by P. Carl Giordano, Managing Editor

NOTRE DAME (SUR: 8-5; PSR: 6-7; O-U: 9-4)...
HC Brian Kelly has produced a 45-20 record in his five seasons at Notre Dame. Considering the Irish were 16-21 SU in the final three seasons under Charlie Weis, Kelly has to be considered a rousing success by the subway alumni. Bettors might not be quite so enthusiastic, as ND is only 23-29 against the points in the last four years.

Notre Dame finished last season on a negative run and ended unranked a year ago, but the pieces are in place for the Irish to push back into the top ten. With a few breaks, the Irish, who return 17 starters, could make a run at one of the College Football Playoff slots.

ND lost its last four regular-season games in 2014, as the defense sagged after catching some injuries and gave up 44.5 ppg and 486 ypg down the stretch. This season, Notre Dame figures to count the defense as a strength, with its top 11 tacklers (and 16 of the top 18) returning. A healthy, undefeated ND side went into Tallahassee and was on the verge of upsetting the then-defending national champion Seminoles before an offensive pass interference call spoiled the party. The Irish defense held the high-powered Florida State attack to its second-fewest yards of the season.

This year’s defense should be a formidable group. Star jr. LB Jaylon Smith (team-high 112 tackles LY) will likely go to the NFL if he stays healthy and has similar production in 2015. Jr. S Max Redfield was 2nd with 68 stops, and he showed in spring that he’s ready to take another step forward and correct some of the mistakes he was making last season, thanks in part to new DB coach Todd Lyght. The front four is intact after giving up 4.2 ypc, not bad considering that injuries to jr. NT Jarron Jones and sr. LB Joe Schmidt played a part in the team giving up 5.2 ypc in the last four games of the season (including 7.5 ypc in the Music City Bowl against LSU). The defense is striving to be more physical this season, and should drastically slash its 2014 allowance of 29 ppg.

Part of the problem with the defense last season was the mistakes of QB Everett Golson, who threw 14 interceptions and lost eight fumbles in 2014. Golson participated in spring, but saw the handwriting on the wall with the improved play of soph lefty QB Malik Zaire and transferred to Florida State, where he can play immediately as a graduate student. Zaire is a spectacular athlete who is in his third season in the program and showed flashes of brilliance in 2014 (187 YR, 5.7 ypc; 21 of 35 passing for 268 yds. in relief in 2014). Zaire will be protected by a high-quality, high-chemistry offensive line led by a couple of returning studs in T Ronnie Stanley and C Nick Martin. New o.c. Mike Sanford, who previously coordinated attacks at Louisville, Utah and Stanford, wants the team to be more smashmouth up front. He and new RB coach Autry Denson have been credited with beefing up the running game in spring. Jr. RB Tarean Folston (889 YR; 5.1 ypc LY) will be backed by soph Greg Bryant, who looked like a force in spring after averaging 5.4 ypc last season. Converted WR C.J. Prosise also looked good at RB, leading the team in rushing with 12 carries for 64 YR in the spring game. The versatile Prosise will likely be a multi-use player in the fall. Star jr. WR Will Fuller had a spectacular season, hauling in 76 catches for 1094 yds. and tied for third nationally with 15 TD receptions.

Summary...Notre Dame has the pieces necessary for Kelly to push the Irish back to the elite level achieved in 2012. Recruiting classes have averaged in the top ten in his tenure. This year’s team has 20 players who’ve made at least eight career starts, and the schedule isn’t as difficult as the last two seasons. Shake down the Thunder!

BYU (SUR: 8-5; PSR: 5-8; O-U: 9-4)...Most scouts agree that BYU is potentially very good, but also very fragile. Head coach Bronco Mendenhall has built a moderately successful program that’s been consistent, averaging nine wins in recording nine straight winning seasons, including going 8-5 each of the last three years. BYU is a “faith first” program that tries to compete with the secular “big boys” of college football.

Mendenhall has a healthy recruiting pipeline and has also snatched transfer players from Pac-12 schools Stanford, Oregon and Washington State and has the benefit of allowing his players to age into grown men while on LDS missions and then return to play against 19 and 20-year-olds. The Cougars’ sr. QB Taysom Hill is a prime example of this. Hill originally committed to Stanford in 2009, but switched gears, went on his mission, and started for BYU as a frosh in 2012 before injuring his knee. Hill has shown brilliant form at times, but has been only played a full season in 2013, when he passed for 2938 yds. and 19 TDs as well as rushing for 1344 more yards and 10 scores. Last season he was throwing for 219 ypg, completing 66% of his passes, and rushing for 107 ypg before breaking his leg and tearing ligaments against Utah State October 3. The coaching staff originally was bent on limiting Hill’s running this season due to the lack of depth at this crucial position. However, the return from an LDS mission of highly-touted Tanner Mangum gives the Cougars some depth. Mangum was rated the third overall QB prospect in the 2011 recruiting class.

Sr. RB Jamaal Williams has rushed for 2526 yards and 23 scores as well as catching 53 passes in the last three seasons, despite missing time with injuries over that period. Williams is 930 yards away from being the team’s career rushing leader. Williams will be backed by fifth-year sr. Adam Hine, who high-jumped 7-2 as a prep, and is another more mature player after spending two seasons on a mission in Panama. Hine is a return specialist who gained 4.8 ypc in his limited chances at RB.

