It's not supposed to be this way. When you use numbers to uncover potentially underrated teams, you are supposed to end up sticking up for the likes of Boise State and Kansas State, underdogs in the world of elites and power programs. It is supposed to be a redeeming underdog exercise. You aren't supposed to find that some of the most underrated teams in the country heading into this season are Notre Dame, Florida and Texas. Where's the fun in that?
Alas, that's where we stand in 2012. Just as the folks whose opinions tend to create conventional wisdom give up on the Irish, the numbers conspire to prop them up. And the reason should be obvious for anybody who watched Notre Dame in 2011: turnovers. Surely they cannot go against the Irish to the same degree in 2012, right? Surely, if Tommy Rees is even the starting quarterback, he won't have quite the same red zone interception tendencies, right? Surely Notre Dame opponents won't do quite as much damage with the turnovers they receive, right?
Notre Dame lost five games in 2011; in only one (Stanford 28, Notre Dame 14) were they beaten beyond the turnover points margin.
- South Florida 23, Notre Dame 20. Turnover Points margin: minus-33.7 points. The Irish outgained South Florida by 254 yards but lost a staggering three turnovers inside the USF 10, one of which was returned 96 yards for a touchdown.
- Michigan 35, Notre Dame 31. Turnover Points margin: minus-8.1 points. Notre Dame outgained Michigan by 61 yards and built a 24-7 lead in the third quarter, but they lost two more turnovers in the Michigan red zone, and eventually the Wolverines' offense allowed them to catch up.
- USC 31, Notre Dame 17. Turnover Points margin: minus-21.9 points. The Irish overcame an early 17-0 deficit to USC and were driving for the tying score, then gave up an 80-yard fumble return for a touchdown.
- Florida State 18, Notre Dame 14. Turnover Points margin: minus-8.2 points. The Notre Dame defense held Florida State to 290 yards and even returned a fumble for a touchdown of their own, but they threw two interceptions inside the FSU 30 and lost.
It was staggering to watch at first, but by the end of the season, you almost came to expect it. Even in wins, they blew opportunities via turnover or missed field goal. The Notre Dame offense was dynamic, balanced and its own worst enemy.
So the question heading into 2012 is, how much can change in eight months? When do self-fulfilling prophecies stop fulfilling themselves? And how many new shades of red will Brian Kelly's face turn if they never do? When do sturdy advanced numbers take over? And if they do take over, does it even matter? I mean … have you seen Notre Dame's schedule this fall? Three top 10 opponents? Five top 20 opponents?
Hmm. "Notre Dame is underrated and faces a brutal schedule." This is the kind of hard-hitting, daring, original analysis you can only find at SB Nation, folks. Hot! Sports! Opinions!
Here's what I said about the Irish last June. And yes, I went all in.
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? […]
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?
In my defense, the Irish really should have won double-digit games. It took a lot for them to miss that. The problem is, they now face the burden of proof that they actually can break through like they almost did. And they have to do so against a tougher schedule, without their best offensive weapon, and with an unsettled (to put it politely) quarterback situation.
It is probably not possible to stoke a quarterback controversy any more effectively, or quickly, than Brian Kelly did in 2011. After the offseason featured a constant "Dayne Crist vs. Tommy Rees" narrative, Kelly handed the job to Crist … and then took it away 30 minutes into the season. Crist completed six of his first eight passes versus South Florida for a brisk 95 yards, but he threw an interception in the end zone, suffered a brief crisis of confidence (after the first eight passes, he went 0-for-7 with a pick and a sack), and, trailing 16-0, was benched by a panicked Kelly. Rees threw two interceptions of his own, but he rallied the Irish (to an extent) and won the job. Crist would only throw nine more passes in 2011, eventually falling to third string behind Andrew Hendrix.
Crist transferred to Kansas, but thanks to some late-season struggles by Rees -- not to mention an eventful offseason for the man -- the quarterback situation is no less muddy heading into 2012. After averaging 32.1 Adj. Points per game over the first eight contests, the Irish averaged only 26.9 in their last five games. Against Wake Forest, Boston College, Stanford and Florida State, Rees completed just 59 percent of his passes for three touchdowns and five picks. After attempting to fend off challenges from Hendrix, redshirt freshman Everett Golson and freshman Gunner Kiel, he went and (allegedly) hit a cop. Golson in particular looked strong this spring, so it is quite conceivable that Kelly will be starting a redshirt freshman in the opener against Navy. (Who starts the second half of the season, however, remains up for grabs.)
If the quarterback position can somehow stabilize itself, the Irish can move on to their OTHER pressing issue heading into 2012: who's the new No. 1 receiver? Notre Dame's is a pass-first offense that passed a lot worse than it ran in 2011; and that was with Michael Floyd. Without him, the leading returning receivers are tight end Tyler Eifert (a stellar tight end, but still a tight end), junior T.J. Jones (who averaged a mediocre 5.4 adj. yards per target last year), and Theo Riddick (a receiver-turned-running back). Of the three leading returning wideouts who are still wideouts (Jones, Robby Toma, John Goodman), none averaged even 6.0 adj. yards per target. That puts the onus for improvement on youngsters; redshirt freshman DaVaris Daniels cracked the second string this spring, and incoming blue-chip freshman Davonte Neal will have an opportunity to earn go-to status from day one.
While the passing game has all sorts of question marks, the run game has almost none. Junior Cierre Wood was solid, if unspectacular, last season, but his supporting cast could be fantastic. Sophomore Amir Carlisle joins the squad after a year at USC that saw him average 6.2 yards per carry; Riddick and a host of four-star youngsters -- sophomore (and kick returner extraordinaire) George Atkinson III as well as freshmen William Mahone and KeiVarae Russell -- will have a chance to earn carries as well. They will be running behind a line that was one of the country's best last season but must replace two multi-year starters. Still, tackle Zack Martin and center Braxston Cave lead a unit that returns four players with starting experience and 65 career starts.
