami, Stanford, BYU, Pitt, Boston College and Wake Forest, so if it wins the games it’s supposed to, and splits against the Spartans and Wolverines, there’s a chance to go into a bowl game with a shot at a double-digit win campaign.

Key game: Sept. 15 at Michigan State. The Spartans are going to be really good, but it’s going to take a little time to fill in a bunch of the key pieces. With Michigan coming up next for the Irish, coming out of East Lansing with a win might be vital or else the pressure will be on to beat the Wolverines to stay alive in the hunt for a BCS game. Notre Dame can get in at 10-2, but it’s asking for way too much to get at least a split on the road at Oklahoma and USC. The Irish throttled MSU 31-13 last season in what has turned into one of the most thrilling rivalries in college football over the last several years.