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Top 25 team preview: No. 8 Notre Dame Fighting Irish

Photo: Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Stephon Tuitt (7) and Notre Dame surrendered just 12.8 points per game last season, second nationally.

Can Alabama make a run at a third straight national title? Can Ohio State replicate last year's 12-0 campaign? Can Oregon maintain its standard of success under new leadership? With the college football season approaching, Sports Illustrated unveils its preseason Top 25.

For more college football preview content, check out SI's 2013 schedule guide, four teams that can beat Alabama package, preseason All-America Team, media roundtable and much more.

The case for

Stephon Tuitt swears it was a healthy, enriching experience, one to be filed away for future reference and guidance. Even though the Fighting Irish were manhandled by Alabama in the BCS championship game, he points to one positive he and his teammates took away from that 42-14 blowout in Miami: They know what to expect the next time they play for the national title, which, according to Tuitt, will be in January. "Now we have a taste of what it's like to be in that game, we all want to get back, and we're working harder than ever to do that," said Tuitt, a junior defensive end who led Notre Dame with 12 sacks last season. Though the Irish must replace eight starters from last year -- including quarterback Everett Golson, who was suspended for the season for academic reasons -- there shouldn't be a significant drop in overall talent because Brian Kelly's past three recruiting classes have been among the best in the nation.

The case against

Losing Golson, a difficult-to-defend dual-threat quarterback, is a significant blow. Senior Tommy Rees, who has started 18 games for the Irish, isn't a running threat (-71 yards for his career), but he's the son of a football coach and usually makes sound decisions. His confidence could be low after he was benched last year.

Schedule analysis

A trip to Ann Arbor on Sept. 7 will be a test for Rees, as will back-to-back late September home games against Michigan State and Oklahoma. Another undefeated run through a difficult regular-season schedule -- which concludes at Stanford -- appears highly unlikely.

Key stat

5: The number of games that Notre Dame won last season by scoring 20 or fewer points. For the Irish to return to a BCS bowl, the offense will need to put up more points -- and be more consistent -- in 2013.

Breakout player

RB Amir Carlisle: Carlisle gained 118 yards on 19 carries as a freshman at USC. He transferred to South Bend in 2012, then broke his ankle in spring practice and missed the season. Now the 5-foot-10, 185-pound back could form a dangerous tandem with George Atkinson III.

Freshman to watch

S Max Redfield: The 6-3, 195-pounder, who played at Mission Viejo (Calif.) High and was the No. 2 overall prospect in the state, according to Rivals.com, has a chance to be an immediate starter on defense. Kelly says he could even line up for a few snaps at receiver. "Some freshmen have the athletic ability but not the mental ability, but Max has both," Kelly said. "We think he can compete for playing time right away. We're extremely high on him."

X-factor

DT Louis Nix: One Irish player who arguably turned in his best performance in the BCS title game, Nix consistently penetrated into the Crimson Tide backfield and finished the championship with a season-high five tackles. NFL scouts project Nix to be a high first-round draft pick because he's the rare interior defensive lineman who constantly requires double teams to block.

Projected 2013 stats (By RotoWire.com)

QB Tommy Rees: 2,735 passing yards, 20 TDs; -50 rushing yards, 1 TD

RB George Atkinson III: 1,150 rushing yards, 10 TDs; 250 receiving yards, 1 TD

WR DaVaris Daniels: 730 receiving yards, 4 TDs; 25 rushing yards

Coach speak: Brian Kelly

SI: Entering your fourth year, do you think your program-building is ahead of schedule?

BK: You could make the case that we are, but there's much more work to be done. We need more depth, and that was really exposed in the national championship game. When you have 42 days to practice, you need the ample depth to tackle and be physical, and we just weren't there yet.

SI: What did you learn from the loss?

BK: We learned that at Notre Dame, we can play for and win national titles. The score didn't indicate that, but we're a lot closer after evaluating that game.

SI: What do you expect of Tommy Rees?

BK: He's a veteran guy who has played at USC and won. He's played against Florida State and played at Michigan and Michigan State. He's played a lot of football, and he has the ability to win.

SI: What keeps you up at night?

BK: There are always uncertainties when you ask a young player to step up. But the biggest component on this team is that they know how to win. I'd rather have that than anything else.

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