Athlon Sports ranks the Top 25 best coaches in college football for 2012.
Ranking the coaches in any college football conference is a difficult task. Many factors play into just how successful a coach is at any school. How well are the assistants paid? Are the facilities up to par with the rest of the conference? Can the coach recruit or is he more of an x's and o's manager? Are there off-the-field or age issues to take into consideration? Has a coach built a program or continued the success from a previous coach?
Michael Floyd has finished his eligibility in South Bend and it’s time for Jones to emerge as one of Notre Dame’s top threats in the passing game. As a freshman in 2010, he caught 23 passes for 306 yards and three scores, but was quiet over the final month of the season due to an injury. Jones improved upon his freshman totals with 38 catches for 366 yards and three scores in 2011, but did not post a 100-yard performance and was held scoreless over the final eight contests. Jones won’t be asked to replicate Floyd’s production, but he needs to catch over 50 passes in 2012. The junior will be under pressure to perform early, especially with redshirt freshman DaVaris Daniels and true freshman Davonte Neal ready to work their way into playing time.
The secondary will be under the spotlight early in 2012, as Notre Dame must replace three key performers from last year. Slaughter has played in 36 career games and posted a career-best 45 tackles last year. He also registered two sacks and forced one fumble. Slaughter may play some cornerback this year, but his experience and leadership will be critical to a secondary that needs to replace a couple of key performers.
Riddick has bounced between running back and receiver throughout his career and could see time at both positions in 2012. As a sophomore in 2010, Riddick appeared to be on the verge of a breakout year after catching 10 passes for 128 yards and one touchdown against Michigan State. However, he missed time due to an injury and finished the year with 40 receptions for 414 yards. As a junior in 2011, Riddick failed to build on his totals, catching 38 passes for 436 yards and adding 63 yards on the ground. With Michael Floyd playing on Sundays, Riddick needs to become a playmaker for whichever quarterback ends up with the starting job.
With an unsettled quarterback position, Cave’s return for his senior year is a huge boost to Notre Dame’s offense. Having an experienced leader for the offense is crucial, especially if coach Brian Kelly turns to one of the team’s freshman passers. Cave was on the watchlist for the Rimington Trophy last year and started the first nine games of 2011. However, a foot injury against Wake Forest ended his season prematurely. He made 13 starts in 2010 and has made 35 career appearances. Cave likely won’t challenge for All-American honors, but his presence will be critical to the team’s offensive improvement.
Wood’s 1,102 yards last season was the most by a Notre Dame back since Darius Walker rushed for 1,267 in 2006. The Irish struggled to find balance on offense, as the passing attack struggled to find consistency most of the year, but Wood’s production was a bright spot. He recorded three 100-yard performances, including 191 and a touchdown on 20 attempts against Purdue. Wood also chipped in 27 receptions for 189 yards. With Jonas Gray departing, Wood could see his carries increase slightly in 2012. The Irish still have question marks about the passing attack, so the offense will lean heavily on Wood’s production until a quarterback settles into the starting role.
Playing nose guard isn’t a glamorous statistical position, but it’s crucial to the success of any 3-4 scheme. At 6-foot-3 and 326 pounds, Nix is the perfect anchor for the interior of the line. In his redshirt freshman campaign last year, he recorded 45 stops and four tackles for a loss. Inserting Nix into the starting lineup paid immediate dividends, as Notre Dame’s defense allowed only eight rushing scores last year. With Aaron Lynch leaving the team in the spring, opposing defenses could devote more attention to Nix, but he should be a consistent performer in 2012.
With Aaron Lynch’s decision to transfer, Tuitt will have to take on a bigger role on the defensive line in 2012. As a freshman in 2011, Tuitt played in nine games and recorded 30 tackles and two sacks. He needed some time to transition from high school to college, but Tuitt was one of the defensive line’s top players at the end of the year, registering 26 of his 30 tackles over the final six games. The sophomore will is expected to start on the outside in 2012 and will be one of the team’s top pass-rush threats on the line. Notre Dame will miss Lynch, but Tuitt’s development could help the Irish own one of the nation’s top 10 defensive lines.
Getting consistent play from the offensive line has been an issue for Notre Dame in recent years, but 2012 could be different. Martin has been a steady performer in his first two years and could challenge for All-American honors this season. He started all 13 games at left tackle last year and enters 2012 with 26 consecutive starts. The Irish allowed only 17 sacks last season and could improve upon that number with Martin returning for 2012.
An elite tight end is a rarity in college football in recent years. Luckily for Notre Dame, Eifert turned down the NFL Draft to return to South Bend and should be the nation’s best at his position going into the 2012 season. He ranked second on the team with 63 receptions, 803 yards and five receiving scores last year. Eifert had at least one catch in every game last season and caught eight passes for 75 yards and one touchdown in the win against Pittsburgh. With Michael Floyd finishing his eligibility in South Bend, Eifert is the now the leader of the receiving corps and should be targeted more by Notre Dame quarterbacks in 2012.
