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.
Offensive MVP: Tyler Eifert, TE
Any quarterback certainly loves a good security blanket – and that’s the role Eifert will be expected to play and more in 2012. With uncertainty at the quarterback spot, and Michael Floyd finishing his eligibility in South Bend, Eifert will be targeted frequently in 2012. He posted 63 receptions for 803 yards and five touchdowns last season, which were all career highs. Eifert is coming off a solid performance in the Champs Sports Bowl, catching six passes for 90 yards, and he could expect to see 10 to 12 passes in his direction each game this year.
Trap Game: Purdue (Sept. 8)
It’s not often you see a trap game in Week 2, but the Irish need to be on upset alert against the Boilermakers. Notre Dame has a long flight to play in Dublin, Ireland in Week 1 and has a date at Michigan State on Sept. 15. Purdue hasn’t won in South Bend since 2004 and will be an underdog in this game. However, with a game in Dublin in Week 1 and a revenge matchup against Michigan State in Week 3, the Irish need to be careful not to overlook the Boilermakers.
Upset Alert: BYU (Oct. 20)
Notre Dame will likely be favored to win at least eight of its games in 2012, but there are a few potential landmines on the schedule. BYU started 1-2 last year but finished 9-1 over its final ten games. The Cougars didn’t play a particularly difficult schedule in the second half of last season but seemed to jell as a team during that stretch. Quarterback Riley Nelson settled into the starting job, while the defense did not allow an opponent to score more than 21 points in each of the final four games. The Cougars have the offensive firepower to test Notre Dame’s secondary and won’t be pushed around on defense. This will be the first meeting between these two schools since 2005.
Breakout Player: Everett Golson, QB
It’s anybody’s guess who will start the season opener for Notre Dame at quarterback. However, it’s a good chance it won’t be Tommy Rees after his off-the-field incident, and freshman Gunner Kiel probably needs another year to develop. Golson has yet to play a down, but his dual-threat ability could be a much-needed spark for the Irish offense. The redshirt freshman needs more seasoning as a passer, but if he gets the start against Navy, he may not relinquish the job the rest of the year.
Defensive MVP: Manti Te’o, LB
From the moment he stepped on campus, Te’o has been a leader and one of Notre Dame’s top defensive players. He has started 36 games in his career and has topped at least 100 tackles in each of the last two years. Te’o also recorded 13.5 tackles for a loss and five sacks last season. He should be a first-team All-American in 2012 and is likely to be a first-round pick in the 2013 NFL Draft. Te’o’s decision to return to South Bend was huge for Notre Dame’s defense, which may have to carry the team with question marks at quarterback.
Unsung Hero: Louis Nix III, NG
Anchoring the interior of a 3-4 defense isn’t a glamorous position. The nose tackles don’t garner much in the way of stats and are often used just to plug the gaps. Nix started 11 games last season and recorded 45 tackles. He also registered 4.5 tackles for a loss and broke up one pass. With Aaron Lynch transferring out of Notre Dame, Nix will be counted upon even more for leadership and opening up the lanes for the rushers in 2012.
Biggest Game: at Michigan State (Sept. 15)
If Notre Dame wants to return to a BCS bowl, it’s important to set the tone early in the year. The Spartans defeated the Irish in dramatic fashion in 2010, but Notre Dame returned the favor with a 31-13 victory in South Bend last season. The Irish have not won in East Lansing since 2006. Although it’s only the third game of the year, this matchup will go a long way to determining where Notre Dame stacks up nationally. Michigan State has some key personnel losses, but will still be a top 25 team. If the Irish can win on the road, Brian Kelly’s team just might have a shot to get to 10 wins.
Revenge Game: Michigan (Sept. 22)
Michigan-Notre Dame provided one of the most memorable finishes of the 2011 college football season, and this matchup should be close once again in 2012. The Irish led 24-7 going into the fourth quarter, but a 16-yard touchdown pass from Denard Robinson to Roy Roundtree capped a 28-point fourth quarter by Michigan to win 35-31. The Wolverines should be the better team in 2012 and have won two out of the last three matchups in South Bend. Considering Notre Dame dominated for three quarters last year, there will certainly be plenty of motivation to avenge last season’s fourth-quarter collapse.
Freshman to Watch: Gunner Kiel, QB
Kiel was committed to Indiana, but switched to LSU and appeared set to join the Tigers for the spring. However, he had a change of heart and jumped to South Bend in mid-January and will have an opportunity to compete for the starting job this year. Kiel ranked as the No. 24 overall prospect in the 2012 Athlon Consensus 100, but drew mixed reviews from scouts. The freshman has some work to do in order to win the starting job, but he will be awarded every opportunity to play this year.
Freshman to Watch II: Davonte Neal, WR
With Michael Floyd no longer catching passes in South Bend, the Irish desperately need a go-to target to emerge at wide receiver. Neal (5-foot-9) lacks Floyd’s height, but could be a dangerous playmaker. Although TJ Jones, John Goodman and Robby Toma are the likely starters, there’s plenty of room for Neal to work his way into the mix in the fall.
Comeback Player: Braxston Cave, C
The Irish didn’t have many major injuries last year, but Cave missed the final four games due to foot surgery. He started all 13 games in 2010 and was named to the Rimington Trophy watchlist before the 2011 season. Cave’s return should help Notre Dame boast a solid offensive line in 2012.
Offensive Newcomer of the Year: DaVaris Daniels, WR
In addition to settling the quarterback position, the Irish have to find a new go-to receiver. TJ Jones, John Goodman and Robby Toma appear to be the early favorites for the starting receiver positions, but true freshman Davonte Neal and Daniels will figure into the mix. Daniels did not see playing time last year, but was regarded as one of the top receivers coming out of high school in 2011.
Defensive Newcomer of the Year: Ishaq Williams, LB
With Aaron Lynch’s decision to transfer to South Florida, the Irish need Williams to help boost their pass rush in 2012. He played sparingly last year, recording six tackles in 11 games. Williams enters fall behind Prince Shembo on the depth chart, but he is expected to see significant playing time each week.
Position Battle: Quarterback
If the Irish can fix the quarterback position, contending for a BCS Bowl will be within reach. However, the offense left spring practice with few answers under center. Tommy Rees has started 16 games over the last two years, but hasn’t developed into a difference maker. He also ran into legal trouble in early May, which could cloud his availability for the first few contests of 2012. Redshirt freshman Everett Golson and sophomore Andrew Hendrix bring dual-threat potential to the position, but both are inexperienced. True freshman Gunner Kiel enrolled for the spring and will have a chance to earn playing time in the fall. Rees is the safe pick, but for the Irish offense to improve in 2012, it’s likely Golson needs to take the reins.
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