2011 Season Preview: Predictable Platitudes And The Notre Dame Fighting Irish

Every year we hear that this might be the year that Notre Dame puts all the pieces together. Is this the year the cliche becomes reality?

NOTE: Confused? Don't miss the definitions and footnotes at the bottom. And as always, if you don't like numbers, just skip to the words.

We tend to see the same tidbits of conventional wisdom coalesce every season. Nebraska's back! Clemson's going to underachieve! This is the year Notre Dame turns the corner! Just look good, drop these statements (plus maybe an "Oversigning's bad!" or a "Players need to be compensated!") and get in line to back whoever this year's consensus breakthrough team is (this year: Texas A&M), and you can make yourself some money.

Some of the fun in being a numbers nerd is getting to disagree with much of the conventional wisdom that is out there. Nebraska played much closer to Football Outsiders' projections than that of the national consensus last year, just like Ole Miss did in 2009 and, I'm confident, Texas A&M will in 2011. But occasionally the numbers add up, and an overused bit of conventional wisdom actually begins to ring true (beyond Clemson's chronic underachieving, anyway). And in this case, 2011 really could be the year that Notre Dame breaks through. They're going to be damn good this year. Damn good. Just prepare yourself now. I'm not saying they'll be national title contenders (I haven't gone that far down the Holtzian path), but ... they could potentially win double-digit games against a strong schedule.

That's it. That's the entire intro. I just lost half of you anyway, right?

2010 Schedule & Results*

Record: 8-5 | Adj. Record: 11-2 | Final F/+ Rk**: 17
Date Opponent Score W-L Adj. Score Adj. W-L
4-Sep Purdue 23-12 W 27.7 - 27.3 W
11-Sep Michigan 24-28 L 24.5 - 25.5 L
18-Sep at Michigan State 31-34 L 33.2 - 29.9 W
25-Sep Stanford 14-37 L 26.4 - 21.4 W
2-Oct at Boston College 31-13 W 33.8 - 17.7 W
9-Oct Pittsburgh 23-17 W 31.6 - 25.1 W
16-Oct Western Michigan 44-20 W 40.4 - 22.4 W
23-Oct vs Navy 17-35 L 26.5 - 33.3 L
30-Oct Tulsa 27-28 L 24.2 - 14.3 W
13-Nov Utah 28-3 W 31.3 - 3.0 W
20-Nov vs Army 27-3 W 25.1 - (-4.3) W
27-Nov at USC 20-16 W 21.0 - 6.7 W
31-Dec vs Miami 33-17 W 33.2 - 25.5 W
Category Offense Rk Defense Rk
Points Per Game 26.3 67 20.2 23
Adj. Points Per Game 29.1 45 19.1 9

Brian Kelly's first year in South Bend started slow -- two tight losses led to a 1-3 start -- but the Irish won seven of nine to finish the season despite an injury at the quarterback position, and due to a rock solid schedule, their F/+ ratings were exceedingly positive.

Though the offense held mostly steady throughout the year, the defense took off, and down the stretch it was downright dominant.

Notre Dame Defense, First Three Games: 27.6 Adj. PPG
Notre Dame Defense, Next Five Games: 24.0 Adj. PPG
Notre Dame Defense, Next Five Games: 9.0 Adj. PPG

The only time they gave up more than 14.3 Adj. Points in the last five games was against Miami in the Sun Bowl, and in that game they took a 30-3 lead before the Hurricanes got rolling. Theirs was potentially the best defense in the country after their humbling loss to Navy on October 23, and it is the primary basis for what will be some pretty strong College Football Almanac 2011 projections. Which is odd considering defense hasn't been the strongest feature for Kelly's teams in the past. So consider this a huge nod in the direction of defensive coordinator Bob Diaco, whose 3-4 alignment evidently fits the personnel very well.

