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If Notre Dame can navigate letdown games this time, 2018 could be huge

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Brian Kelly’s Irish rebounded from a fluky 2016 to win 10 games. They’re favored in every game this fall and could boast their best defense since the Manti Te’o years.

NCAA Football: Navy at Notre Dame Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

Bill C’s annual preview series of every FBS team in college football continues. Catch up here!

Before Gary Pinkel’s Mizzou broke through in 2007, I often wrote about his ability to exceed expectations in the most disappointing possible ways. They would be predicted to go 3-9, flash eight-win potential, then finish 5-7. They would be predicted last in the Big 12 North, erupt to 7-1, and finish 8-5. It was frustrating in that you knew you didn’t really have a reason to feel frustrated.

I probably don’t have to explain why I’m mentioning this in a Notre Dame preview.

In 2017, Brian Kelly’s Fighting Irish began unranked in the AP poll and finished 11th. They lost by an eyelash to CFP runner-up Georgia, and they stomped a mudhole in Michigan State, USC, and NC State. They finished with a winning record in one-possession games (2-1) a year after losing seven of eight, and they finished by defeating LSU in the Citrus Bowl.

This was a successful season, a bounce-back that proved the unbelievably fluky 2016 was just that.

But being maybe the best team in the country during October only made November more of a bummer. The Irish got smoked at Miami, 41-8, and after narrowly surviving one of Ken Niumatalolo’s lesser Navy teams, they lost by 18 to Stanford, too. A 10-3 finish packs a twinge of regret when it follows Playoff talk.

That’s kind of been the story for Kelly, though. His Irish went from unranked to No. 1 in 2012 before getting destroyed by Alabama. They rose from 17th to fifth in 2014 before finishing 8-5. They rose to fourth in 2015 and third in 2017 before finishing 10-3 both years.

You can’t complain, at least not really. Kelly has more 10-win seasons (three), top-11 poll finishes (three), and top-15 S&P+ finishes (five) than his three predecessors (Bob Davie, Ty Willingham, and Charlie Weis) combined. He has proved that Notre Dame’s bar is still awfully high, but he has nicked the bar on the way over.

Kelly won’t get the luxury of low expectations this season. His Irish are regarded as a top-15 team by pundits and as a top-seven team by S&P+, which favors them in every game this fall and projects roughly a 10-2 record.

As with most top teams, there’s transition:

  • Kelly’s breaking in his third defensive coordinator in three years.
  • His top two running backs (Josh Adams and Deon McIntosh) and two of his top three receivers (Equanimeous St. Brown and Kevin Stepherson) are gone
  • Also gone: two top-10 draft picks up front (guard Quenton Nelson and tackle Mike McGlinchey). Even when you recruit well, that’s quite the duo to lose.

Still, there are pieces to work with and perhaps a lighter-than-normal schedule. If the Irish are to “exceed expectations in disappointing fashion” this year, that might mean an 11-1 finish or so.

Offense

2017 Notre Dame offensive radar

In 2016, one of Notre Dame’s biggest problems while losing three-point game after three-point game was a lack of big plays. The Fighting Irish were reasonably efficient but couldn’t create easy points (57th in IsoPPP, which measures the magnitude of your successful plays). This was particularly problematic in the run game (71st in rushing IsoPPP).

In 2017, Chip Long’s first season as coordinator, the Irish rose to fifth in Rushing IsoPPP and fifth in overall Rushing S&P+. Josh Adams went from averaging 5.9 yards per carry to 6.9, and his average of 10.1 highlight yards per opportunity (basically, the yards you gain after the line has done its job) was in rarefied air.

Best highlight yardage average (200-plus carries)

  1. Bryce Love, Stanford (12.7)
  2. Rashaad Penny, SDSU (10.2)
  3. Adams (10.1)
  4. Lexington Thomas, UNLV (8.9)
  5. Saquon Barkley, Penn State (8.3)
  6. Lamar Jackson, Louisville (7.7)

Thomas aside, that’s a Who’s Who of explosive runners. Plus, new quarterback Brandon Wimbush averaged eight yards per carry and 7.3 highlight yards per opportunity.

