SOUTH BEND – The latest edition of Sports Illustrated came out with its college football predictions and had Notre Dame ranked as the 14th-best team in the country. I can't argue with that. It's difficult to project where a team will finish when it hasn't even played a game yet.
But where the magazine veered off course was the listing of three key players to the success of the Fighting Irish. Neither of the two quarterback candidates (Dayne Crist and Tommy Rees) was mentioned.
Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly announced this week that Tuesday would be “Decision Day” for naming the starting quarterback for the season opener Sept. 3 against South Florida.
“Both of the guys are prepared,” Kelly said recently. “It's going to be the slightest of margins when we make this decision.”
Also falling under the category of “slightest of margins” is the difference between Notre Dame finishing in contention for a BCS bowl berth or completely out of the national title picture.
There isn't a game on the 2011 Irish schedule where one can say with certainty that Kelly's kids have minimal chance for a victory. But there are at least a half-dozen games in which a win isn't a foregone conclusion either. Heck, this is a program that last season got smoked by Navy (35-17) and lost 28-27 to Tulsa – in South Bend.
Nothing will be guaranteed for this team. That is, with the exception that poor quarterback play could cast the season into oblivion.
“The quarterback has to be efficient in all areas,” Kelly said. “That is getting us into the right play, checking into the right protection and making sure the right people get their hands on the football.”
It is Kelly's responsibility to ensure the right person gets his hand on the ball each play, and the coach has faith in both Crist and Rees to do so.
“I'm confident both of those guys will lead our team in the manner they need to be led,” Kelly said. “It's that close and it's a good situation to have as a head coach.”
Both candidates bring different strengths to the competition, but both also showed glaring weaknesses in their time on the field a year ago.
Too many times, each quarterback locked in on a certain receiver regardless of coverage and tried to force passes into areas he shouldn't have.
Rees is often lauded for leading the Irish to four straight victories to close the 2010 season. But he is also the player who threw eight interceptions in five games.
Crist wasn't exactly Peyton Manning in the backfield either, but he was better. The senior threw only seven picks in nine starts, but he simply isn't able to stay on the field. Each of the past two Octobers, Crist has suffered a season-ending injury, which raises the question: Can you count on this guy to remain healthy?
Certainly the other positions of play for Notre Dame are relevant to the success of the season. However, for the first time in a while, it seems the Irish have enough talent and depth at most positions to withstand injuries or less-than-stellar play from a starter. That isn't the case with the quarterback spot.
Regardless of whether Kelly goes, with experience (Crist) or moxie (Rees), he needs to get this one correct. That's because the difference between 8-4 and 10-2 is far more substantial than two victories in terms of prestige, recognition, national awareness and money earned.
“(Both quarterbacks) can take the whole offense and run with it,” Kelly said. “You have two quarterbacks that I have great trust and confidence they can play championship football.”
The coach had better hope so, because the success of the entire season rests on it.