Offense***

Category S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 29 40 26
RUSHING 35 42 30 Adj. Line Yards:
PASSING 35 47 28 40
Standard Downs 33 40 32 Adj. Sack Rate:
Passing Downs 60 63 64 29
Redzone 42 27 63
Q1 Rk 28 1st Down Rk 27
Q2 Rk 45 2nd Down Rk 40
Q3 Rk 37 3rd Down Rk 79
Q4 Rk 83

The Notre Dame offense featured the same kind of pass-first attack we've seen from Brian Kelly's offenses at previous stops, and it was reasonably effective. There was nothing great and nothing terrible about the Irish offense in 2010, though their overall success was dependent on their staying 'on schedule' and in standard downs. Both Dayne Crist and Tommy Rees were good-not-great, and neither were particularly effective on passing downs, but for most of the season, the offense at least didn't get in the defense's way.

It's obviously rather difficult to preview the Notre Dame offense when the single best offensive player is not guaranteed to actually play. Michael Floyd (1,025 yards, 13.0/catch, 61% catch, 12 TD), one of the more frequently-targeted receivers in the country, was suspended following a DUI arrest in March, and though I'd be willing to bet a large amount of money that he's available for most or all of the season  -- Kelly says he's in an 'all in or not' situation based on his ability to stay out of further trouble -- it's not guaranteed. With Floyd, Notre Dame has an explosive, if somewhat inefficient, pass-first offense. Without him, things might be alright, but it depends on the development of receivers like Tyler Eifert (352 yards, 13.0/catch, 66% catch, 2 TD), T.J. Jones (306 yards, 13.3/catch, 58% catch, 3 TD) and Robby Toma (187 yards, 13.4/catch, 78% catch in eight games). Theo Riddick (414 yards, 10.4/catch, 61% catch, 3 TD) is a nice efficiency option as well, but the ball flowed through Floyd last season, and his (unlikely) absence would hold back the offense at least a bit.

Obviously the other primary concern is the quarterback position. When Dayne Crist (2,033 yards, 6.9/pass, 59% completion, 15 TD, 7 INT) went down with a ruptured patella tendon (ever notice how much more awful injuries sound with the word "ruptured" involved, rather than "torn"? I guess "severed" would be even worse, but "ruptured" is awfully bad), Notre Dame was 4-4, but following an upset loss to Tulsa, Crist's replacement Tommy Rees (1,106 yards, 6.7/pass, 61% completion, 12 TD, 8 INT) won his final four games of the year, so he had the better season, right? Not necessarily.

Notre Dame Offense with Dayne Crist: 30.3 Adj. PPG
Notre Dame Offense with Tommy Rees: 26.7 Adj. PPG

Both hovered around the national average of 27.1, but taking opponent into account, the offense performed slightly better with Crist at the wheel. (This despite the fact that running back Cierre Wood began to thrive late in the season as well, further aiding Rees.)  The Irish very much won games with defense over their final third of the season, and while Rees didn't get in the way, Crist was the slightly more well-rounded option in terms of yards per pass, touchdowns-to-interceptions, and run threat (he's not exactly Tony Rice, but he had 165 pre-sack rushing yards). I assume the starting job will be Crist's when all is said and done, though Rees and evidently Everett Golson and Andrew Hendrix all still have a chance to sway the coaches.

Other tidbits:

  • Notre Dame has not lacked blue-chip recruits at the running back position, but most have failed to play like blue chippers. Not so with Cierre Wood. The former four-star signee from California caught fire late in the season, rushing for 258 yards on 41 carries over the Irish's final three games. For the season, he put up 603 yards, along with 170 receiving yards, and his +1.3 Adj. POE was not too bad for a redshirt freshman. He and another former four-star back, Jonas Gray (100 yards, 5.0/carry, -0.2 Adj. POE), should more than account for the losses of Armando Allen (514 yards, 4.8/carry, -1.6 Adj. POE, 2 TD; 138 receiving yards) and Robert Hughes (300 yards, 4.4/carry, -1.9 Adj. POE, 2 TD).
  • The Irish return four starters from a line that, like the Notre Dame offense as a whole, was solid but unspectacular. Left tackle Zack Martin is an interesting player to watch after starting all 13 games as a redshirt freshman last year, and the line as a whole has racked up a respectable 50 career starts.