NCAA Football: Navy at Notre Dame
Brandon Wimbush
Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

Long’s fast-paced system raised the tempo (the Irish were 17th in Adjusted Pace) while maintaining a level of physicality that Kelly enjoyed (105th in solo tackles created, meaning they were forcing gang tackles).

Of course, Wimbush wasn’t much of a passer. Notre Dame fell from 45th to 110th in passing success rate. His stat line was like that of an option quarterback: paltry completion rate (49.5 percent), but some long bombs (13.8 yards per completion). He took too many sacks, too, though he did limit himself to six interceptions.

Two big-play threats — St. Brown (now a Packer) and Stepherson (kicked off the team in December) are gone, which leaves the Irish thin. But the receivers they’ve got are exciting:

  • Junior Chase Claypool was like a tight end in both size (6’4, 229) and statistical profile (64 percent catch rate, plus-14 percent marginal efficiency).
  • Junior Miles Boykin came alive late in 2017. Built like Claypool (6’4, 227), the former four-star recruit had only 12 catches, but six came in the last three games and gained 155 yards, 55 on this gorgeous catch and run.
  • Senior tight end Alizé Mack never got going after missing 2016 with academic issues but showed massive potential in 2015 and still has a chance.

I just listed the only three returnees with double-digit catches. In all, six of last year’s top nine targets are gone. At least there’s a new batch of young former four-stars, including sophomore wideout Javon McKinley, sophomore tight ends Cole Kmet and Brock Wright, redshirt freshman RB/WR Jafar Armstrong, and incoming freshmen Kevin Austin, Braden Lenzy, Lawrence Keys III, and tight end George Takacs.

The options are less known at running back, but if senior Dexter Williams can stay healthy, and sophomore Tony Jones Jr. can build on progress, there are Adams replacements. He had 20 carries for 214 yards and four touchdowns in the first four games of the season but battled one injury (ankle) after another (quad) and only carried 19 more times.

Jones began his freshman season poorly (nine carries for 23 yards in his first four games) but averaged six yards per carry the rest of the way.

I listed Armstrong as a RB/WR above, but he might not have a choice but to lean toward RB — after Jones and Williams, the options are not obvious. A run of injuries could be awfully dangerous here.

NCAA Football: Notre Dame at Boston College
Dexter Williams
Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

These backs and Wimbush will be running behind a good-news, bad-news line. In losing Nelson and McGlinchey, Notre Dame must replace two of college football’s best-known linemen from 2017. But seniors Alex Bars and Sam Mustipher have combined for 62 career starts, and guard Tommy Kraemer started every game as a blue-chip freshman last year.

There could be two sophomores at tackle (Robert Hainsey and Liam Eichenberg), but they’re both blue-chippers. And in this offense, you might almost prefer having your interior linemen squared away, for the run game.

Defense

2017 Notre Dame defensive radar

Kelly liked last year’s defensive progress enough that he looked to maintain it. A year ago, he brought in Wake Forest’s Mike Elko as DC, and Wake’s linebackers coach, Clark Lea, made the move as well. When Elko became Jimbo Fisher’s DC at Texas A&M, Kelly just promoted Lea.

Notre Dame’s defense wasn’t necessarily bad under Brian VanGorder the year before, but it wasn’t exciting. The Irish ranked 71st in success rate and 10th in IsoPPP in 2016 — a bend-don’t-break profile — and that changed to 18th and 21st, respectively, last fall. They were balanced between run defense (13th in Rushing S&P+) and pass (seventh in Passing S&P+) and solid on both standard downs (ninth in SD S&P+) and passing downs (fourth in PD S&P+).

This was also a young defense. The Irish return six of their top eight on the defensive line, four of six linebackers, and virtually every defensive back. Plus, they add the rarest of rarities: a Navy transfer. Alohi Gilman, who managed five tackles for loss and five pass breakups as a freshman in 2016, could end up starting at free safety.

NCAA Football: Wake Forest at Notre Dame
Julian Love
Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

The secondary could be dynamite. The Irish allowed just a 57 percent completion rate and a 121.9 passer rating in 2017, and those numbers were even better before some glitches against Stanford and LSU. With senior Nick Coleman and juniors Jalen Elliott and Devin Studstill, Lea has a nice base of safety experience. This trio isn’t very disruptive, though — they combined for just one tackle for loss, five breakups, and no interceptions — which opened the door for newcomers.

