The Playoff era of college football is going to be a little different than the more subjective era that preceded it.
Alabama, for instance, was perfectly designed to win championships in the BCS era. The Tide put up strong regular seasons in the SEC, and then Nick Saban had a month to gameplan one specific opponent. Opposing coaches were generally overmatched in January, Bob Stoops excepted.
Now? The two-round format means great teams are more vulnerable to losing in the final, if they happen to draw bad matchups with only about a week to prepare. The championship key is in mastering two traits.
- You have to be matchup-proof. If you're a team that has critical failings that could emerge at any time, odds are that they will come up during the Playoff and deny you the trophy.
- You need to have dominant traits. Last year's Auburn could run the ball on anyone and rush the passer on defense. Even though they were somewhat one-dimensional on offense, the quality of their line, runners, and edge blockers was so great. Their conquerors, Florida State, had a dominant passing game and an elite defense loaded with exceptional athletes.
The No. 6 Fighting Irish of Notre Dame are 5-0 and staring at a final seven games that could put them in the Playoff, if they survive the slate without more than one loss. Despite losing several key players before the year due to suspension, they've trucked along quite well, with a shutout against Michigan and a big home win against Stanford.
But can the Irish survive a future slate that includes trips to USC and FSU, let alone a Playoff format?
Testing the Notre Dame offense
The major difficulty for the Irish is that they don't have an inspiring running game. In offensive S&P, they rank 64th on standard downs and 99th in rushing, and they're 77th in yards per carry.
That's a difficult ill to overcome and could theoretically put them at risk in every game. Part of the problem is that quarterback Everett Golson doesn't actually excel in the shotgun-read plays that form a basis for their running game.
In particular, Golson demonstrates a distaste for running power-read, which is problematic, given that power serves as Notre Dame's favorite base run to use for setting up play-action. Given that's he only about 200 pounds, it's possible that he doesn't favor looking to run downhill into linebackers, like the scheme demands. His fumble early in the Stanford game occurred on a power-read keeper that the Irish QB attempted to bounce outside -- rather than run behind his blocker -- only to get a helmet in his gut regardless.
In 2013, Notre Dame had the personnel to line up in lots of double-TE sets and run teams over. But in 2014, their roster is better suited to spreading things out. That their QB doesn't excel in the option game hinders their ability to run the ball in these sets. Another issue is that the more talented backs, former blue-chips Tarean Folston and Greg Bryant, still lag behind veteran former three-star Cam McDaniel in pass protection.
The line is reasonably strong. It even opened up some holes against the tough Cardinal, though backs failed to exploit them. It's also solid in pass protection and more than capable of helping Golson. (He's great at creating time in his own right, finding time to connect with receivers.) Left tackle Ronnie Stanley has big-time potential, while the interior includes senior experience.
The WR corps of Corey Robinson, William Fuller, Chris Brown, and Amir Carlisle checks off boxes for having big-play threats, explosive possession players, and vertical targets. The 6'4 Robinson is a vertical play-action target and a backside receiver who can punish defenses for shading help to the passing strength:
Robinson's ability to run routes like this over the middle, in addition to the way his frame presents a great target on the sidelines, make him very difficult for a cornerback to handle without help. But if you help him, you can't shade help to stop Golson from rifling balls to the strongside receivers like Fuller, who leads the team in catches and touchdowns.
Tight end Ben Koyack is another big, versatile target who allows the Irish to move players around and get great blocking on the perimeter for screens and sweeps.
Finally, there's Golson, who doesn't have many flaws in his game, other than a distaste for putting his helmet down and trying to run through Stanford's defensive front, a flaw he shares with most people. No. 5 can throw the ball outside the hash marks. He can throw deep with velocity or touch, as the situation demands. He can execute from the pocket, rolling out, or scrambling for his life. Notre Dame is 32nd nationally on passing downs in part due to his ability to create from nothing.
He adds value to the Notre Dame running game when in his comfort zone, either scrambling or running QB draw:
Opponents can restrain Notre Dame's offense due to its lack of a great running game. But the passing game is going to cause problems against most any defense. Passing generally leads to points.
2. Dominant traits?
It's hard to top the Irish trump card, as Stanford discovered, which is simply lining up in spread sets, sending receivers on vertical routes, and allowing Golson to make something happen downfield:
Brian Kelly was the only coach to beat Michigan State in 2013. He did it with his vertically inclined passing game, which drew several key pass interference calls against the Spartans. Other than that, the Irish had little offense in that game.
