SOUTH BEND, Ind. - During his previous stops, Brian Kelly's teams have taken a major jump forward in Year 2, so that is one reason for the optimism surrounding Notre Dame.
Couple that with a 4-0 record to close the 2010 season that included a Sun Bowl thumping of Miami, Fla., and a plethora of returning starters, could this be the year that the Fighting Irish finally get back into the title picture?
Notre Dame will enter the Sept. 3 opener against South Florida ranked No. 18 in the coaches' poll.
''I want them to have good feelings about who they are and where they've come,'' Kelly said at his season-opening press conference. ''But I think I've said this pretty clearly, and our players are in it for the same reason. I want to be in (Oklahoma coach) Bob Stoops' position where he's talking about being No. 1. That's why we're here. We want to get to the point where we're part of the conversation as a championship-caliber football team.
''We're not there yet. We're thrown in the mix there. I don't walk around with my Top 25 shirt on.''
The four straight victories at the end of last season are also the career record on quarterback Tommy Rees' ledger. Rees came on in place of an injured Dayne Crist as a true freshman and led the Fighting Irish to victories against Utah, Army, USC, and Miami.
But last season was last season, and Rees will have to beat out Crist. Crist, who also won four games, and Rees are in competition to see who will start under center against the Bulls. Kelly said it will be no mystery and the winner of the competition was expected to be revealed a few weeks into camp.
Crist threw for 2,033 yards with 15 touchdowns and seven interceptions. Rees had 1,106 yards with 12 touchdowns and eight interceptions.
Another interesting wrinkle is that neither is the ideal quarterback for Kelly's spread offense. Both were recruited by former coach Charlie Weis and his pro-style offense.
In order to keep defenses off-guard, Kelly has hinted at using sophomore Andrew Hendrix or freshman Everett Golson in special packages.
Whomever wins the quarterback battle can breathe a major sigh of relief with the return of standout receiver Michael Floyd. Kelly reinstated Floyd at the beginning of fall camp after suspending him following a DUI arrest last March.
Floyd is a big body who decided to return for his senior season instead of seeking NFL riches. Barring injury or another personal setback, the 6-foot-3, 224-pounder will hold every major receiving record in school history.
Theo Riddick had a nice season going after switching from running back, but an injury derailed him toward the end. He returns, along with impressive sophomore T.J. Jones and junior Robby Toma. Freshman DeVarious Daniels will likely see some snaps. Tyler Eifert replaces Kyle Rudolph at tight end.
At tailback, Cierre Wood really came into his own and Kelly expects big things from the junior this time around. Wood rushed for 603 yards and three touchdowns on 119 carries last season, and he gained at least 80 yards in each of Notre Dame's final three games. Backing him up is Jonas Gray, who will also need to stay healthy with a lack of depth at tailback.
The offensive line is experienced and looks to be one of the top units in the country. Missing just Chris Stewart, Notre Dame will trot out Braxton Cave, Tayler Dever, Zach Martin, and Trevor Robinson. Andrew Nuss and Chris Watt are battling out to replace Stewart.
Much like the offense, which returns nine starters, the defense brings back eight. The starting unit allowed just one touchdown in the final four games last season.
The heart and soul of that defense is linebacker Manti Teo. The Butkus Award candidate has a motor that never stops running, leading the Irish with 133 tackles, 40 more than any of his teammates.
Joining him inside will likely be Carlo Calabrese. The outside linebackers will be three-year starter Darius Fleming and sophomore Prince Shembo.
Along the defensive line, Kapron Lewis-Moore and Ethan Johnson have been three-year starters. Louis Nix and Sean Cwynar will battle for the nose guard position. Keep an eye out for highly touted freshmen Aaron Lynch and Stephon Tuitt. Both are ultra-talented and defensive coordinator Bob Diaco might have a hard time keeping them on the sideline.
The Fighting Irish's weakness might come in the secondary, but they are still pretty skilled and experienced there.
Harrison Smith was the defensive Most Valuable Player of the Sun Bowl after picking off three passes and returns to anchor the secondary. He will be joined at safety by Zeke Matta with Jamoris Slaughter and Dan McCarthy seeing time.
At corner, Robert Blanton and Gary Gray have been playing since they were freshmen.
David Ruffer, a walk-on last season that didn't miss a kick until his final attempt, earned a scholarship and will resume those duties.