Wake Forest v Notre Dame

Five things we learned: No. 3 Notre Dame 38, Wake Forest 0

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For a long time 38-0 signified the gap between Notre Dame and college football’s elite programs. In 2003, Michigan embarrassed the Irish, a top five team proving skeptics right that 2002 was a fluke as the Wolverines pounded the Irish, holding Notre Dame to just seven first downs and 140 yards.

“They came at us in every imaginable way,” Tyrone Willingham said. “There’s nothing positive about how we played. We were outplayed, outcoached, everything.”

A year after another Irish resurrection, Notre Dame felt the brunt of two more ugly 38-0 defeats. With Charlie Weis needing to rebuild after back-to-back BCS berths, the Irish crashed back to earth, in a season where Notre Dame had to rally to avoid being the worst team in school history. Again against Michigan, the Irish were thumped, gaining just 79 total yards against a Wolverines team that had lost to Appalachian State. And against the Irish’s other heralded rival USC, the Trojans demolished the Irish at home, with back-up quarterback Mark Sanchez breezing by Notre Dame before Pete Carroll called off the dogs.

“You see where they are, you see where we are,” Charlie Weis said after the defeat. We’re at different ends of the spectrum at this point.”

They symbolism of Notre Dame’s 38-0 victory over Wake Forest will mean a lot more if the Irish take care of business against Southern Cal next weekend. But after lopsided losses so often over the past decade, the fact that it’s Notre Dame — now 11-0 and marching towards a potential birth in the national title game — separating itself from competitors by wide margins, well, it shows you just how far this team has come.

“We’ve played three top ten teams, all of them great,” Wake Forest head coach Jim Grobe said after the defeat. “I can’t imagine anybody from what I saw today, playing better than Notre Dame.”

Let’s find out what else we learned during the Irish’s 38-0 demolition of Wake Forest.

***

On a day filled with emotion and enthusiasm, the Irish played close to the perfect game.

After an emotional pregame ceremony that honored the Irish seniors and their families, many wondered how Notre Dame would start the game. After an inauspicious beginning — a holding call on the opening kickoff pinned the Irish deep in their own territory — Everett Golson threw a perfect strike to Theo Riddick for a big 3rd and 11 conversion. On the very next snap, Cierre Wood broke a 68-yard touchdown run on a nice option pitch from Golson.

From there, the route was on, with Notre Dame  sprinting to 21 first quarter points and playing their most complete football game of the season.

“We have a paradigm for winning.  It’s something we talk about actually in our locker room.  It’s called four quarters of winning,” Kelly explained.  “It starts with getting off to a quick start.  We talk about getting off to that quick start how important that is in the first quarter.  Second quarter is attention to detail.  The third quarter is effort and enthusiasm, and the fourth quarter is finish strong.  I think that came together in this football game more than any game we’ve played this year.”

The Irish checked off every box their head coach asked for, gaining 221 yards in the first quarter, their most since the third quarter of the Miami blowout. From there, they handled their business, continuing the offensive explosion until it was time to clamp down and win the football game.

On a day where the emotions of the moment could have taken away from the attention to detail, credit this football team for playing like champions.

***

With another tremendous game, Everett Golson’s progress is right on schedule.

By halftime, Everett Golson was in uncharted territory. The young quarterback in his first year on the job came out firing from the start, throwing for an astounding 317 yards in the first half, not far from the 30-minute record set by Jimmy Clausen in a 2009 losing effort against Navy. Golson completed 17 passes in the first half before exiting the game in the third quarter with an impressive stat line of 20 for 30 for 346 yards, with three touchdown passes and one ill-advised interception.

“What you impressed me with that kid today is how accurately he threw the football,” Grobe said after the game. “We knew that he was going to be a problem for us with his feet, either running the football or making plays out of the pocket. I couldn’t be more impressed with how accurately he threw the football, especially two or three of the deep balls.”

