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Notre Dame Fighting Irish

Today’s U Top 25 countdown: No. 9 — Notre Dame

Jason Mowry/Icon Sportswire

College football is on its way back, so we continue with the Today’s U Top 25 preseason rankings. We’re trotting out a new team each day. We started at No. 25 and we’ll build each day until we reach No. 1.

No. 9: NOTRE DAME FIGHTING IRISH

Last Season: 10-3 (Lost 44-28 against Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl)

Last Five Seasons: 47-18 (five bowl games)

Coach: Brian Kelly (seventh year, 55-23)

Overview: Notre Dame was in the mix for the College Football Playoff, but a 38-36 defeat against Stanford in the regular-season finale (on a final-play field goal) did in the Fighting Irish. Notre Dame isn’t quite as stacked as last season, but there is considerable talent. It looks like a team that could certainly achieve double-digit victories.

Player To Watch: LB Nyles Morgan, a junior, figures to be a key to Notre Dame’s defense. He was a freshman All-American in 2014, but wasn’t much of a factor last season, contributing just 17 tackles in a reserve role. Now he’s at middle linebacker; he’ll be counted on to set the example for lots of surrounding inexperienced players.

Top Newcomer: DE Daelin Hayes, who’s coming off shoulder surgery after enrolling early, should add much-needed pass-rushing help off the edge. Interesting images on Hayes’ background: He’s from Ann Arbor. He originally committed to USC. He wound up at Notre Dame.

All-Conference Potential: We understand that Notre Dame isn’t in a football conference … but if it was … WR Torii Hunter Jr., DT Jarron Jones, CB Cole Luke, LB Nyles Morgan.

Key Question: What’s up at quarterback? Coach Brian Kelly has Malik Zaire, who broke his ankle in Week 2 of the 2015 season, and DeShone Kizer, who led the Fighting Irish to 10 victories last year. Is the Zaire-Kizer quinella a dilemma or an advantage?

Best Unit: Running backs. While juggling a pair of quarterbacks and rebuilding the offensive line, the Fighting Irish will rely on the running game as an offensive strength. Sophomore Josh Adams set Notre Dame single-season rookie records with 835 yards rushing and a 7.1-yard average. Meanwhile, Tarean Folston, who looked great at the end of 2014, has returned after suffering a season-ending injury in last season’s debut game.

Good Stat: Kelly had an excellent offensive reputation when he was hired for the 2010 season. Sure enough, the Irish offense has increased its points-per-game output from 25.8 to 27.2 to 32.8 to 34.2 last season.

Bad Stat: The Fighting Irish were vulnerable against the run last season, allowing an average of 175.6 yards per game, ranking 72nd nationally.

Big Game: Oct. 15, Stanford. The Cardinal might have cost Notre Dame a shot at last season’s national championship, so this date has been circled and memorized. It has been a back-and-forth series since 2011 with the home team winning each time.

Final Words: Kelly has things going in the right direction. He’s the longest-tenured Notre Dame coach since Lou Holtz (1986-’96), and he is secured through the 2021 season. Notre Dame needs production — and no controversy — from its quarterback rotation. It needs its talented youngsters to grow up in a hurry. It also needs the defense to show up in a big way. If the Fighting Irish can navigate the early schedule and mature as the weather turns chilly, they can again be a factor on the national level.

Next: No. 8 LSU.

ICYMI: No. 10 Stanford; No. 11 Michigan State; No. 12 Ole Miss; No. 13 Washington; No. 14 Baylor; No. 15 Houston; No. 16 Georgia; No. 17 San Diego State; No. 18 TCU; No. 19 Louisville; No. 20 USC; No. 21 Iowa; No. 22 North Carolina; No. 23 Oregon; No. 24 Oklahoma State; No. 25 Florida.

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