The eve of the 2013 season is here for the Fighting Irish. Temple is set to become the 71st different team to visit Notre Dame Stadium and Notre Dame's 142nd different all-time opponent when Saturday's game kicks off just after 3 pm ET.
The Fighting Irish (12-1 last year) are a heavy favorite to roll over the Owls (4-7 in 2012). If they do, a large credit will likely go to the Irish lines. For starters, Notre Dame's massive offensive line has a girth advantage of nearly 40 pounds per man over Temple's defensive line.
Center Nick Martin (295 pounds) is one of the newest members of the Irish o-line, but veteran guard Chris Watt (321 pounds) says he augmented his own physique this summer with an even more important new arrival to the area.
"I think the biggest addition to South Bend was the Whole Foods over on Grape (Road)," Watt said this week about his improved focus on nutrition. "We did a really good job this summer of cooking our own food at our house and making sure we weren't going out to eat very much."
Watt has packed-on at least 11 pounds of muscle since last season. He and Zack Martin (308 pounds) will again anchor the left side of the line, while Christian Lombard (315 pounds) sets-up shop at right guard. Lombard was a reserve lineman in 2011, but brings a new confidence into this season after starting every game in 2012.
"I've played in 13 games and played in a national championship," Lombard said. "I know different variables of what's going to happen throughout a game, so from that standpoint I'm a little bit more calm and ready to go."
Notre Dame's offensive line was good last year, paving the way for more than 200 yards a game on the ground (the highest mark for the program since 1996). They look to be even better this year and a large part of the credit may go to the guys they face in practice every day: Sheldon Day and All-American candidates Louis Nix and Stephon Tuitt.
"This is one of the best defensive lines in the country," said Lombard. "We're going to be going up against guys that are just as good if not better, but these guys are top-tier defensive linemen we're going against every day. From that standpoint, I guess it's a confidence booster knowing that we can block guys like that."
Packing on good pounds was an emphasis for the entire Irish program after getting pushed around by Alabama in the BCS Championship Game. Linemen were not the only players to add muscle to their frames. Speedy receiver Chris Brown is still long and lean after going from 172 pounds as a true freshman last fall to his current listed weight of 190.
"It's allowed me to do more things," Brown said of his increased muscle mass. "(Strength) coach (Paul) Longo can speak for that. He's helped me put on good weight, which in turn I feel a lot better."
Brown says the weight just "came" as Longo pushed him and the rest of the team though intense workouts that began shortly after last season ended on Jan. 7.
Brown will be flying down field all season, regardless of what formation the Irish line-up in at the line of scrimmage, but the Pistol formation has Irish fans intrigued. It's a new wrinkle Brian Kelly and offensive coordinator Chuck Martin added after having former Nevada head coach Chris Ault, a Pistol proponent, speak at the Notre Dame coaching clinic this past spring.
The biggest beneficiary of the Pistol is expected to be running back George Atkinson. Just don't ask him why the Pistol will benefit him.
"I guess I can't really talk about what options we have, but you can talk to coach about that," Atkinson said. "We're just excited to get out there and play. We're not worried about what formation we're going to run. We're just making sure we're ready when the formation is called."
Atkinson says that, regardless of formation, his focus is to simply get "north and south" as quickly as possible after taking a handoff. Atkinson was at No. 3 on the depth chart behind Theo Riddick and Cierre Wood, but enters this season at No. 1 in front of a talented and diverse stable of backs. His motivation from one season to the next though is unchanged.
"I always have that motivation to do well and make sure I'm getting better," said Atkinson. "I don't like to get into worrying about somebody else. I just make sure I'm ready when I get the opportunity.
Atkinson rushed for 361 yards and five touchdowns last season. He also averaged 20 yards on 22 kick returns. He will assume that role this year for a third straight season.
"You (have to) bring a different type of mindset on kickoff return knowing that 11 guys know who's getting the ball," said Atkinson. "You just (have to) trust in your teammates making those blocks and running as hard as you can."
Atkinson is one of five players in the FBS who returned at least two kickoffs for touchdowns in 2011. More important to Notre Dame's 2012 success than return yardage though were turnovers. The Irish committed just 15 turnovers last season and a combined seven of those came against Stanford, Pittsburgh and Alabama.
Kelly is 119-12 in his career and 16-1 at Notre Dame when his team wins the turnover battle. The Irish defense forced 23 turnovers last season after causing just 14 (the fewest since 1951) the year prior. The Irish defense returns seven starters from last year's stingy squad, including KeiVarae Russell.
The cornerback managed two interceptions last year while starting at cornerback as a true freshman. Russell is as ready as anyone to run onto the field and get the season started on Saturday against Temple.
"Once you start walking out the tunnel you appreciate it more and more," Russell said. "That first time I did it against Purdue last year was unbelievable, but you get a different feeling each and every time you walk out. You kind of get that surreal feeling."
Sheldon Day joins the starting lineup at defensive end this season after working as a key reserve as a freshman last year. After a month of practices that were preceded by a summer of hard work, he is ready for game day as well.
"It's very exciting," Day said of his anticipation for Saturday's season-opener. "It's been a long time coming. We haven't had a game in a while, but it's definitely exciting."
Irish fans everywhere concur.