Even without DaVaris Daniels, Golson had no problem finding receivers, throwing accurately both short and long and once again being incredibly efficient on third down. For the first time this season, the Irish offense seemed to stress defenses vertically, with Golson hitting Theo Riddick up the seam, John Goodman and TJ Jones on deep balls, and letting Tyler Eifert do what the All-American tight end does.

Outside of the one ill-advised interception Golson threw in the end zone, it was a spectacular game for the young quarterback, who is growing into his role as the leader of the offense quite nicely.

“Obviously, he’s a guy that makes explosive plays. He’s got the ability to throw it. He can run the football. He’s elusive. I think we’re seeing a guy that’s growing each and every week,” Kelly said. “Now he made some mistakes that a young quarterback has a tendency to make. We’ve got to kind of slow him down a little bit. But he’s definitely on the right path to providing us the offense that we need.”

Golson is playing with a tremendous amount of confidence heading into Los Angeles for Monte Kiffin and the Trojan defense. After extending the field vertically, he’ll give the Trojans one more thing to expect.

***

Better late than never, Tyler Eifert turns into an offensive difference maker.

It has taken some time for All-American tight end Tyler Eifert to develop some chemistry with Everett Golson. But with six catches for 85 yards and a touchdown, the duo is making headway, with Eifert making big plays in the passing game, and finally started to do some damage down field.

It was a tremendous day for Eifert, with the senior from Fort Wayne breaking Ken MacAfee’s 35-year school record for career catches by a tight end. Just as important as any individual record, Eifert continued to develop as a key cog in the Irish offense, a process that’s taken longer than many expected. After turning down an opportunity to head to the NFL after last season, Eifert hasn’t put up the numbers you’d expect from a player of his caliber, but he certainly hasn’t harmed his cause.

“Coming back, not going into the draft. Coming back to get his degree says so much,” Kelly said. “But to also play at the level that he’s played, to break the kind of records with the great tight ends that have been here at Notre Dame is an amazing feat.

“I think it’s a combination of a guy that understands Notre Dame, understands the value of a great education, and wanted to be on a championship football team. I think he epitomizes in terms of what we look for as a Notre Dame football player.”

Mike Mayock spoke about Eifert’s decision to return to school during the broadcast, saying that while his stats aren’t what they were last year, talent evaluators and NFL scouts think Eifert has helped his cause by showing his ability to both block and make plays down the field. Jim Grobe certainly echoed that sentiment.

“What we find so often in tight ends is they’re one or the other,” Grobe said of Eifert. “They’re big guys, really good blockers, or they’re undersized guys that can run and catch a football.  He’s the perfect combination.”

***

In Cierre Wood, Brian Kelly has a chance at another six-star recruit.

In his three seasons at Notre Dame, Brian Kelly has landed a few “six-star” recruits — players that decided to come back to school instead of putting their names in for the NFL Draft. After landing Michael Floyd, Tyler Eifert, and Manti Te’o, Kelly and his offensive staff should set their sights on running back Cierre Wood.

After leading the Irish in rushing the past two seasons, Wood started the season seemingly in the head coach’s dog house, suspended for the year’s first two games for a mysterious violation of team rules along with linebacker Justin Utupo. And while Wood has continued to put up impressive stats in his third season in the Irish backfield, Kelly and the offensive staff have leaned more heavily on fellow senior Theo Riddick, choosing versatility and consistency, even if the results are more modest.

On paper, the decision is confounding. Riddick is averaging a decent 4.58 yards a carry on the season while leading the team with 160 carries for 734 yards. Wood, after running for 150 yards on just 11 carries, now has 720 yards on just 102 carries, averaging more than seven yards a carry. If you’re looking for consistency, its been Wood delivering on a weekly basis, not Riddick. At his worst, Wood has averaged 5.4 yards a carry, while having two games where he averaged better than 10 yards a carry. On the other hand, Riddick has had seven games where he’s failed to average four yards a carry, with big ball games against Navy, BYU, and Boston College buoying his stats, leading you to believe that the better place for him would be in the hybrid role many envisioned him playing from the start.

