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Our 13th annual preseason Top 25: No. 9 Notre Dame has a solid building block in Williams

Notre Dame running back Kyren Williams produced nearly 1,500 yards of total offense last season and should be the major focus of this year's offense. The Fighting Irish have made it to the College Football Playoff in two of the last three years.

For the last 12 years, the American-Statesman's sports staff has spent July breaking down our own preseason Top 25 rankings. Last year's eventual College Football Playoff semifinalists ranked first, second, third and ninth in our 2020 poll.

No. 9 Notre Dame

The Fighting Irish have reached the College Football Playoffs in two of the past three years, but has the gap really closed between them and the nation's elite programs? In 2018, Notre Dame was beaten by Clemson in the semifinals 30-3. In 2020 it was a 31-14 semifinals loss to Alabama. This year the Fighting Irish must replace nine offensive starters and the nine players that were taken in the NFL draft. Still, running back Kyren Williams is a foundational, dynamic piece for Notre Dame to build around.

Notre Dame was No. 9 in our preseason poll last year. The Irish were fourth in the final CFP rankings and fifth in the AP and coaches polls.

About the Fighting Irish

2020: 10-2, 9-0 in the ACC — they fell 34-10 to Clemson in the conference championship game for their first loss of the season, and still made the CFP, where they fell 31-14 to Alabama in the national semifinals.

Coach: Brian Kelly, 252-96-2 overall, including 81-39 in 11 seasons at Notre Dame

Returning starters: 9 (2 offense, 7 defense)

Shoes to fill: OT Liam Eichenberg (Dolphins, 2nd round); G Aaron Banks (49ers, 2nd); LB Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah (Browns, 2nd); TE Tommy Tremble (Panthers, 3rd); OT Robert Hainsey (Buccaneers, 3rd); QB Ian Book (Saints, 3rd); DC Clark Lea (Vanderbilt HC); DE Daelin Hayes (Ravens, 5th); DE Adetokunbo Ogundeji (Falcons, 5th)

Notre Dame safety Kyle Hamilton earned All-American honors last season for the Fighting Irish. He'll play a key role for the team this year.

Catching up

Three offensive linemen went in the first three rounds of the NFL draft, including a pair of second-rounders in Eichenberg and Banks. ... Lea left to become the head coach of Vanderbilt; Notre Dame lured Marcus Freeman away from Cincinnati to be defensive coordinator. And former assistant coach Terry Joseph is now the passing game coordinator at Texas, and former Notre Dame DL Ovie Oghoufo transferred to Texas as well. ... Notre Dame signed the country's ninth-ranked recruiting class, powered by 12 four-star players.

Returning leaders

Passing: Drew Pyne 2-3-12, 0/0 (2nd on team); Brendon Clark 1-3-7, 0/0 (3rd)

Rushing: Kyren Williams 211-1,166-13 (led team), Chris Tyree 73-496-4 (2nd), C'Bo Flemister 58-299-5 (5th)

Receiving: TE Michael Mayer 42-450-2 (2nd), RB Kyren Williams 35-313-1 (3rd)

Tackles: S Kyle Hamilton 63 (led team), LB Drew White 57 (T-3rd)

Sacks: DL Isaiah Foskey 4.5 (2nd)

Interceptions: S Kyle Hamilton and LB Bo Bauer, 1 (tied for team lead)

Returning all-conference

Offense: RB Kyren Williams (2nd team), OL Jarrett Patterson (3rd)

Defense: S Kyle Hamilton (1st), DL Kurt Hinish (hon. mention)

Notre Dame quarterback Jack Coan started 18 career games for Wisconsin before joining the Fighting Irish this year. He'll help fill a big hole left by the departed Ian Book.

FYI

How the pandemic impacted Notre Dame: Because of the uncertainty over the season, the Irish competed in the ACC last season after operating as an Independent program for more than 130 years. Conference life treated Notre Dame well, however. The Fighting Irish reached the ACC title after beating ranked Clemson and North Carolina to go 9-0 in conference play. Five ACC teams are still on Notre Dame's 2021 schedule.

Ready to run: After rushing for 112 yards in his first career start, Williams kept on running. His 1,125 yards ranked ninth nationally and his 13 rushing touchdowns were the most for a Notre Dame running back since 1998. He also came up big in the Irish's biggest win: as they topped then No. 1 Clemson in double-overtime in November, Williams rushed for 140 yards and three touchdowns.

A hole at quarterback: Ian Book was drafted by the Saints, so who now will hand the ball off to Williams and direct the offense? Drew Pyne is the leading returning passer, but he attempted only three passes last year as a true freshman. The Irish added Wisconsin graduate transfer Jack Coan, who started 18 games for the Badgers. In the spring game, Coan outpassed Pyne 197 yards to 146, but Pyne led his squad to a 17-3 win.

2020 national stat rankings

Where Notre Dame ranked nationally in various statistical categories last season — and how the Fighting Irish ranked in 2019.

Scoring: 30th (2019 — 13th, -17 spots)

Scoring defense: 14th (T-18th, +4)

Total offense: 26th (43rd, +17)

Total defense: 25th (T-18th, -7)

Passing: 58th (49th, -9)

Pass defense: 61st (3rd, -58)

Rushing: 24th (45th, +21)

Rush defense: 16th (60th, +44)

Sacks: 49th (32nd, -17)

Interceptions: 58th (76th, +18)

Red zone offense: 102nd (10th, -92)

Red zone defense: 89th (129th, +40)

Turnover margin: T-30th (4th, -26)

Time of possession: 7th (96th, +89)

Our Top 25 — so far

No. 25 Ole Miss: Rebels have plenty of firepower to work with

No. 24 Washington: Huskies back for more after 3-2 season

No. 23 Louisiana: Ragin' Cajuns out to prove that they belong

No. 22 Penn State: Nittany Lions want to keep the momentum going

No. 21 Oklahoma State: Cowboys have offensive questions, for a change

No. 20 Iowa: Hawkeyes hope this is the year to bump the Buckeyes

No. 19 Coastal Carolina: Upstart Chanticleers look here to stay, ready or not

No. 18 Texas: Longhorns are starting over at coach, quarterback, offense, defense

No. 17 Wisconsin: Badgers eager for a bounce-back season in Big Ten

No. 16 Miami: Hurricanes banking on D'Eric King's return from injury

No. 15 Oregon: Ducks out to make it three straight Pac-12 title game wins

No. 14 LSU: Last year's hard knocks may pay off for this year's Tigers

No. 13 Indiana: Hoosiers have restocked their shelves with transfer talent

No. 12 USC: Trojans are trending in the right direction in Pac-12

No. 11 Florida: Minus the big names, Gators starting over on offense

No. 10 North Carolina: Tar Heels work transfer portal to keep things going

No. 9 Notre Dame

Coming tomorrow

Our No. 8 team. Want a hint?

This Group of Five program has gone 31-6 over the past three years and led Georgia in the fourth quarter of last season's Peach Bowl.