1. Notre Dame
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Notre Dame's revival. It didn't look good last year. They lost to Syracuse, and had to take a bid to the Hawai'i Bowl (no offense, but that's not a bowl you expect to see Notre Dame in). This year's team should be much better. Quarterback Jimmy Clausen appears to get it now, and he has a ton of talent around him. Receivers Golden Tate and Michael Floyd have NFL ability, and junior running back Armando Allen looks like a good one. Charlie Weis has loaded the offensive line with top players, and the only question is at left tackle, where Paul Duncan has to get settled in. There are a few more question marks on defense, but safety Kyle McCarthy and true freshman linebacker Manti Te'o should emerge as the top players. Redshirt freshman Kapron Lewis-Moore may get a chance to start on the line. Weis has a typical Notre Dame schedule, meaning there are landmines and cupcakes. The Irish only play four true road games, adding in a neutral site game (this year it's Washington State in San Antonio), so it's not ridiculous to suggest that Notre Dame will return to a BCS bowl after two years away.
Navy is nothing if not consistent. Fears were abound that Paul Johnson's departure would hurt the Midshipmen. Instead, first-year coach Ken Niumatalolo kept everything going quite well. Navy won eight games and got to a sixth straight bowl game. The Middies played great defense for much of the season, thanks to guys like linebacker Ross Pospisil and defensive end Matt Nechak, both of whom are among seven returning starters. Navy does have to find a new triggerman -- likely junior Ricky Dobbs -- for their option offense, along with new faces at two of the other three backfield positions. That work-in-progress offense opens at Ohio State and plays at Pittsburgh in their third game. However, Navy has always fielded a solid offensive unit, no matter how many starters they had to replace. It's an offense based on discipline and timing, not talent. Expect to see Navy again contending for a bowl bid, despite their tough schedule.
The triple option returns for real. Last year, Stan Brock tried to commit to the option offense at Army. It didn't go well, as the Black Knights had no threat through the passing game. A more modern version of the option should be on display at West Point this season. Former Cal Poly coach Rich Ellerson took over for the fired Brock. Ellerson's offense is based on the option, but there is a serious passing component to it. The Mustangs threw the ball all over the place last year, so much so that receiver Ramses Barden got enough attention to be a third-round pick in the NFL Draft. It shouldn't take long for Ellerson to get things going his way at Army. His first experiment involves six-foot-ten Ali Villanueva, who is now a receiver. If junior quarterback Chip Bowden can figure out a way to get him the ball down the field, Army's offense could create a real positive buzz for the first time in years.