The 2014 season is months away. Let's punch fate in the face and make wild assumptions about what could be the best 20 teams in the country next year.
Team: Notre Dame
Important People: Matt Kavanagh (A); Jim Marlatt (M); Stephen O'Hara (D); Brian Buglione (D); Conor Doyle (A); John Scioscia (A); Matt Landis (LSM)
Formerly Important People: John Kemp (G); Matt Miller (D); Sean Rogers (A); Ryan Foley (M); Tyler Kimball (M); Tyler Andersen (LSM)
Final 2013 Poll Positions: Media: 6; Coaches: 6
2013 Record: 11-5 (4-2, Big East)
2013 Snapshot: Kaboom!
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The ACC in 2014 is the reincarnation of a unimaginable medieval torture device: It's absurd, and whatever team survives is still going to have a mangled body. And that's the concern about the Irish entering the coming spring: Is Notre Dame complete enough to experience the totality of pain and stagger forward? The Irish have remained a fixture among the hyper-elite of the college lacrosse hierarchy over the last few seasons despite struggling to find consistent offense on a game-in and game-out basis, relying on a defense built to suffocate the opposition. In the ACC, a league ripe with programs that aren't afraid to punch to the accelerator and are flush with talent at both ends of the field, Notre Dame may have difficulty imposing its will on the opposition and gutting out one- and two-goal victories each and every game day. This turns on whether the Irish can develop a balance between their offensive and defensive production. Styles make fights, and Notre Dame's approach -- pragmatic consciousness that develops preferable circumstances -- may not mesh against the entirety of its new league next season. Now, the Irish has seen plenty of this over the years (Notre Dame hasn't been afraid to schedule anyone, and the Irish's adventures through the NCAA Tournament have exposed Notre Dame to the ACC's best), but playing an ACC schedule is unlike those prior pursuits. The grind of the ACC is a different kind of animal, as is the preparation and that comes with it. ACC teams are going to have an enhanced book on the Irish, and there's no assurance that Notre Dame's methodology is going to generate immediate rewards in a conference that is going to make even the league's most seasoned programs suffer. The Irish's balance will ultimately drive Notre Dame's position in the ACC, and if it fails to come into focus, the Irish could struggle.
A Thousand White Doves
Even with the concern about Notre Dame getting complementary production from its offense, the Irish's system is still among the strongest in the nation. The program's recent tradition illustrates that fact: The Irish have been to every NCAA Tournament since 2006, have made the quarterfinals of The Big Barbecue the last four seasons, made Championship Weekend trips in 2010 and 2012, and are producing All-Americans at a solid clip. Notre Dame is an elite program, and it could be on the cusp of another monster season in 2014:
- The graduation of Rogers stings, but Kavanagh returns to anchor the offense with noted contributors in Marlatt, Doyle, and Scioscia. Kavanagh is a multi-dimensional player despite his thimble size, and his ability to carry and generate offense is a major factor in how the Irish make the scoreboard blink. The relative experience around him at attack should create problems for opposing defenses, but the real key is through Notre Dame's midfield: If Marlatt can fully establish himself as a tank on the first line, the Irish can build around him and leverage responsibility through both units. With Kavanagh and Marlatt Notre Dame has important assets that create further value, allowing a somewhat thin midfield to contribute as necessary (and at their own pace). Tent pole producers matter, and the Irish have two good ones with differing skill attributes.
- If Gerry Byrne was given nothing but parking cones to stop an opponent's offense, he could probably find a way to hold the opposition to under 10 goals. The Irish continually lose first team All-Americans from the defensive end of the field and still find a way to make opposing offenses curl up in a ball in the restraining area and weep. Byrne's defensive acumen is as good as any in the nation, and armed with gigantic humans that should be playing tight end instead of close defense, it looks like the Irish are going to eat souls once again. Look at it this way: Do you have the stones to bet against Byrne with Buglione, O'Hara, Jack Near, and whatever other predators that Notre Dame is going to throw out on the field? Even without Kemp backstopping this beast that's still a tough bet to make.
The Stars, The Moon, Six Feet Under
The Stars: The defense drives Notre Dame back to Championship Weekend, finishing well in the ACC and seeing Kavanagh goof the competition all season long; Conor Kelly seamlessly transitions into the net for the Irish, holding the line in the absence of Kemp; Notre Dame gets revenge against Syracuse for last season's lopsided results; the Irish's freshman karaoke competition gets a one season pickup on VH1.
The Moon: The Irish have little problem moving to the ACC, playing four games at a tempo that they're not particularly used to (Maryland becomes trench warfare, to the Irish's liking); heads to Philadelphia in the top four of the ACC for the league's tournament; Notre Dame shoots 29 percent as a team.
Six Feet Under: Kemp's graduation becomes too difficult to overcome and the Irish can't simply play to 10; the offense struggles to build around Kavanagh and Marlatt and opposing defenses are able to focus exclusively on these two cats; the NCAA Tournament conversation ends with a bubble-out decision due to a lack of monster win depth; the team's inability to beat the Orange in 2013 carries into 2014.