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2021 Preview: Will New Talent Keep No. 11 Notre Dame Among the Elite?

Seven months after the confetti fell on national champion Alabama, a new college football season is nearly here. As part of Sports Illustrated's 2021 preview content, we're rolling out scouting reports for all of SI's preseason top 25 teams, featuring all the names, storylines and big games you need to know. Starting with No. 25 Nevada and running through No. 1 Alabama, we'll be featuring five teams per day from Monday through Friday.

The Big Story: Notre Dame 

It’s beginning to look like a time of transition for Brian Kelly’s fighting Irish. For the second time in three years, Notre Dame maneuvered itself into the College Football Playoff, overcoming a thrashing by Clemson in the ACC championship game with some early-season dominance. But a 31–14 Rose Bowl loss at the hands of traditional power Alabama ended quarterback Ian Book’s career in South Bend. Along with him went Butkus Award winner Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah and most of the offensive line. When you’ve won as much as Kelly has over the last few years of his tenure, double-digit win totals and playoff appearances become the expectation. This season will put his roster-building acumen to a difficult test.

Can't Miss: Kyle Hamilton

Hamilton isn’t just one of college football’s best returning safeties—he’ll likely be one of the top defensive players in the country. The Atlanta native is coming off an All-America season in which he led a talented Irish defense in tackles and knocked down six passes. His size (6' 4", 219 pounds) and freakish athleticism make him a versatile piece that can play as a run stopper or a roaming ball hawk. Notre Dame will likely need him to do a little bit of both—his partner in the defensive backfield is still unclear. Look for him to lead what will be a relatively inexperienced defense for the Irish.

Notre Dame QB Jack Coan hands off to RB Kyren Williams

Key Question: Can the Irish fill offensive line holes?

This is where the offensive rebuild begins and ends. Last year’s Notre Dame squad sported three offensive linemen who were selected in the first three rounds of the 2020 NFL draft, including both starting tackles. Center Jarrett Patterson is the only remaining full-time starter from 2020, leaving four other spots to All-America Marshall transfer Cain Madden and a host of young prospects. Madden will likely solidify an interior spot, but with a less mobile passer taking Book’s spot behind center (more on that later), the Irish’s offensive production could hinge upon whether the tackle replacements are at least up to par.

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X-Factor: Ian Book’s replacement

The starting spot is Jack Coan’s job to lose after he was officially tabbed for the role in the season opener. The Wisconsin transfer was originally recruited by Notre Dame before choosing the Badgers. An injury sidelined him for the entire 2020 season, and, after Graham Mertz took the starting role and ran with it, Coan decided to look for work elsewhere. He’s as pure a pocket passer as they come, completing nearly 70% of his attempts in 14 starts for Wisconsin in 2019. There may be some work to be done in terms of explosive plays (he’s not a threat in the run game, and averaged just 11.6 yards per completion in 2019). But if Coan can assimilate quickly, the Notre Dame offense should have enough weapons to do some serious damage.

Date to Circle: Oct. 30 vs. North Carolina

Yes, the date with Wisconsin in Chicago is tempting, as it’ll be Coan’s return to face the gunslinger that took over his position. But I like the matchup between Coan and UNC signal-caller Sam Howell. By the time the late October matchup in South Bend rolls around, we’ll already have a good feel for whether this Irish squad is a playoff contender once again. If so, this will likely be its final major test, and against a quarterback who will look to become the Tar Heels’ first Heisman Trophy winner. It’ll be a rematch of last season’s blowout win for Notre Dame that essentially put an end to any conference championship bid from UNC. Plus, who doesn’t love seeing navy and gold go head-to-head with powder blue?

The Bottom Line

The expectation of consistent double-digit win totals will continue for the Irish, as it should. Brian Kelly’s roster is too full of talent for Notre Dame to fall back into its doldrums of the early 2010s. Will Kelly be able to plug enough holes for the Fighting Irish to keep their seat among the nation’s elite?

More Top 25 Team Previews:

No. 19 Penn State
No. 18 Florida
No. 13 North Carolina