I like Notre Dame football. I’m not a hard-core Irish backer, but I enjoy watching Notre Dame games in the fall and root for them the vast majority of the time. But liking something is not the same as being blind, and this Irish team looks overrated heading into 2018.
Reasonable expectations are defined by the betting market—that collective opinion of oddsmakers and serious bettors–and that market has the Over/Under for Notre Dame posted at 9.5. The betting prices are shaded in such a way to encourage people to take the Under—which in turn means that the summer money has likely been showing for the Over.
That would make Notre Dame a 10-win team. If they do that within the regular season, it likely means a bid in one of the marquee New Year’s Six bowls. Brian Kelly has hit 10 regular season wins twice since arriving in South Bend in 2010 and each team has gone to a major bowl (2012, 2015). Last year, the Irish finished 9-3 and narrowly missed the New Year’s Six, settling for the Citrus Bowl and beating LSU.
All of that makes 10-2 an ideal benchmark. It’s where the market is at and in terms of Notre Dame prestige, they have to think in terms of making major bowl games. They should also think in terms of winning them, something that hasn’t happened since 1993, but let’s not put the cart before the horse. Can this team get 10 wins between the beginning of Labor Day weekend and the end of Thanksgiving weekend?
I don’t see it, and frankly don’t see it even being all that close. Notre Dame suffered significant personnel losses. Their 2017 attack was built around a terrific running game. They lost their two best offensive lineman, Quenton Nelson and Mike McGlinchey. Both went in the first ten picks of the NFL draft. The Irish also lost their top rusher, the physical Josh Adams.
Those are serious enough, but you can make a good argument that the biggest personnel loss is in the coaching staff. Mike Elko was hired last year to strengthen a terrible defense and he immediately made the unit respectable. He did so well that Texas A&M lured him to take the same job in College Station. The success or failure of Notre Dame in the Kelly era has been defined by defensive performance and losing Elko is a big blow.
Notre Dame’s schedule is usually a good one, as NBC isn’t paying them to load up on cupcakes. I only see two games that you can, beyond a reasonable doubt, put in the victory column. Those are September home dates with Ball State and Vanderbilt. Here’s a breakdown of the rest of the schedule…
Tough Home Games: Michigan, Stanford, Florida State
Tough Road Games: Virginia Tech, USC
Interesting Neutral Site Games: Navy (San Diego), Syracuse (Yankee Stadium)
Swing Games: at Wake Forest, at Northwestern, Pitt
The Irish will have to win eight of those ten, presuming they take care of business against Ball State and Vandy, to get their spot in the New Year’s Six. If they can’t steal a road win against Virginia Tech or USC, that strips all margin of error in long series of games ranging from high-profile to sneaky-tough.
I don’t mean to sound overly bleak about the Irish prospects. Brian Kelly usually manages to put a good offense on the field. The defense does return nine starters and at least will have continuity by the elevation of linebacker coach Clark Lea to the coordinator role. Recruiting classes in South Bend, even after a quarter-century of mediocrity, are still one of the handful in college football that are good enough to win a national championship. And the positive spin on this schedule is that there are no games that you have to dismiss even the possibility of winning out of hand.
But that means Notre Dame must play steady and consistent football over the long haul. There are a lot of nice things you can see about the Irish program in the Kelly era, but I don’t know that “consistent” or “steady” would be at the top of anyone’s list. I think 8-4 is a more likely outcome and a more realistic expectation for the ‘18 edition of the Irish.