After Notre Dame saw their College Football Playoff hopes dashed when they lost four of their last five regular season games in 2014, head coach Brian Kelly turned to quarterback Malik Zaire to lead the Fighting Irish to a victory in the Music City Bowl. Zaire gets the nod again in 2015, as No. 11 Notre Dame begins their quest for a national title starting with the season opener against unranked Texas at Notre Dame Stadium.
Zaire both threw and rushed for 96 yards in the bowl win over LSU, giving Notre Dame a preview of what they can expect from their new starter. Behind a bulky offensive line, Zaire could have even more success against Texas when Notre Dame tries to use a more comprehensive running game to defeat the Longhorns.
Notre Dame's spread offense should mostly remain the same, but having Zaire at quarterback changes things for the Irish. Last year, Zaire ran the ball on 33 of the 68 plays he was under center. He’ll look to move the ball on the ground against the team that ranked 63rd in stopping the run a year ago.
"There's probably been a little bit of a shift in our identity from going into spring until now," offensive coordinator Mike Sanford said via USA Today. "Because of personnel situations, I think obviously the quarterback, itself, settling that has definitely changed how we're going to go about attacking defenses, whatever that may be."
Texas opens the season with some optimism at quarterback, as well. Junior Tyrone Swoopes provided some uneven performances in his first season as the full-time starter, but the early returns have been good in practices. With pressure coming from redshirt freshman Jerrod Heard, the Longhorns may see an improved Swoopes in 2015.
"He’s got a new resolve and a new purpose about himself because of the criticism that came his way," assistant head for offense and quarterbacks coach Shawn Watson said via The Dallas Morning News. "It’s developed an edge in him, so we’ll see how far that takes him."
Swoopes' numbers were less than impressive last season. He completed 58.3 percent of his passes for 2,409 yards, tossing 13 touchdown passes and 11 interceptions, to go along with just 262 rushing yards on 108 carries.
There seems to be understandable hope around Austin that Swoopes has learned from his mistakes. But Heard is expected to see time on the field against Notre Dame, as well. Heard is considered a dual threat, which should keep the Notre Dame defense on their toes.
A major storyline for this game might be the defenses. Both squads boast much more depth after some inconsistent efforts in 2014. Second-year coach Charlie Strong, who is regarded as one of the top defensive minds in college football, has added one of the best recruiting classes in the nation. The Texas secondary is expected to be a strong suit for the Longhorns with senior Duke Thomas leading the unit, while redshirt freshman John Bonney has reportedly been impressive in practices.
For the Irish, outside linebacker Jaylon Smith is one of top players in the nation, while Sheldon Day and KeiVarae Russell are legitimate NFL prospects. Notre Dame will be without defensive lineman Jarron Jones, who is set to miss the season with a torn MCL.
Point Spread: Notre Dame by 9.5 points
Over/Under: 51 points
Prediction: Notre Dame over Texas, 33-20