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Beyond the Empire: One Foot Down drops in to talk Notre Dame football, matchups, and B1G memories

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Great job, Rutgers.
Great job, Rutgers.
The Star-Ledger-USA TODAY Sports

The esteemed Jesse Collins has been killing it with his previews of the Big Ten's matchups with both the PAC-12 and MAC for the upcoming 2014 season. Since a, erm, contentious Notre Dame Week back in 2012, we haven't really checked in with the Big Ten's favorite enclave of fandom, the Fighting Irish. Thankfully, with three B1G-ND matchups in 2014, Eric Murtaugh over at One Foot Down was gracious enough to answer a few of my questions on Notre Dame.

State of the Program

Notre Dame bids adieu to Michigan State and welcomes Northwestern to their Big Ten non-conference slate in 2014. Unfortunately, that's about all I know, since as far as I can tell, it's been a pretty quiet, uncontroversial off-season for the Irish. Am I wrong? What's the feeling around South Bend for Notre Dame in 2014? Is Brian Kelly still comfortably in control after the disappointing regression of 2013?

Eric Murtaugh: Yes it has been a fairly quiet off-season for the Irish, especially compared to last year when the program was dealing with Kelly's talks with the Eagles, the Te'o hoax, Golson suspension, and Eddie Vanderdoes getting out of his National Letter of Intent during the summer because his grandma was sick. So far as fall camp continues it's been a pretty normal run up to the season for a college football team.

The feeling around South Bend is one of curiosity, I think. There are two new coordinators, Golson returns at quarterback from suspension, and everyone is waiting to see if the program can bounce back from a somewhat disappointing 2013.

Brian Kelly is still comfortably in control. Barring something disastrous on the field or a massive off the field drama his seat should stay pretty cool until after the 2015 season. But this is Notre Dame and after 6 years (he'd be only the second coach in 40 years to be coaching at the school this long) he'll have to show some better progress than what we've seen so far. Not all fans agree with me on this but if there isn't another 10+ win season either this year or next I believe the leadership should start looking around at other coaching options.

Offense

I, uh, I was underwhelmed by Everett Golson in 20132, as no doubt you all were. Is he going to bounce back in 2014? Will the offensive line be able to give him time to throw the ball? Who's going to be the running back barreling over Purdue? Feel free to include creative scenarios there. Additionally, have you guys added any wideouts we should be worried about?

EM: I think that was a joke about Golson since he was suspended last season? [ed note: No, I'm just an idiot and typed the wrong year. Read my mind, Eric.] At any rate, we're waiting to see how rusty he is after missing an entire season, how much he'll be improved over the quarterback we saw in 2012, and how he handles having the handcuffs taking off as he grows more comfortable in the offense.

There is some mild concern on the offense line after losing a first and third round pick to the NFL Draft but the recruiting at this position has been the best on the entire roster and thanks to some injuries last year a bunch of guys return with starting experience. Line coach Harry Heistand has done a phenomenal job since being hired a couple years ago and the expectations are that the line will be very good again.

Things look all set to rotate a trio of backs in senior Cam McDaniel, sophomore Tarean Folston, and redshirt freshman Greg Bryant. The latter two are probably among the most talented and physically developed runners the Irish have had over the last 10 to 15 years. There are very high hopes for this unit but at the same time they haven't proved a whole lot at the college level. Everyone is hoping they break out and give Notre Dame a ground game to lean on this fall.

The receivers are as deep as they've been during the Kelly era which is exciting. DaVaris Daniels returns from a spring suspension and looks to step up as the No. 1 receiver. The talent is there but we're all waiting to see more consistency and health. Behind him there will be as many as 7 other wideouts who will see the field regularly. Most of them have played a little and it's understandable if outsiders don't see the big deal but Irish fans are really pumped to see guys like Chris Brown, Corey Robinson, and Will Fuller develop as players.

Defense

Excellent against Michigan State in 2013, horrendous against Michigan. Which one is the real Notre Dame defense, or is it somewhere in between? Who's the playmaker to watch for on the defensive side of the ball?

EM: The real Notre Dame defense was somewhere in between the MSU and Michigan games. They were just okay last year and simply could not overcome several injuries to key players. The old defense under Bob Diaco always matched up well against the Spartans and it helped that the Irish played them before Connor Cook got going in their offense. Michigan has been able to pull magic out of a hat against Notre Dame for several years. We're kind of used to it by now.