In a bit of a surprise, Te’o turned down the NFL Draft for his senior year at Notre Dame. The Irish defensive staff certainly isn’t complaining, as Te’o’s play is deserving of the accolades and hype that is thrown his direction. He has posted back-to-back seasons of at least 100 tackles and has 28.5 career tackles for a loss. Te’o was a finalist for the Lott Trophy and Butkus Award last season and earned second-team All-American honors by the Associated Press. The senior is one of the top defensive players in the nation and should close out his career with another season of at least 100 tackles.
The Notre Dame Fighting Irish check in at No. 20 in Athlon's college football 2012 top 25 countdown. Here's a look at our predictions for the most valuable players, games to watch, breakout candidates and other key categories for 2012.
The Irish linebacker is the most decorated college football player in history. He finished his career with 437 tackles, 34.0 tackles for loss, 8.5 sacks, 7 interceptions and led Notre Dame to an unbeaten 12-0 regular season record and the BCS National Championship game. He finished second in the Heisman voting and swept the postseason awards, winning the Butkus, Nagurski, Bednarik, Walter Camp, Lott, Lombardi and Maxwell awards — the first defensive player to win the Maxwell since fellow Golden Domer Ross Browner in 1977. Despite the poor showing in the title game as well as a bizarre fake girlfriend hoax, Te'o is easily one of the greatest Fighting Irish of all-time.
After being shifted from linebacker to nose guard, Zorich excelled along the D-line and helped lead the Irish to an unbeaten National Championship as a sophomore in 1988. He received some All-America recognition that season and went on to become a consensus All-America pick the next two seasons in South Bend (1989, 1990). He was named the UPI National Lineman of the Year as a junior and won the Lombardi Award and Orange Bowl MVP award as a senior. Zorich was drafted in the second round of the 1991 NFL Draft by the Chicago Bears.
It is very difficult to remove the illustrious pro career Bettis had from the equation. A rare blend of size, power and quickness, Bettis is a once-in-a-lifetime type of talent. Aside from his NFL Rookie of the Year award, his six Pro Bowls, his Super Bowl championship and finishing as the NFL's fifth-leading rusher of all-time, Bettis got his start bowling over opponents in South Bend. He had only 337 career college carries for 1,912 yards, but he was good enough to be drafted with the 10th overall pick in the 1993 NFL Draft by the St. Louis Rams. "The Bus" will be a Hall of Famer in the NFL one day soon.
A Notre Dame legacy, Brooks was originally recruited to play defensive back but was converted to running back for the 1991 season. His talent was on display immediately and eventually led to one of the best single seasons an Irish running back has ever had. In 1992, Brooks rushed for 1,343 yards — good for second-best in school history — averaging over 8.0 yards per carry and scoring 13 TDs. Brooks was named to the All-America team and finished fifth in the Heisman Trophy voting. He was selected in the second round of the 1993 NFL Draft by the Washington Redskins.
Few players have ever been on three All-America teams, but MacAfee did just that when he landed on a few first-teams in 1975 before becoming a two-time consensus selection in 1976 and 1977. An academic All-American in 1977 as well, MacAfee earned the Walter Camp Award and finished third in the Heisman Trophy voting. Notre Dame went 38-9 in his time in South Bend, and he helped lead the Irish to the 1977 National Championship. He finished with 128 receptions for 1,759 yards and 15 touchdowns. MacAfee was inducted into the NCAA Football Hall of Fame in 1997. He was the seventh overall pick in the 1978 NFL Draft by the San Francisco 49ers.
As a sophomore, Rice got onto the field due to injuries and helped lead the Irish to an 8-4 mark and their first Top 25 ranking in nearly a decade. It was the building block needed to compete for a national title in 1988. With a loaded roster around him, Rice led the Irish to a perfect 12-0 record and the 1988 National Championship over West Virginia. As an encore, Rice won the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award, finished fourth in the Heisman Trophy voting and was an All-American following his 12-1 senior season. That one loss coming against Miami in the de facto national title elimination regular-season finale. Rice went 24-1 in his two full seasons as the starter. The Irish champion never made it into the NFL but played professionally in the CFL and the World League.
Raghib "Rocket" Ismail was one clipping penalty away from leading Notre Dame to two National Championships. The 91-yard return TD in the 1990 title contest against Colorado was called back, and Ismail was left with only the 1988 National Championship on his resume. In 1990, Ishmail finished second in the Heisman voting to Ty Detmer and claimed the Walter Camp Award. He finished with 537 rushing yards, 699 receiving yards, 151 punt return yards and 336 kick return yards, totaling 1,723 all-purpose yards, which is still the fourth-best season in school history. There may not have been an Irish player with more "wow" factor than the Rocket. After a brief two-year Grey Cup MVP stint in Toronto in the CFL, Ishmail went on to a very productive eight-year NFL career.