Defense

Category S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 4 11 5
RUSHING 13 11 16 Adj. Line Yards:
PASSING 5 15 3 25
Standard Downs 5 13 5 Adj. Sack Rate:
Passing Downs 17 9 26 26
Redzone 5 10 4
Q1 Rk 27 1st Down Rk 6
Q2 Rk 9 2nd Down Rk 7
Q3 Rk 2 3rd Down Rk 10
Q4 Rk 29

Offense is typically the strong suit for Brian Kelly teams, but they won with defense late in 2010. Bob Diaco's 3-4 defense almost had the statistical profile of a 4-2-5 -- not great in attacking situations, but reacting, swarming, and preventing big plays -- but they still featured two consistent statistical aspect of a 3-4: a) their "Need for Blitzes" was low because they were able to disguise their attacks and rack up similar sack numbers on both standard and passing downs, and b) a lot of players made a lot of tackles for loss.  Seven had at least 5.0 TFL/sacks, and all seven return in 2011.

Oddly enough, opponents chose to primarily pass against the Irish (this despite the fact that Notre Dame played run-heavy teams like Michigan, Army and Navy last year), which played right into their hands. Notre Dame's run defense was solid, but they thrived against the pass, particularly on standard downs. Harrison Smith (74.5 tackles, 0.5 TFL/sacks, 7 INT, 7 PBU) was one of the best safeties in college football; he was not used in any sort of attacking role, but he was the primary reason Notre Dame was a top five defense in terms of preventing big plays. He returns, as does almost everybody else of significance in the secondary -- cornerbacks Gary Gray (57.0 tackles, 5.0 TFL/sacks, 7 PBU) and Robert Blanton (40.5 tackles, 7.0 TFL/sacks, 2 INT, 5 PBU), and free safeties Zeke Motta (40.0 tackles, 1.5 TFL/sacks, 2 PBU) and Jamoris Slaughter (25.5 tackles, 3 PBU). I could have sworn Gray was a senior last year, but Notre Dame's website disagrees with me. Only cornerback Darrin Walls is gone from last year's unit.

If there is a concern for the Irish defense in 2011, it comes at defensive tackle. Ian Williams (27.5 tackles, 3.5 TFL/sacks) is gone, and though he missed time last year and was adequately replaced by Sean Cwynar (21.0 tackles, 3.0 TFL/sacks, 1 FF), depth could be a concern. It was perhaps a blessing that Cwynar missed a large portion of spring practices with an injury -- the coaching staff got a decent look at what I assume will be Cwynar's backups. Regardless, tackle was a surprising area of strength; this is often not the case when moving from a 4-3 to a 3-4, but both Notre Dame and Texas A&M dodged bullets in this regard last year.

Other tidbits:

  • The major area for improvement for the Irish comes on passing downs. They were far from terrible, but considering how air-tight the defense was on standard downs, they did leak a few big plays here and there. Their blitzing was not amazingly effective on passing downs, which is surprising given the scheme. (It's even more surprising that they were so successful despite slight struggles in this area.)
  • I've gotten this far without mentioning the linebackers. Despite only mediocre passing downs numbers, the Irish still had four LBs with at least 5.0 TFL/sacks, led by outside backer Darius Fleming (38.0 tackles, 11.0 TFL/sacks, 4 PBU). Inside man and former five-star recruit Manti Te'o (99.5 tackles, 9.5 TFL/sacks, 3 PBU) proved to be more than just a tackling machine as well. Throw in a trio of sophomores -- Carlo Calabrese (43.0 tackles, 5.0 TFL/sacks), Prince Shembo (10.5 tackles, 5.0 TFL/sacks) and Dan Fox (14.5 tackles) -- and you've got yourself a pretty deep unit.