Brian Kelly has led spectacular offenses nearly everywhere he has been. His final Cincinnati offense ranked second in Off. F/+, and his 2011 Irish improved from 42nd to 22nd. But fairly or unfairly, the turnovers and quarterback issues have created a bit of a stigma, and no matter who the quarterback is, the onus is on Kelly to begin figuring out how to prevent the glitches that cost them dearly last fall.
Related: How long until Notre Dame has to join a conference?
Late in the 2010 season, the switch seemed to flip for a young Irish defense. Running coordinator Bob Diaco's base 3-4 defense, Notre Dame allowed just an average of 9.0 Adj. Points per game over the final five games of 2010, and while they didn't maintain that pace in 2011, the steady play remained; the Irish improved from 89th in Def. F/+ to 18th in Diaco's first season, then improved to 15th last fall.
Now they just need to work on forcing a few more turnovers.
There are a lot of different ways to run a 3-4. Notre Dame didn't attack nearly as much as Alabama or Texas A&M did last year; what I said last year still rings true:
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.
In 2011, 11 Irish defenders recorded at least 2.5 tackles for loss, but only two recorded more than seven: all-world linebacker Manti Te'o and, strangely, corner Robert Blanton. In all, the pass rush slipped a bit to 56th in Adj. Sack Rate, and as a result the Irish were a bit more leaky against the pass than they had been in 2010. Still, the run defense was outstanding and should be again in 2012. Sophomore nose guard Louis Nix III filled the role of a space-eater perfectly in 2011 and, as a bonus, led the defensive line in tackles. He returns, as do ends Kapron Lewis-Moore (a 14th-year senior, give or take a few years) and Stephon Tuitt (a five-star sophomore). Obviously the transfer of another five-star sophomore, Aaron Lynch, hurts. On the whole, however, the first-string should still be quite strong.
If the line does its job, the linebackers will thrive. Eight of the nine linebackers who made at least 5.0 tackles last year return; only Darius Fleming departs. While Fleming was quite good, sophomore Ishaq Williams could fill in nicely if he begins to fulfill even 10 percent of his recruiting promise. The rock here, of course, is Te'o. He made 13 percent of Notre Dame's tackles and 20 percent of both their sacks and overall tackles for loss in 2011. He eschewed the pros for another year in South Bend, and his presence alone could make this defense one of the midwest's best.
Now, about those turnovers: Notre Dame somehow managed to force just eight fumbles a year ago. Only ten teams forced fewer; you almost accidentally force more than that in a given year. No defender forced more than one, and somehow in the course of 95.0 tackles, Te'o forced none. Notre Dame fumbled 10 more times than its opponents in 2011, and you are obviously going to lose the turnover battle when that is the case (especially when your quarterbacks throw nearly 20 interceptions to boot).
The good news: Of the 18 teams that forced eight or fewer fumbles in 2010, 15 improved their totals in 2011, and 10 forced at least 12.
The bad news: One of the teams that didn't improve was Notre Dame, which also forced eight in 2010. Ouch. You can write off one iffy season in this regard, but two almost becomes a personality defect.
There is just enough new blood in this year's rotation that it's possible some Notre Dame defenders with better ball-stripping skills will have a chance to play their trade in 2012. But chances are good that this defense just isn't going to force many fumbles. And considering the secondary must replace three starters, including both cornerbacks, chances are good that they won't pick off many passes either. They are one of the best defenses in the country in simply stopping the opponent; but were not big on big plays and turnovers, and they probably will not be in 2012.
(The secondary, by the way, is less of a concern to me than it perhaps should be. Five of the top six safeties return, and I wasn't in love with either starting corner, Robert Blanton or Gary Gray. Some combination of Bennett Jackson, Lo Wood and Josh Atkinson should be able to at least replicate their production. Of course, with trips to both Oklahoma and USC on the schedule, they should perhaps aim higher than simple replication.)
Notre Dame's schedule features just three games versus teams projected worse than 45th. Yikes. Trips to Michigan State, Oklahoma and USC should tamp the win total down even if the Irish improve (and get some bounces). We'll set the success-or-not bar at eight wins, but this is an awkward time for Brian Kelly. He certainly won't get fired for going 8-4 -- not even close -- but the natives will probably begin to get restless. "Yeah, but the stats say we're getting better!" doesn't tend to work when it comes to rallying the fanbase. At some point, you'll need to actually break through. It probably won't be this year.
It is difficult to ignore just how well Notre Dame has recruited recently, just how much the stats like them, and just how much turnovers -- a notoriously fickle statistic from year to year -- conspired against what might have otherwise been a 10- or 11-win season last year. However, it is almost good, in my case, that the schedule is so difficult because it allows me to hedge my bets.
Question marks at wide receiver and perhaps cornerback could prevent the Irish from improving on last year's F/+ ranking of 13th. But even if they do improve, they could still only be looking at a ceiling of nine or 10 wins. But the good news is that, with players like Everett Golston (or whoever either defeats or succeeds Rees), Amir Carlisle, George Atkinson III, Louis Nix III, Stephon Tuitt, Troy Niklas, Ishaq Williams, and Josh Atkinson, the Irish have a wealth of freshmen and sophomores who have shown just enough to suggest that Notre Dame's ceiling is only going to get higher in 2013 and beyond. And if I'm lucky, I'll get to call them underrated for the third consecutive season next fall. Can't wait.