Having a passing game as threatening as Notre Dame's and a QB who can create time to deliver kill shots downfield is a nasty trait to contend with. There aren't any easy answers.
The best Notre Dame breakdowns
The best Notre Dame breakdowns
And the Irish defense
After showing a very diverse playbook in the spring game, new Irish DC Brian VanGorder has pared down the defense into a unit with a strong identity that plays fast and confidently.
For the most part, they are yet another quarters-coverage team, but with more of a bent on playing bend-don't-break coverage. With starting corner KeiVarae Russell suspended before the year, the outside edges of the Irish D were made more vulnerable than perhaps anticipated, but they've still managed to rank 18th in passing and 22nd on passing downs. The defense is equally stout against the run, ranking 16th in rushing defense and 16th on standard downs.
The Irish's style of quarters is a boon to their run defense. It helps them to focus on taking away deep passes while loading the box:
Against the two flexed-out Stanford receivers, VanGorder only deployed the strong safety and field corner. Everyone else packed into the box. If Cardinal QB Kevin Hogan went outside to his receivers, there were throws to be had, as the Irish DBs were playing softer coverage. But it's very challenging for a college QB to sustain drives by pushing the ball to the field on underneath routes, particularly in the wind and the rain.
The Irish followed a similar pattern in their 4-2-5 nickel sets:
This is becoming a more popular look in today's game for handling all the option attacks. It's essentially an old-school 5-2 front, but backed by quarters coverage and featuring nickel personnel.
Generally, the corner will play deep coverage to the short side of the field. The free safety plays aggressive run fills in the box, to replace the outside linebacker who's playing on the edge.
That outside linebacker is Jaylon Smith, whom the Irish move around the field. He is one of the best and most athletic linebackers in the nation. Smith is as comfortable blowing up a lead block by a Cardinal fullback versed in smashmouth football as he is changing direction in space to chase down a speedy slot receiver.
The Irish are effective at tackling in the middle of their defensive backfield, with savvy middle linebacker Joe Schmidt and superstar Jaylon Smith. When they play nickel, they place three solid tacklers in the middle of the secondary, with free safety Elijah Shumate, strong safety Max Redfield, and nickelback Matthias Farley.
With all of these erasers on the field, it becomes very difficult to generate yards after catch or yards on the ground. Deeper coverage alignments effectively take away the deep pass.
2. Dominant traits?
Much like the offense, the defense's most dominant trait is in making big plays on passing downs.
VanGorder's strategies at Notre Dame demonstrate a mind that's been influenced by time in the NFL. He understands that, against the best teams, the most essential task on defense is not to stop the run, but to stop the deep pass. In a game that's moving toward higher scores, more possessions, and precision spread attacks, points appear on the scoreboard as a result of devastating passing plays. Take those away, and you give your offense a great chance to outscore the opponent.
VanGorder's tactics center around his ability to mix blitzes in with softer coverage and to teach his defenders how to disguise that pressure.
First, the pre-snap pressure look rarely reveals where the pressure actually comes from. There's always an ace in the hole who comes unexpectedly from an unforeseen angle. Notre Dame triggers its blitzes at the perfect times, generally just after the snap, to avoid warning the offense.
Secondly, he will usually overload protections on one side of the formation, often with a defensive back. Three Notre Dame defensive backs already have sacks this season, while linebackers Smith and Kolin Hill are two of VanGorder's favorite weapons for attacking protections.
Smith is simply an impossible blitzer to consistently pick up. He can explode through the lines at speeds that are too intense to handle.
The Stanford line slid protection to the opposite side of the blitz, fearing what Notre Dame had already shown to that side. Instead, Smith exploded off the weakside edge. The strongside pass defense, anticipated by Stanford to be weak, has pass defenders in sound position. The running back properly prioritizes the inside rusher, Smith, but is totally overmatched. It doesn't matter, since the weakside end isn't even blocked and attempts to bury Hogan before remembering that the Irish play on turf now.
Can this work in the Playoff?
It's hard to overlook the problems that could arise from Notre Dame's inability to run the ball. That said, the Irish are well-designed to stop the run, protect the scoreboard, and make plays on defense that create opportunities on offense.
Meanwhile, the offense is designed to allow Golson to run around and land haymakers in the passing game. Thus, because they are well-equipped to keep games close and make difference-making plays when the ball is in the air, the Irish are in good shape against any opponent and always capable of stealing a game in the fourth quarter.
If they are lucky enough to avoid a letdown game, it's possible that Notre Dame, despite not being a truly dominant football team, could be a Playoff contender in 2014.