Notre Dame's 2010 Season Set to Music

In honor of Harrison Smith being so good at his job, how about a little of Dilated Peoples' "Last Line of Defense"?

Fun Stat Nerd Tidbit

Here.

Summary and Projection Factors

Below is a small handful of projection and change factors most pertinent to the Football Outsiders' preseason projections you will find in this summer's Football Outsiders Almanac 2011.

Four-Year F/+ Rk 44
Five-Year Recruiting Rk 9
TO Margin/Adj. TO Margin**** +1 / 0
Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.) 16 (8, 8)
Yds/Pt Margin***** -3.3

Since the incredible bottoming-out of 2007, Notre Dame has slowly but surely improved every year since then. They didn't actually win enough for Charlie Weis to keep his job, but he set the table beautifully for Brian Kelly, just like Mark Dantonio did for him at Cincinnati. Kelly has put together a great staff and has quickly begun to refine the potential in all the former blue-chippers Weis brought in over the last few years. Even with potential uncertainty at the quarterback and wide receiver positions, there is a lot to like about this squad.

Now the schedule needs to cooperate. The Irish play four teams that will rank in or near our preseason Top 25 (Stanford, USC, Pittsburgh, Michigan ... yes, Michigan), and of their 12 opponents, only Wake Forest and Purdue are guaranteed to project outside the Top 50. People always say this about Notre Dame's schedule, but it's a tough one. There are basically two nearly sure wins (Wake and Purdue, though both are away from home), one nearly sure loss (Stanford), and nine games the Irish could win if they are as good as I think they can be. They will not go 11-1, but that's alright -- they're still a pretty young team outside the secondary, and with Kelly they'll have plenty more opportunities to finally break through at an elite level. Keep picking them to make the national title game, Lou Holtz. Why stop now when you may eventually be right?

 

 

---

* For more on the 'Adj. Score' and 'Adj. Record' measures below, feel free to read this Football Outsiders column. Adj. Score is a look at how a team would have performed in a given week if playing a perfectly average team, with a somewhat average number of breaks and turnovers. The idea for the measure is simple: what if everybody in the country played exactly the same opponent every single week? Who would have done the best? It is an attempt to look at offensive and defensive consistency without getting sidetracked by easy or difficult schedules. And yes, with adjusted score you can allow a negative number of points, which is strangely satisfying.

** F/+ rankings are the official rankings for the college portion of Football Outsiders. They combine my own S&P+ rankings (based on play-by-play data) with Brian Fremeau's drives-based FEI rankings.

*** What is S&P+? Think of it as an OPS (the "On-Base Plus Slugging" baseball measure) for football. The 'S' stands for success rates, a common Football Outsiders efficiency measure that basically serves as on-base percentage. The 'P' stands for PPP+, an explosiveness measure that stands for EqPts Per Play. The "+" means it has been adjusted for the level of opponent, obviously a key to any good measure in college football. S&P+ is measured for all non-garbage time plays in a given college football game. Plays are counted within the following criteria: when the score is within 28 points in the first quarter, within 24 points in the second quarter, within 21 points in the third quarter, and within 16 points (i.e. two possession) in the fourth quarter.  For more about this measure, visit the main S&P+ page at Football Outsiders.

**** Adj. TO Margin is what a team's turnover margin would have been if they had recovered exactly 50 percent of all the fumbles that occurred in their games. If there is a huge difference between TO Margin and Adj. TO Margin (in other words, if fumbles and unlucky bounces were the main source of a good/bad TO margin), that suggests that a team's luck was particularly good or bad and might even out the next season.

*****Phil Steele has long tracked Yards Per Point as a means of looking at teams that were a little too efficient or inefficient the previous season. A positive Yds/Pt Margin means a team's offense was less efficient than opponents' offenses, and to the extent that luck was involved, their luck might even out the next year.

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