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Can Notre Dame gain any ground on Clemson and Bama?

Brian Kelly’s building a case to perhaps be considered the most successful coach outside the top two.

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College Football Playoff Semifinal at the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic - Clemson v Notre Dame Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

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

On October 3, 2015, Clemson and Notre Dame played one of the most famous games of the decade.

The teams were, at the time, on the exact same path: national champions from the 1980s that had spent most of the subsequent decades in some phase or another of existential crisis. They had both recent recent breakthroughs — Notre Dame reached the 2012 BCS Championship, and 2013 Clemson finished in the top 10 for the first time in 23 seasons — before working through resets.

The 2015 team was Brian Kelly’s best yet at Notre Dame. His 2012 team had finished just 15th in S&P+ and wasn’t really considered Alabama’s equal, even when the AP ranked ND No. 1 in November. In 2015, however, the Irish fielded by far their best offense under Kelly (sixth in Off. S&P+), and after crumbling to 59th in Def. S&P+ the year before, the defense rebounded to 29th. The pieces were coming together, and the Irish were unbeaten and sixth in the AP poll when they headed to Death Valley.

Clemson had its best team to date under Dabo Swinney as well. The Tigers would finish in the S&P+ top five for the first time since 1981. The offense rebounded with Deshaun Watson, and the defense had found a cruising altitude with coordinator Brent Venables. They were 3-0, but they were 12th in the polls, not regarded as a national contender yet.

The game was a classic, both for the result and the monsoon. Clemson took a 24-9 lead, but the Irish scored two late touchdowns before Ben Boulware and Carlos Watkins stopped DeShone Kizer on a last-second two-point conversion, and Clemson held on, 24-22.

The best Clemson team in nearly 40 years would narrowly lose to Alabama in the title game, then beat the Crimson Tide for the championship the next year. The best Notre Dame team in 20 years would lose a heartbreaker at Stanford before falling to Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl. Top-10 teams, both.

Three seasons later, the Tigers and Fighting Irish met again. Circumstances had changed, post-monsoon.

Notre Dame had been through a mini-hell, suffering seven tight losses and going 4-8 despite a top-20 S&P+ ranking in 2016, then battling back to 10-3 and 12th in 2017. They spent most of 2018 between about eighth and 10th in S&P+, and their tight-game karma flipped — they won five one-score games to finish 12-0 and reach the College Football Playoff for the first time.

At the Cotton Bowl, they met a war machine. While the Irish had been laboring to get back to their 2015 level, Clemson had found a new level altogether.

Notre Dame created some early breaks and was a fumble recovery away from maybe leading after the first quarter. But Clemson landed haymakers in the second quarter, and that was that. The Tigers cruised, 30-3, on their way to their second title in three seasons.

Notre Dame was left to ponder the fate weighing on every power not named Alabama or Clemson.

Kelly is the winningest Notre Dame hire since Lou Holtz. In the 13 years between Holtz’s departure and Kelly’s arrival, the Irish averaged seven wins per year and finished 11th or better in the AP poll once. Even with 2016’s all-time weirdness, Kelly has averaged nine wins per year and has finished 11th or better four times. He’s got two top-five finishes, as many as Notre Dame managed in the 1990s and 2000s combined.

It’s increasingly hard to find satisfaction in being merely very good, though. And it’s probably going to be hard for the Irish to catch up in any major way in 2019.

Mind you, they’ll likely be a top-15 team again. They return quarterback Ian Book, his two most efficient receivers, most of his line, and most of the keys of an awesome pass defense. They likely won’t go 12-0 because of trips to Georgia, Michigan, and Stanford, but they’re perhaps just an upset or two away from a return to the Playoff.


The Irish needed some close wins last year, but the first of two different Notre Dame teams needed them most. Let me explain.

With Brandon Wimbush behind center, the Irish knocked off a good Michigan, 24-17, but labored past Ball State (24-16) and Vanderbilt (22-17). Those were behind their fall from ninth in the preseason S&P+ to 20th despite the unbeaten start.

2018’s second Notre Dame team needed far less good fortune. Book took over for Wimbush and proceeded to torch Wake Forest, Stanford, and Virginia Tech. ND won those games by an average of 24 points each. He was brilliant down the stretch in a near-upset against Pitt, and Notre Dame was barely challenged again in the regular season.

NCAA Football: College Football Playoff Semifinal-Cotton Bowl-Notre Dame vs Clemson
Ian Book (12)
Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Book suffered injured ribs, which kept him out of the win over Florida State and rendered him less effective against Syracuse and USC. And he had little to offer against an inevitable Clemson defense. But even with a fade, he finished with a 68 percent completion rate, a 154 passer rating, and 19 touchdowns to seven interceptions.

In Chase Claypool and Chris Finke, Book returns two targets who combined for 99 catches and a 56 percent success rate last fall. Throw in tight end Cole Kmet and WR-turned-RB Jafar Armstrong (who caught 14 of 16 passes last year), and you’ve got the recipe for another high-efficiency passing game.

You need big-play threats against elite defenses, however, and with Miles Boykin (14.8 yards per catch) now a Baltimore Raven, the Irish are in need of a new one. Sophomore Kevin Austin Jr. and junior Michael Young combined to average 19 yards per catch, but over only 12 combined receptions. Redshirt freshman Lawrence Keys III was a spring standout, and there are plenty more former four-star recruits waiting for a turn, but explosiveness is a concern.