Wood mentioned on Facebook that Saturday would be his final game in Notre Dame Stadium, leading you to believe that he’s ready to depart South Bend after getting his diploma. But Kelly believes that the senior running back, who has a year of eligibility remaining, still has work to be done.

“Cierre continues to do the job we ask him to do,” Kelly said.  “He’s getting better. I mean, he’s got a long way to go, but he had a great night tonight. I think we blocked well up front.  He saw the things necessary to put his foot in the ground and play North and South. He’s a better football player when he goes North and South. I think he’s starting to understand that as well.”

No coach has handled his players better than Kelly at Notre Dame since Lou Holtz was on the sideline, so it’s difficult not to give the benefit of the doubt to Kelly about distributing touches at a crowded running back position. But with George Atkinson still learning on the job, there’s not a ton of options behind Wood in the backfield, even with Cam McDaniel as an excellent safety blanket.

With NFL scouts likely to throw some tough questions his way after the two-game suspension, perhaps there’s unfinished business in South Bend for Wood. It would behoove the Irish head coach to at least present the case.

***

It was a storybook ending at Notre Dame for the senior class.

Even the gruffest of men had to feel their emotions stir during the introductions of the senior class. Watching veterans like Kapron Lewis-Moore, Braxston Cave, and Manti Te’o embrace their family and celebrate an up-and-down career at Notre Dame brought out the best in college football, and the afternoon romp felt like a celebration of the Irish’s greatest hits in a resurgent season.

Te’o had said many times that one of the big reasons he returned to South Bend for his senior season was for the chance to run out of the tunnel and be met by his parents. When asked if the moment lived up to his expectations, the senior linebacker was unflinching.

“Everything and more,” Te’o said. “I can’t believe this is the last time I’ll be playing here.”

With the game well in hand, Kelly paid special tribute to his senior defenders, calling a timeout to remove them to the roar of the approving home crowd.

“I wanted to make it a special moment for the seniors on defense,” Kelly explained. “They have been obviously the rock.  They’ve carried us while we were trying to find ourselves offensively. It just seemed to me to be a pretty good gesture to allow us to honor those seniors.”

It was certainly a moment well received, and one that will never be forgotten by Te’o.

“Just Magic,” Te’o said of the timeout, where he, Zeke Motta, and Kapron Lewis-Moore ran off the field for the last time. “Like everything’s come full circle. For coach to do that, he could have easily taken us out and not even put us on the field.  But it was a TV timeout, and he said I’m going to send you guys out there, and then I’m going to call a timeout, and one by one I’m going to sub you guys out. So that’s the type of coach that Coach Kelly is.  I’m just very lucky to play for him.”

In Kelly and Te’o, player and coach found the perfect partner. For the head of the Irish football program, he found a transcendent leader to bridge the gap between past and present. For the linebacker, he found a coach that brought out the best in him, challenging Te’o to surpass the expectations heaped on his shoulders from the start, something entirely uncommon for Notre Dame lately.

With one last step in front of the Irish, the job is far from complete. But on Saturday afternoon, a perfect autumn day for football turned into a celebration of Notre Dame’s miraculous season. Another chapter in a storybook season.

“That’s the great way to end my career playing here in Notre Dame,” Te’o said.

Irish A-to-Z: Jonathan Bonner

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After two seasons of limited duty, there’s a road to the field for Jonathan Bonner. The rising junior, who spent last year mostly watching and learning as Brian VanGorder and Keith Gilmore played a skeleton rotation, has a chance to break into a position group that’s searching for answers that Bonner seems well-suited to provide.

But Bonner also plays behind the team’s best defensive lineman, with senior Isaac Rochell poised to anchor the front seven. So as the rising junior moves into his third season in South Bend, he’ll need to show a versatile set of skills to get onto the field.

 

JONATHAN BONNER
6’3″, 286 lbs.
Junior, No. 55, DL

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

Bonner may not have been a highly-touted recruit, but he was just starting to rack up impressive offers when he pledged to Notre Dame. Bonner earned a scholarship offer at every summer camp he attended, and his commitment to the Irish came after he dominated some of the best offensive line prospects in the country at Notre Dame’s summer camp.