Gilman finished spring practice on the first string. After moving from cornerback, freshman blue-chipper Houston Griffith, in for spring, played well enough that he might force his way onto the field. It’s possible that someone like Coleman or Studstill could end up on the third string.

In other words, Notre Dame had a top-10 pass defense last year, and this year’s backup safeties could be as good as last year’s first-stringers.

Disruption wasn’t as much of an issue at cornerback. Junior Julian Love recorded 23 passes defensed (second-most in the country behind only Iowa’s Josh Jackson), while Shaun Crawford and Troy Pride Jr. added 10 more.

NCAA Football: Notre Dame at Michigan State
Drue Tranquill (23)
Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

There are at least a few holes in the two-deep up front, even if they’re mostly on the second string. Senior linebackers Te’von Coney and Drue Tranquill are back after combining for 23 TFLs and 4.5 sacks. They’ll line up next to either junior Asmar Bilal or redshirt freshman Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah in the starting LB corps.

The top three tacklers on the line — end Daelin Hayes and tackles Jerry Tillery and Jonathan Bonner — return, and while ends Andrew Trumbetti and Jay Hayes (combined: 7.5 TFLs, 1.5 sacks) are gone, juniors Khalid Kareem and Julian Okwara (combined: 10 TFLs, 5.5 sacks) are back after causing a bit more havoc.

There are very few concerns. And the insertion of Gilman into the lineup, plus a few more reps for Kareem and Okwara, could solve the only remaining issue for this defense: disruption. The Irish ranked just 66th in havoc rate, 64th in Adj. Sack Rate, and 51st in stuff rate. I can’t see a rise into the top 10 in those stats, but it’s possible all three rankings improve.

Special Teams

There is opportunity for improvement. Justin Yoon went from solid to awesome at place-kicking in 2017, but Notre Dame ranked 76th or worse in each of the other four special teams efficiency categories, a horrid 117th in kickoff success rate.

Granted, new kickoff rules could mask that issue, but the Irish still need some new life in the return game, and punter Tyler Newsome could stand to outkick his coverage a bit less — he averaged 43.6 yards per kick, but nearly half his punts were returnable, and opponents averaged 8.4 yards per return.

2018 outlook

2018 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
1-Sep Michigan 10 5.5 62%
8-Sep Ball State 117 35.8 98%
15-Sep Vanderbilt 75 24.9 92%
22-Sep at Wake Forest 34 11.5 75%
29-Sep Stanford 20 11.9 75%
6-Oct at Virginia Tech 21 7.3 66%
13-Oct Pittsburgh 45 19.2 87%
27-Oct Navy 85 27.1 94%
3-Nov at Northwestern 38 12.3 76%
10-Nov Florida State 18 11.6 75%
17-Nov vs. Syracuse 71 21.9 90%
24-Nov at USC 15 4.9 61%
Projected S&P+ Rk 7
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 22 / 6
Projected wins 9.5
Five-Year S&P+ Rk 12.2 (16)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 10 / 8
2017 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* 3 / 2.5
2017 TO Luck/Game +0.2
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 75% (54%, 96%)
2017 Second-order wins (difference) 9.6 (0.4)

It’s always hard to feel bad for Notre Dame fans, but I can at least say that I empathize. The Irish have been one of the most consistently solid teams since Kelly took over — they played at a top-30 level even while going 4-8 in 2016 — but it’s natural to be waiting for the disappointment. It did last November, on the heels of a magnificent October.

There’s nothing saying Lea will be able to build on Elko’s progress, and while the offense has upside, there’s nothing saying Wimbush becomes a more successful passer with such turnover in the receiving corps. Depth at running back could backfire as well.

Still, this is a loaded depth chart, balanced with senior leadership and young upside. The offense will be explosive, if sporadic, and the defense boasts a level of experience most coordinators dream of.

There are four projected top-20 S&P+ teams on the schedule, but three (No. 10 Michigan, No. 18 Florida State, and No. 20 Stanford) visit South Bend.

A fourth 10-win season for Kelly is very much on the table, and while there are plenty of close games on the way, the Irish should win quite a few of them.

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