By JOSH STROPE
SOUTH BEND, Ind. - Notre Dame begins the season ranked No. 24 in the first USA Today Coaches' Poll. It might not stay there for long.
With arguably the toughest schedule in the nation - five teams ranked in the top 18; two in the top three - the Fighting Irish will be the underdog in almost half of their games.
Add to that an unsettled quarterback situation and Brian Kelly, entering his third season as the coach at Notre Dame, will have to do his best coaching job to date in South Bend if the Fighting Irish are to make a BCS bowl.
There is a three-man battle to see who will start at quarterback Sept. 1 in Dublin, Ireland, against Navy.
Junior Andrew Hendrix has the most experience, playing in a handful of games last season. Sophomore Everett Golson was the star of the spring game, and freshman Gunner Kiel is a highly touted five-star recruit.
Sept. 1: Navy *9 a.m.
Sept. 8: Purdue3:30 p.m.
Sept. 15: at Michigan State8 p.m.
Sept. 22: Michigan7:30 p.m.
Oct. 6: Miami, Fla. **7:30 p.m.
Oct. 13: Stanford3:30 p.m.
Oct. 20: BYU3:30 p.m.
Oct. 27: at OklahomaTBA
Nov. 3: Pittsburgh3:30 p.m.
Nov. 10: at Boston CollegeTBA
Nov. 17: Wake Forest3:30 p.m.
Nov. 24: at USCTBA
* at Dublin, Ireland
** at Chicago
Win 7, Lose 5
Tommy Rees started 12 games last season, coming in midway through the opening-game loss to South Florida and started the rest of the way. But the biggest bugaboo surrounding Notre Dame en route to an 8-5 record was turnovers, notably in the red zone.
Rees was at the helm for many of those mistakes. Combined with an offseason altercation with a police officer and the junior has seemingly fallen out of favor with Kelly. He has been suspended for the Navy game and Kelly said he will have to work his way back up the depth chart.
The biggest hole to fill will be that of receiver Michael Floyd. The most prolific wideout in Notre Dame history was drafted in the first round by the Arizona Cardinals.
T.J. Jones, Theo Riddick, DaVaris Daniels, John Goodman, and Robby Toma are the returning letterwinners. Newcomers Davonte Neal, Justin Ferguson, and Chris Brown were also turning heads at the beginning of practice.
The biggest receiving threat likely won't come from a wideout, but rather tight end Tyler Eifert. Eifert was second on the team last season with 63 catches for 803 yards and five touchdowns.
Also helping the winner of the quarterback race will be speedy tailback Cierre Wood. The senior rushed for 1,186 yards and nine scores last season while splitting time with Jonas Gray. Gray is gone so the job is all Wood's.
Joining him in the backfield will be Riddick, as well as George Atkinson III, who made a name for himself returning kicks, taking two back for touchdowns.
The offensive line will be a veteran group consisting of center Braxton Cave, tackles Zack Martin and Christian Lombard, and guards Mike Golic and Chris Watt.
Despite the transfer of Freshman All-American Aaron Lynch to South Florida, Notre Dame should still be one of the top teams in the county against the run.
The defense will be lead again by linebacker Manti Teo, who decided to return for his senior season instead of seeking NFL riches.
Teo will be joined inside by Dan Fox, with Danny Spond and Prince Shembo on the outside. Ishaq Williams, Ben Councell, and Carlo Calabrese (suspended for opener) will see some time.
Along the defensive line will be Kapron Lewis-Moore, Stephon Tuitt, and Louis Nix, with Kona Schwenke, Chase Hounshell, and freshman Sheldon Day also getting to play.
The biggest question mark with Notre Dame will be in the secondary where safeties Jamoris Slaughter and Zeke Motta return, but the corners will be brand new following the graduation of Gary Gray and Robert Blanton.
Bennett Jackson is moving from receiver to corner and he should start along with junior Lo Wood. Sophomore Josh Atkinson could also be in the mix.
Nick Tausch regains the kicking duties after losing his job to David Ruffer two seasons ago. Ben Turk returns as punter.