An All-State performer and the defensive player of the year in St. Louis. Also a more than impressive student-athlete, with a note he wrote to himself as a grade schooler a pretty incredible piece of maturity.

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2014): Did not see action.

Sophomore Season (2015): Played in 10 games, making 10 tackles and notching one sack. Played a season-high 39 snaps along the defensive line in the Fiesta Bowl against Ohio State. Saw double-digit snaps against Texas, UMass, Wake Forest and Boston College.

 

WHAT WE SAID LAST YEAR

This seems pretty solid.

I’m buying Bonner’s future, though I’m a little less sure that he’ll break loose in 2015. With Isaac Rochell capable of being a frontline player, Bonner getting on the field might mean Rochell’s off of it, which I just don’t see happening too often.

But if there’s a beauty to Brian VanGorder’s defense—at least when it’s playing like it did the first half of the season—it’s the ability to mix and match. And if there’s no way to find Bonner a role in this defense, especially as the Irish try to find someone to come off the edge, then it’s more on the young prospect’s knowledge base than anything a coaching staff can do.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

This might not be a make or break season for Bonner, especially since he’s got a fifth year available. But I think it could be. With the opportunity to provide a disruption from the interior of the defensive line, Bonner needs to find a home in a position group that could use a versatile defender who can both hold up at the point of attack and get to the quarterback.

Bonner started at outside linebacker, but quickly moved to the front four. Last year’s progress was slowed by a turf toe injury in April, short-circuiting a sold spring. There wasn’t a lot of opportunity to contribute in 2015, but there was certainly a need for someone to provide a pass rush and Bonner wasn’t given that chance—something that speaks to where he was as a developmental prospect last year.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

I think Bonner will find a niche on the inside or third downs, considering neither Jerry Tillery nor Jarron Jones look like pass rush threats. That could kick open a spot for Bonner on the inside, or it could allow him to play at the strong side if Rochell slides inside.

Of course, that’s mostly determined by Bonner, who has flashed talent and athleticism, but hasn’t translated that to the field yet. Some think Bonner is one of the most intriguing athletes on the roster, and he’s certainly one of the team’s better workout warriors. But that needs to transition to the football field with some productivity, a key development piece for Keith Gilmore and a uncertain front four.

Bonner spoke with confidence this spring that his knowledge base was now matching his skill-set. If he’s able to put everything together, he could be a very nice complementary piece to the front four.

 

2016’s Irish A-to-Z
Josh Adams
Josh Barajas
Alex Bars
Asmar Bilal
Hunter Bivin
Grant Blankenship

Jarrett Grace signs FA contract with Chicago Bears

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 5: Jarrett Grace #59 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish in action during a game against the Texas Longhorns at Notre Dame Stadium on September 5, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame defeated Texas 38-3. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
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Former Notre Dame linebacker Jarrett Grace has signed with the Chicago Bears. The former Rockne Award winner will continue his improbable return from a devastating leg injury during OTAs and training camp, fighting for a roster spot on the NFC North squad.

Grace worked out for the Bears at a tryout camp and Chicago made the roster move official Wednesday, signing Grace and releasing linebacker Danny Mason.

After redshirting as a freshman and sitting behind Manti Te’o, Grace moved into the starting lineup as a junior and led the Irish in tackles before suffering a severe leg injury against Arizona State. It took nearly two years for Grace to return to duty, needing to re-learn how to run as he underwent multiple procedures to repair the rod that held Grace’s bone in place.

He played in 32 games for the Irish, finishing with 78 total tackles.

Irish A-to-Z: Grant Blankenship

Notre Dame v Syracuse
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Notre Dame’s junior defensive end has an unclear status entering his third season in the program. Suspended by Brian Kelly this spring after playing minimal snaps as a sophomore, the Texas native already had an unclear path to the field even before you consider his status as a member of the team and student at the university.