NCAA Football: Notre Dame at Southern California
Chase Claypool
Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Book’s efficiency took pressure off of a foundering run game. Even with some high-quality moments from new Green Bay Packer Dexter Williams, the Irish ranked just 72nd in Rushing S&P+, gaining at least four yards on just 42 percent of their non-sack carries (112th) and getting stuffed at or behind the line on 24 percent (121st). Armstrong was efficient but lacked explosiveness, and Tony Jones Jr. (another good receiving option) had more pop but less efficiency. There is opportunity for any young back.

Losing star guard Alex Bars to a midseason knee injury didn’t help the run game, but at least it allowed for a smoother transition in 2019. Bars and All-American center Sam Mustipher are gone, but five linemen with a combined 60 career starts return.

A sturdy run game is key to third-year coordinator Chip Long’s vision. The Irish want to play with both tempo (25th in adjusted pace) and physicality, but they didn’t have a ton of the latter and had to rely on Book to bail them out on third-and-medium. He’ll likely have to do so again.


Clark Lea’s first season as defensive coordinator brought more stability than Notre Dame had enjoyed for quite a while. Bob Diaco averaged a Def. S&P+ ranking of 16.5 in Kelly’s first four seasons before leaving for an unsuccessful stint as UConn head coach. Kelly made the misguided decision to replace Diaco with Brian VanGorder, and the Irish averaged a 40.7 ranking over three seasons.

But they jumped back to 15th in their only season with Mike Elko as DC, and when Elko left for Texas A&M, Kelly promoted Lea, the linebackers coach.

Lea’s first ND defense was a lot like Diaco’s; the Irish allowed you some short gains here and there but were elite in big-play prevention (eighth in marginal explosiveness) and red zone defense (fifth in points allowed per scoring opportunity). Unless you were Clemson, you weren’t allowed easy points. The Irish weren’t particularly disruptive (41st in havoc rate), but this was a solid recipe.

Notre Dame v Syracuse
Alohi Gilman
Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images

The pass defense was the strength (the Irish were eighth in both Passing and Passing Downs S&P+), and there’s no immediate reason to think that changes. Granted, corner Julian Love (17 passes defensed, 11th in FBS) is now a New York Giant, but senior Troy Pride Jr. (12 PDs) is back, and between sophomore Houston Griffith and senior Shaun Crawford, back from a 2018 knee injury, Love’s replacement should be pretty high-caliber.

Having Alohi Gilman and Jalen Elliott patrolling at safety will help. The duo combined for four tackles for loss, 18 passes defensed, and three forced fumbles; Gilman was a second-team All-American, per PFF.

College Football Playoff Semifinal at the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic - Clemson v Notre Dame
Julian Okwara
Photo by Ron Jenkins/Getty Images

Now the bad news: linebacker Te’Von Coney and lineman Jerry Tillery were also PFF All-Americans. They’re gone, potentially rendering a shaky run defense (relatively speaking, anyway) shakier. If you were scoring on ND, the run was playing a role — Clemson’s Travis Etienne gained 109 yards in just 14 carries, and Virginia Tech, the only other team to score at least 23 points on the Irish, got 97 yards in 15 carries from Steven Peoples and Deshawn McClease. And now the Irish have to replace Tillery, Coney, and linebacker Drue Tranquill. You could make the case that four of last year’s five best defenders are gone.

Granted, they’re basically all that depart. The pass rush should still be decent thanks to the return of ends Julian Okwara and Khalid Kareem (combined: 23 TFLs, 12.5 sacks), but Lea has to hope that depth, and maybe the emergence of a couple of standout youngsters — tackle Jayson Ademilola? linebacker Shayne Simon? — can make up for the loss of standout talent.

Special Teams

Special teams has rarely been an outright strength for Kelly, but last year’s No. 45 ranking in Special Teams S&P+ was the Irish’s best since 2010. Chris Finke’s ultra-efficient punt returns were a part of that improvement, but losing both place-kicker Justin Yoon and punter Tyler Newsome will probably stunt further growth. Jonathan Doerer has a bigger leg than Yoon’s, but he hasn’t proved he can control it yet.

2019 outlook

2019 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
2-Sep at Louisville 87 19.3 87%
14-Sep New Mexico 115 36.9 98%
21-Sep at Georgia 2 -14.0 21%
28-Sep Virginia 41 13.7 79%
5-Oct Bowling Green 123 41.0 99%
12-Oct USC 29 10.9 73%
26-Oct at Michigan 9 -5.0 39%
2-Nov Virginia Tech 30 11.0 74%
9-Nov at Duke 65 13.7 79%
16-Nov Navy 118 37.9 99%
23-Nov Boston College 72 20.9 89%
30-Nov at Stanford 32 6.6 65%
Projected S&P+ Rk 12
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 29 / 9
Projected wins 9.0
Five-Year S&P+ Rk 18.1 (11)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 14
2018 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* 4 / 6.2
2018 TO Luck/Game -0.9
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 56% (57%, 55%)
2018 Second-order wins (difference) 10.3 (1.7)

Notre Dame’s fate has swung wildly because of the flakiness of close-game fortune. That makes 2019’s schedule a little odd: there aren’t many projected close games.

Per S&P+, the Irish are double-digit favorites in nine games and a two-touchdown underdog at Georgia. Barring injuries or other surprises, that leaves two games — at Michigan on October 26, at Stanford on November 30 — to decide whether this is another good season or another CFP run.

Either way, this is likely to further burnish Kelly’s credentials as one of the most successful coaches of the decade. Only six coaches have produced more S&P+ top-20 performances in the 2010s; two retired this offseason (Urban Meyer, Mark Richt), and two have recently changed teams (Jimbo Fisher, Les Miles).

The other two are Saban and, less than four years removed from the monsoon game, Swinney. They are perhaps uncatchable at this point, but Best of the Rest isn’t the worst goal in the world.

Team preview stats

All 2019 preview data to date.