The receiving corps is in very good shape. 6-6 sr. WR Mitch Mathews had 73 receptions good for 922 yards and 9 scores last season. Mitchell Juergens and Colby Pearson combined for 44 catches, 694 yards and 7 scores in 2014. Juco Nick Kurtz, who’s also 6-6, missed last season with a foot injury and is nowexpected to contribute. Three other returnees combined for another 45 catches, so the passing game should be productive.

With 8-9 starters back on offense, the onus will fall on the offensive line to improve in order for the offense to really take flight. Soph C Tejan Koroma was the only decorated 2014 returning starter, and the team allowed 36 sacks. The OL has to do a better job protecting Hill this fall.

Mendenhall needs his defense to bounce back from an unusually poor season, so he will personally take charge of the stop unit this season. The Cougars allowed 27.5 ppg last season, their most in 10 years. But there are some building blocks in place that might lead to a quick turnaround despite the fact that the top three tacklers have moved on. Star sr. DE Bronson Kaufusi led the team with 7 sacks and moves back to his more natural DE spot after spending 2014 at LB. Fifth-year sr. LB Manoa Pikula had 49 tackles last season, and figures to make significant contributions. Soph Troy Hinds is another player who was on his LDS mission (2012-13) and used last season to get back into playing shape. Jr. MLB Austin Heder is also an older player who saw action in 10 games last season and played fullback for the Cougars in 2011. The fact that just one starter returns in the 2ndary isn’t that bad considering that unit yielded 270 ypg passing last season, the most passing yards given up by BYU since 2005, Mendenhall’s first season.

Summary...The Cougars have a very tough schedule this season, facing eight 2014 bowl teams as well as making a trip to face revitalized Michigan in Ann Arbor. A fourth straight eight-win regular season would no doubt be very satisfying for the Provo bunch, but the rabid fan base would really love it if Mendenhall could improve on the team’s 1-5 record as a home favorite last season.

ARMY (SUR: 4-8; PSR: 5-7; PSR: 7-5)...The Army program has very distinct limitations. In the last 18 seasons, the football team has produced just one winning record, averaging just 3.2 wins a season. Army has a very shallow recruiting pool in terms of athletic talent. Any candidate must want the commitment of West Point, and West Point must want the candidate. Most often those choices have nothing to do with football. In most seasons the best the Black Knights can hope for is to beat Navy (which hasn’t happened in 13 years), and/or the Air Force (the Falcons are 23-3 against Army since 1988).

Army HC Jeff Monken’s program should improve a bit in 2015, as his team got more accomplished in spring work due to a shorter learning curve, and the program returns 24 of the 40 players who started games last season. The option running game was effective again last season, with West Point finishing fifth, but the 297 ypg on the ground were fewer than it had been in any of the previous three seasons, when the team averaged 342 ypg rushing. Monken has beefed up the offensive line since taking the job, and that unit is one of the more experienced on the team, with a trio of solid starters returning (plus 246-lb TE Kelvin White). Sr. C Matt Hugenberg is the best player in this group. Both tackles are seniors as well, with a good amount of starting experience, and soph G Mike Houghton started a couple of games last season.

The trigger for the offense will be sr. QB A.J. Schurr, who gained 320 YR in 2014, with a commendable 7.1 ypc average while sharing the duties with graduated Angel Santiago. Schurr will pull the strings for a rebuilding RB corps that lost star RB Larry Dixon (1102 YR). Soph John Trainor was converted from WR to fill one RB slot. Jr. Joe Walker (75 YR; 2 TDs) is the tailback, and sr. Matt Giachinta (152 YR; 3.3 ypc) is the fullback (usually shoulders the heaviest load in this type of offense). That group represents a step down in talent level at the position compared with the last three seasons.

In general, receivers in this type of attack block and hope to occasionally slip behind defenders in the fairly rare event of a pass (Army attempted just eight per game LY). Jr. WR Edgar Poe caught 10 passes for 19.9 ypc, including one of the Black Knights’ two TD passes a year ago.

The defense played at just about the same level as the offense in 2014, ranking 102nd in allowing 33 ppg and finishing 117th in pass efficiency defense. Jr. LB Jeremy Timpf had 117 tackles last season, almost twice as many as returning CB Josh Jenkins, who finished 2nd on the team with 64. Timpf and Jenkins are joined by fellow jr. MLB Andrew King (63 stops; 5 sacks) as returning anchors of the stop unit. The defensive line will be a rebuilt unit, but Army has allowed 5.2 ypc over the past four seasons, so perhaps new personnel isn’t necessarily a bad thing. After getting just 10 sacks LY, it’s no wonder Jenkins and sr. starting CB Chris Carnegie (54 tackles) were busy guys. With very little pressure, foes threw for a whopping 238 ypg against West Point in 2014

The defense has some pieces in place that might help it improve, and jr. Xavier Moss made the transition from WR to safety in spring in order to fill in a hole in the 2ndary. The presence of quality sr. punter Alex Tardieu helps.

Summary...Monken won four games in his first year on the job at West Point, an improvement considering the Black Knights had won either 2 or 3 games in the previous three years (and six of the preceding eight seasons). The truth is that Army West Point, as the institution now wishes to be called, would very likely take a 1-11 season right now, if that one win came against the Navy. With Fordham, Connecticut, Wake Forest, Eastern Michigan, Bucknell and Tulane on the schedule, if everything breaks just right, the Army conceivably has an outside shot at six wins and its second bowl bid since 1996. However, it’s highly unlikely everything breaks just right.

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