Rice (0-0) at (17) Notre Dame (0-0) (ET)
GAME NOTES: Two teams eager to prove themselves will clash on Saturday afternoon when the 17th-ranked Notre Dame Fighting Irish begin their season against the visiting Rice Owls.
Obviously what each of these teams wants to prove is very different. The Owls, a program with history certainly, but not nearly as much as Notre Dame, would like to show that last year's 10-4 record was no fluke. They would also like to bounce back from a 44-7 beating at the hands of the Mississippi State Bulldogs in the Liberty Bowl, which soured a Conference USA title and their first 10-win season since 2008.
After a 12-0 regular season in 2012, which was marred a bit by the Manti Te'o controversy, the Fighting Irish remained a strong team last year, finishing 9-4 while navigating their usual difficult schedule. That success came despite the loss of starting quarterback Everett Golson to a season-long suspension. With Golson back in the fold, the goal is to get back into national title contention.
The first step toward achieving that goal should be a relatively easy one, considering Notre Dame has defeated Rice in all four previous matchups.
While Golson may be back, the Irish are still facing some controversy entering the season, with four players currently facing potential NCAA violations. Wide receiver DaVaris Daniels is one of the four, and his absence will be tough to ignore. He was the top returning player in terms of receptions (49), receiving yards (745) and touchdowns (seven). Chris Brown caught only 15 balls for 209 yards and a single score a year ago, and Ben Koyack has potential after turning 10 receptions into 171 yards and three TDs.
With the lack of depth at wide receiver an obvious weakness, head coach Brian Kelly will have to rely even more on Golson's play-making ability. Golson threw for 2,405 yards and 12 touchdowns, and also rushed for six scores while leading the Irish to the BCS National Title game in 2012. A return to form, or a bit of an improvement, would go a long way in keeping Notre Dame competitive. It will also give a boost to an offense that ranked 67th in the country with an average of 406.2 ypg a year ago.
Cam McDaniels (705 yards, three TDs) and Tarean Folston (470 yards, three TDs) give the Irish a strong one-two punch in the backfield, which should further take pressure off of the passing game.
"Folston is a really smooth operator and very productive, but Cam is so efficient in everything that he does for us. He's invaluable from that perspective," Kelly said of his two running backs.
The defense will also be a bit of a work in progress for Notre Dame, which has just four returning starters and a new coordinator in Brian VanGorder. The Irish have been a solid group the last few seasons, letting up just 366.2 yards and 22.4 points per game in 2013.
Returning to that type of production will require big years in both play and leadership from linebacker Jaylon Smith (67 tackles) and safety Austin Collinsworth (43 tackles, three INTs), especially with defensive back KeiVarae Russell, defensive lineman Ishaq Williams and linebacker Kendall Moore also involved in the possible NCAA violations that will keep Daniels out on offense.
Kelly is clearly confident that Smith can live up to his role.
"I think we've seen a lot of growth in his game," Kelly said of Smith. "He was an outside player, and now he's not just a leveraged player, he's playing inside out, which requires so much more as a football player. Discipline, instincts, pass coverage, so many things that he's grown into."
The first test for Smith and company will come against Rice's offense, which relies heavily on the run. The Owls were 17th in the country in rushing offense last season (227.4 ypg), but just 68th in total offense (405.6 ypg). All in all it wasn't too bad a year, but the trouble is that they must replace starting running back Charles Ross (1,280 yards, 15 TDs) and quarterback Taylor McHargue (169-of-324, 2,345 yards, 17 TDs, five INTs).
Driphus Jackson will take over for McHargue after serving as his backup last season. Jackson only threw 16 passes last year and completed only five. He is a threat on the ground, like McHargue, tallying 156 yards and a score in his limited time on the field.
The next in line at running back is also readily apparent. Last year's backup Jowan Davis (476 yards, three TDs) will be lining up in the backfield for the Owls.
Jordan Taylor (55 receptions, 848 yards, eight TDs) and Dennis Parks (29 receptions, 508 yards, three TDs) make for a solid receiving tandem, and tight end Connor Cella (13 receptions, 130 yards, TD) could see a bit more action.
On defense, Rice was among the top-30 teams in the country last year, at least with regard to yards allowed (364.1 ypg). The real strength of the squad came against the pass, with teams averaging only 202.7 yards per game against the Owls. Central to that success was cornerback Malcolm Hill (50 tackles, three INTs), who is the leader of the defensive backfield. Expect linebacker James Radcliffe (63 tackles) and defensive tackle Christian Covington (59 tackles, 11.5 TFL, 5.5 sacks) to figure prominently as well.
Despite the controversy swirling around Daniels, Russell, Williams and Moore, the Irish are a solid team from top to bottom, especially with the return of Golson under center. Rice won 10 games last season, but shouldn't count on a victory to start this one.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Notre Dame 31, Rice 13