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Yahoo Sports' Top 25: No. 13 Notre Dame

Get prepared to see a lot of Brandon Wimbush (L) and Dexter Williams in 2018. (Robert Franklin/South Bend Tribune via AP)

Welcome to Yahoo Sports’ 2018 college football preseason top 25. A poll that’s guaranteed to be wrong like every other preseason poll out there. Every day in August we’re going to reveal a new team in our top 25 culminating with the reveal of our No. 1 team on Aug. 25. And yes, it’s a team from the SEC.

Previously: No. 25 South Carolina, No. 24 Utah, No. 23 West Virginia, No. 22 Central Florida, No. 21 Texas, No. 20 USC, No. 19 Florida State, No. 18 Oregon, No. 17 Mississippi State, No. 16 TCU, No. 15 Michigan, No. 14 Boise State

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No. 13 Notre Dame

2017 record: 10-3
Returning starters: 6 offense, 9 defense

Keep the run game going

Notre Dame’s rushing attack should be good again in 2018. Can it be great?

The Irish are replacing running back Josh Adams and, most importantly, replacing first-round NFL draft pick offensive linemen Mike McGlinchey and Quenton Nelson. The two linemen went No. 6 (Nelson to the Colts) and No. 9 (McGlinchey to the 49ers) in the 2018 draft.

Very rarely does a team have to replace two first-round offensive linemen. And very, very rarely does a team have to replace two top-10 picks up front.

The good news is that Notre Dame is returning three other players with starting experience along the offensive line including senior center Sam Mustipher and senior guard Alex Bass. The two should be a fulcrum in the middle of the line and Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said Mustipher had taken on a leadership role as preseason camp opened.

Adams ran for 1,430 yards and nine touchdowns in 2017. Senior Dexter Williams is the next man up and asking him to replicate that production is a bit foolish. If Williams and Tony Jones can combine for 1,700 yards then that’s a very successful season for Notre Dame’s running backs. The weight of the team shouldn’t have to be all on the running game anyway.

Brandon Wimbush needs to improve as a passer

If Notre Dame is going to be a top-15 team, Brandon Wimbush needs to take a step forward in 2018. Wimbush was fantastic on the ground last season, rushing for over 800 yards and scoring 14 touchdowns. His passing statistics left a little bit to be desired, however.

Wimbush completed less than 50 percent of his passes for 1,670 yards, 16 touchdowns and six interceptions. That’s a nice touchdown-to-interception ratio, but you can’t use that word to describe anything else in his passing line.

Kelly was effusive in his praise for Wimbush’s summer work.

“He attacked his weaknesses, he continued to sharpen his strengths, and what I loved the most about him is that he’s a humble leader,” Kelly said. “In other words, he took the time to work on any of the things that he felt like he needed to work on, as well as he became much more of a vocal leader for us.

“I would say A plus in the off-season for Brandon Wimbush. Now let’s go put the other pieces of our preparation together.”

Notre Dame returns wide receiver Chase Claypool (402 yards) and TE Alize Mack on the outside. Mack could be a good sleeper candidate to post a fine season if you’re looking for a tight end in college fantasy football.

Defense returns 9 starters with a new coordinator

Notre Dame’s defense has a lot of continuity in 2018. Except at the coordinator position. Defensive coordinator Mike Elko left after a season to be the defensive coordinator at Texas A&M. Notre Dame’s defense allowed six fewer points per game in 2017 than it did in 2018. Keeping opponents to 21 points per game is a worthy goal for new coordinator Clark Lea.

Lea should run much of the same system that Elko did. He was the linebackers coach in 2017. The defense has to replace second-leading tackler Nyles Morgan and fourth-leading tackler (and all-name team member) Greer Martini, but everyone else is back. That includes linebacker Te’Von Coney, who had 116 tackles and 10 tackles for loss in 2017. He could be an All-American candidate in 2018 as he shifts to middle linebacker.

Notre Dame running back Dexter Williams averaged over 9 yards a carry in 2017. (AP Photo/Tony Avelar)

Impact player

Dexter Williams, RB: We mentioned Williams in the first section above but it’s worth re-emphasizing that he’s set to play a major role in Notre Dame’s offense in 2018. Kelly said Williams has made strides in the offseason in preparation for a much larger role with the offense.

“He’s put on eight to ten pounds,” Kelly said. His volume is up in terms of his ability to sustain his cardiovascular at a high level. He can go. He struggled with that at times last year. He’s physically fit, in great shape. He’s in the best position that he’s been and he’s going to help our football team next year.”

Williams averaged 9.2 yards a carry on just 39 carries in 2017. That YPC is unsustainable. But if he can even come close to Josh Adams’ nice 6.9 yards a carry in 2018, then Notre Dame will be on track for a good season.

Game to watch: Oct. 6 @ Virginia Tech

Let’s go a little outside the box here. The easy answer is the Fighting Irish’s season-opener against Michigan on Sept. 1. ESPN’s College GameDay is going to be there and it’s the biggest game of the weekend. But we put that as Michigan’s game to watch.

Virginia Tech is a nice test for Notre Dame. The road game comes a week after Stanford travels to South Bend on Sept. 29. And it’s the first big road game for the Irish if you think a trip to Wake Forest in Week 4 is pretty straightforward.

After Virginia Tech, Notre Dame’ has just two true road games left. Those are trips to Northwestern and USC. Both of those teams are probably better than Virginia Tech. We’ll get an idea of how Notre Dame could stack up on the road in those two games against the Hokies.

Best-case scenario

Notre Dame takes down Michigan in Week 1 and then beats Stanford in Week 5. A 5-0 start means Irish fans would have legit aspirations of the team being undefeated heading into a November stretch that also includes Florida State.

Worst-case scenario

The Michigan game is a loss. So is the Stanford game. The Irish split road games at Wake Forest and Virginia Tech. That’s three losses in the first six games of the season. At 3-3, would you be confident about the rest of Notre Dame’s season? We wouldn’t.

Prediction

Notre Dame gets one of the Michigan and Stanford games and is 7-1 before playing Northwestern on Nov. 3. A 2-2 stretch against the Wildcats, Seminoles, Syracuse and USC means a 9-3 finish and a potential New Year’s Six bowl game.

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Nick Bromberg is a writer for Yahoo Sports.

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