There’s a wide range of expectations for Notre Dame football coming into the 2015 season. There’s a lot of talk about the Irish making the four-team College Football Playoff, as they bring back 17 starters from a team that beat LSU in a bowl game and was one controversial call from beating Florida State in Tallahassee. There’s also a lot of skepticism, given the team’s collapse at the end of last regular season and Notre Dame opens the season at #11 in the AP poll.
Offseason focus has centered on quarterback Malik Zaire. He took over for the LSU game after incumbent Everett Golston had been a microcosm of the team in 2014—a Heisman contender in the early going, then losing his job after a flood of turnovers. Golston transferred to Florida State where he will start. Zaire, a good package of mobility and throwing the ball is the man in the spotlight in South Bend.
What can’t be overlooked is that Notre Dame’s failure to run the ball effectively contributed mightily to increased pressure on Golston and the turnovers. The Irish have a good running back in Tarean Folston, but the development of the offensive line will be the single most important factor in this season. It’s the one area of the team not loaded with experience—even though three starters come back, there’s a redshirt freshman and sophomore stepping into jobs. With only two seniors, the line is likely a two-year project.
The question for the defense is simple—does experience lead to greater competence? Notre Dame gave up 44.5 points in its last four regular season games, and in the season finale against USC you got the impression the Trojans could have scored as many as they wanted. Even the LSU victory was still a 31-28 game. The Irish have ten starters back and they simply have to be better.
Notre Dame faces challenges, but they’re not impossible. If the offensive line and defense simply play average to above-average football, Zaire won’t have the weight of the world on him. He’ll still have to be the one who makes plays, but I like the kid’s talent and he’s got good receivers in Will Fuller, Chris Brown and Corey Robinson (David Robinson’s son).
In a college football landscape where everyone except Ohio State has its own mix of challenges to overcome, there’s no reason to exclude the Irish from the list of legitimate Playoff contenders.
Except for one big reason—the schedule. This is just one long road of constant challenges. Let’s break it into three categories—the easiest games, the ones that will be more difficult, but are still must-have, and the big tests…
Easiest: UMass, at Temple, Wake Forest, Boston College, at Virginia
Challenging: Texas, at Pitt, Navy
Big Tests: Georgia Tech, at Clemson, USC, at Stanford
Even the “easy” games really aren’t. UMass might have gone 3-9 last year but ESPN’s summer preview magazine tabs the Minuteman to win the MAC East. Temple went to a bowl game last year, and might belong on the “Challenging” tier. Boston College was a bowl team last season, though the Eagles have significant rebuilding. Virginia was one win from a bowl.
Notre Dame should be expected to sweep these games, but when they’re your cupcakes, it underscores how difficult the schedule is.
On the highest tier, the Irish have to go at least 3-1 and you can make a pretty good case they should be the underdog in all four—certainly in at least three, with the home game against Georgia Tech being the one exception. But all four of those teams are legit contenders for the respective conference titles and at least dark horses for the Playoff themselves.
And we haven’t even come to the middle tier of Texas, Pitt and Navy. It’s going to be impossible for Notre Dame to be at max performance for every game. While next Saturday’s opener with the Longhorns should be one of them, Pitt and Navy are certainly teams that can catch ND on a down day.
The combination of challenges in putting the team together and a schedule that never offers a break makes it difficult for me to see Notre Dame going at least 11-1, which we have to assume will be necessary to make the Playoff. It’s not a realistic goal this season.
What is realistic is a bid to the New Year’s Six, the major bowl games of December 31-January 1 that include the four games that are run-ups to the national semifinals. That’s where the goals of Irish Nation should be as another season gets set to begin.