There are budding stars at each level of the defense. Rising junior Sheldon Day will moved to 3-tech defensive tackle in the new defense and should wreak havoc from that position. Sophomore linebacker Jaylon Smith might be the most athletically gifted Notre Dame player not just on the current roster but of this century and he's poised to be an All-American if he stays healthy. The last player is corner Keivarae Russell who has been described as a shut down-type of athlete. I don't think he's quite earned that label but he's very likely going to be a captain this fall, has had a strong career so far, and could be the leader of the defense.

Autonomy and the ACC

With Notre Dame, by my reading, excluded from the ACC in the autonomy ruling but included in the overall legislation, what (if anything) does this mean for Notre Dame's conference affiliation and day-to-day operation going forward? Still not gonna come join the Big Ten, huh?

EM: Everything has been gravy so far with the ACC relationship. It gives programs like basketball, soccer, and lacrosse a stable and competitive home and it keeps Notre Dame from being on the outside looking in on any new rule changes like another football independent such as BYU. The 5-game scheduling agreement was a problem for some people but in my opinion it stabilizes Notre Dame's schedule, prevented other teams from blackballing the Irish, and offers some new and exciting matchups to future seasons.

Joining the Big Ten appears to be as dead as dead can be. There just isn't much of a benefit for Notre Dame and the very small minority of Irish fans who wanted the team in the conference are almost all living within B1G states. The football team will always find room to play Michigan State, Purdue, and yes even Michigan, so there's no need to jump into the rest of the conference when the ACC offers more in virtually every other area.

Predictions

Hosting Michigan on the 6th, traveling to Lucas Oil to meet Purdue on the 13th, and then a late showdown in South Bend with my Wildcats on 11/15. Which matchup scares you the most, and why? Feel free to make some early predictions, and don't worry: there's no way we'd ever remember who you chose, you filthy homer.

EM: The Michigan game is obviously the most worrisome. I've written on our site that it's perhaps the most important game of the Kelly era outside of the BCS National Championship Game back in 2012. The team really needs a 4-0 start with a very tough back two-thirds of the schedule so a loss to Michigan would make a 7-5 type of season a very distinct possibility. It would also drop Brian Kelly's record against UM to 1-4 and given that most Irish fans believe we've been the 'better' team over the past 5 years that might be something Kelly will never be able to live down.

B1G Memories

Do any Big Ten/Notre Dame games from your lifetime stand out to you as one of the best? Who (in your opinion) from the Big Ten do the Fighting Irish get up the most to play? Who's the best/worst B1G fanbase to deal with?

EM: Well, there are so many games to choose from so it's tough to pick the best one. By my count there are 82 games since I was old enough to remember any of the outcomes. I honestly don't think I could pick one. The '89 Michigan game was probably the first memorable moment and I'd put that very high on the list. The recent wins over MSU have been rewarding as well. It's tough to pick more games because they are played so early in the season that they are viewed differently in posterity once the rest of the seasons played out. There have been some big wins at the time that turned out to be pretty blah wins.

There's no doubt that Notre Dame gets up the most for the Michigan game.

In my experience the best fanbase in the Big Ten to deal with is Michigan State. There isn't the hatred like there is with Michigan and there isn't an inferiority complex like there is with Purdue. There have been some testy moments over the years like any rivalry but I think there's a shared appreciation of the history between the programs at Notre Dame and Michigan State. The rivalry doesn't have the top-end stellar games like the Michigan series but in terms of breadth, length, history, and respect it far outweighs any other Big Ten series. It also seems like our athletic department gets along with theirs and will likely be a reason why the Spartans will remain a steady scheduling partner as Notre Dame transitions to the ACC agreement.

Again, the worst fanbase has to be Michigan. However, even with just 3 games played against Ohio State in my lifetime and hearing some horror stories about the programs' trip to Columbus in 1995 I think the Buckeyes would probably be on top of the list if we played more. For whatever reason, I think there's a lot of deep seated hatred between Notre Dame and Ohio State.

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Big thanks to Eric for stopping by Off Tackle Empire. You can check him out @EMurtaughOFD and the whole OFD staff @OneFootDown.