"Touchdown Timmy" is the last Notre Dame player to claim the most coveted trophy in all of sports, the Heisman Trophy, which Brown earned in 1987. One of the most versatile players ever to play the game, Brown caught 39 passes for 846 yards (21.7 yards per catch), ran the ball 34 times for 144 yards, returned 23 kicks for 456 yards and returned 34 punts for 401 yards. All told, he posted 1,847 all-purpose yards (second all-time in school history to himself — he had 1,937 yards in 1986) and seven touchdowns — including three punt return TDs. His 2,493 career receiving yards were an all-time Notre Dame record. Brown was widely considered the most dangerous player in college football and was selected with the sixth overall pick in the 1988 NFL Draft by the Oakland Raiders. Brown went to nine Pro Bowls and is one of the most prolific receivers in NFL history. He was inducted into the NCAA Football Hall of Fame in 2009.
One of the most decorated defensive linemen in NCAA history, Browner was a four-year starter in South Bend. He was a unanimous All-America selection as both a junior and senior. In 1976, Browner was named the Outland Trophy winner as well as the UPI National Lineman of the Year. He followed that up in 1977 with a second UPI Lineman of the Year award to go with a Lombardi Award and the Maxwell Award, given to the nation's top player. Browner finished fifth in the Heisman balloting that season and was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1999. Notre Dame had a 39-7 record during his career, including National Championships in 1973 and 1977. He posted a school-record 340 tackles (at the time) and was selected with the 8th overall pick in the 1978 NFL Draft by the Cincinnati Bengals.
Montana was not allowed to play as a freshman in 1974, but flashed his late-game heroics early on in his sophomore season when he rallied the Irish against North Carolina in Chapel Hill — tossing for 129 yards and scoring 14 points in 1:02 of game time. He led a 20-point comeback the next week against Air Force, and the career of arguably the greatest fourth-quarter QB ever to play was in full force. After sitting out a year due to a seperated shoulder, Montana once again led a historic comeback in game three of the 1977 season. He started the next nine games — winning all of them — and led the Irish to the 1977 National Championship with a win over No. 1 Texas. In 1978, Montana pushed the Irish to a second straight Cotton Bowl win and a 9-3 overall record his final season. The "Chicken Soup Game" win over Houston in his final college game has become a legendary tale that was only a precursor of things to come for Golden Joe, Comeback Joe, Joe Cool and The Golden Great. Montana was a third-round pick by the 49ers in the 1979 NFL Draft and went on to win all four of his Super Bowl appearances — claiming three Super Bowl MVP trophies. He could be the greatest QB ever to play the game.
When he died early, in 1920, legendary Notre Dame star George Gipp told Knute Rockne, “Some time, Rock, when the team is up against it, when things are wrong and the breaks are beating the boys, tell them to go in there with all they’ve got and win just one for the Gipper.” Eight years later, after ND had lost two of its first six and was facing a powerful Army team, Rockne broke out the “Gipper” speech. It worked. The Irish scored two second-half touchdowns and upset the Cadets, 12-6.
Facing a third-and-nine from its own three and under a minute left, QB Tom Clements connected on a 36-yard pass with Robin Weber to preserve Notre Dame’s 24-23 lead over Alabama in the Sugar Bowl and secure the win and a national title. Bob Thomas’ 19-yard field goal with 4:12 remaining gave the Irish the lead, and after an Alabama punt on the ensuing possession pinned the Irish back, Clements made the dramatic throw.
“Outlined against a blue, gray October sky, the Four Horsemen road again.” So began Grantland Rice’s legendary account of Notre Dame’s 13-7 win over Army at the Polo Grounds. Backs Harry Stuhldreher, Jim Crowley, Elmer Layden and Don Miller ran all over the Cadets and keyed a 10-0 season that culminated in a 27-10 win over Stanford in the Rose Bowl and a national title.
Second-ranked Oklahoma entered the game on a record 47-game winning streak and was considered invincible, while host ND, a three-touchdown underdog, had dropped two in a row under coach Terry Brennan and seemed quite vulnerable. But Dick Lynch’s three-yard run, keyed by a block from Nick Pietrosante, gives ND all it needs in a stunning, 7-0 upset win. Bob Williams’ late interception preserves the landmark victory.
Seven years after the forward pass had been legalized in college football, Notre Dame popularized the strategy in a groundbreaking 35-13 rout of mighty Army. Thought of solely as a regional force, ND shocked the Eastern football establishment with an aerial circus previously unseen in those parts. Gus Dorais connected repeatedly with end Knute Rockne to flummox the outflanked Cadets and begin the legend of the Fighting Irish.
Manti Te'o hopes to lead the Irish to a BCS bowl in 2012.
The college football season is a couple of months away, but the countdown to 2012 has officially begun. Athlon Sports’ 2012 preseason annuals will be hitting newsstands in early June and its official top 25 countdown will begin on May 1. Picking the order of finish in each conference and compiling the top 25 is no easy task. Each day leading up to the release of No.
The journey to claim the 2012 national title begins in February, March and April, as 124 college football teams open up spring practice over the next three months. Athlon will preview some of the top teams and storylines across the nation, as the countdown to 2012 inches closer.