After playing in 11 games as a true freshman, Blankenship struggled to make progress after adding the mass needed to play on the strong side. With the depth chart at defensive end already in question, Blankenship is a true unknown entering 2016.

 

GRANT BLANKENSHIP
6’5″, 278
Junior, No. 92, DE

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

A late-riser on the recruiting scene, Blankenship turned down an offer from Charlie Strong to stick with his commitment to Notre Dame, his favorite program as a child. An early target by former defensive coordinator Bob Diaco, and he stuck with Notre Dame even after Diaco departed for UConn.

Not highly rated, Blankenship fell outside the 250 recruits on 247’s composite.

 

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2014): Played in 11 games, making 12 tackles including one TFL. Didn’t play against Navy or LSU. Made three tackles against Syracuse.

Sophomore Season (2015): Appeared in three games, making one assisted tackle. Played a season-high 10 snaps against UMass.

 

WHAT WE PROJECTED LAST YEAR

Blankenship’s participation took a step backwards. He looked like a potential redshirt until he played in garbage time. Partial credit, at best. Nobody gave Rochell and Day a break.

It’s too hard to project Blankenship as a 30-snap-a-game contributor. But if he’s forced into action, the experience he got last season will come in handy. More likely, Blankenship will be part of an expanded front seven depth chart, and will make it easier to keep guys like Isaac Rochell and Sheldon Day fresh.

As a second-year player, he and Andrew Trumbetti have a chance to both make big steps forward this season. If either can help a pass rush that needs to win more from base packages, it’ll be huge for the defense. Expect new defensive line coach Keith Gilmore to get this through to Blankenship, who likely derives fuel from being overlooked, something he certainly was last season.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

We’ll know a lot more about Blankenship’s future when the Irish enroll in summer school. If he’s there, it’ll signal that there’s a road back onto the team. If not, it’ll be another washout at defensive end, a position that’s been very difficult to keep together.

At this point, barring some remarkable change to his production or the depth chart, there doesn’t look like much of a road to playing time for Blankenship, at least not with Isaac Rochell on the roster in front of him.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

Very unclear.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Blankenship was a part of a different program come next fall or buried on the depth chart at Notre Dame. The one reason for optimism is the position he plays. There’s opportunity at defensive end, especially if you can rush the passer.

Blankenship hasn’t show that ability yet. Part of that came from gaining a ton of weight between his freshman and sophomore seasons. The other part of it was scheme—he was recruited by Bob Diaco to play a different type of end.

Let’s get Blankenship out of the doghouse and back onto the field before we look for optimism.

 

2016’s Irish A-to-Z
Josh Adams
Josh Barajas
Alex Bars
Asmar Bilal
Hunter Bivin

 

This week’s episode of Blown Coverage features me pitching John Walters on the perfect three-year solution for Notre Dame’s QB conundrum. And a bunch of other stuff. Enjoy. 

Even with talent drain, Irish can be CFB Playoff contender

LANDOVER, MD - NOVEMBER 01: Head coach Brian Kelly of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish looks on from the sidelines during the first half against the Navy Midshipmen at FedExField on November 1, 2014 in Landover, Maryland.  (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
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Brian Kelly’s next football team might have less talent than the group that produced seven of the first 103 picks in the NFL Draft. But it might have a better chance to make it to the College Football Playoff.

It’s a trendy thought lately. The kind of thing you do when it’s May and we’re still a long way away from any football this fall.

But there’s good reason to be bullish on the Irish. And SBNation’s Bill Connelly providing the thinking man’s rationale for the optimism last week when he unveiled his preview of the 2016 Fighting Irish.

The entire preview is very much worth your time, but here’s the synopsis:

  • Brian Kelly is an excellent coach. (Sorry complainers.)
  • Whoever wins the quarterback job is going to be really good.
  • An offensive line that’ll reload.
  • Tons of skill talent.
  • A defense trending in the right direction.
  • A good close game team.
  • A schedule that’s more conducive to winning.

Again, go read the article. (You’ll be smarter for it.) But after crunching many of the variables, here’s Connelly’s mighty optimistic conclusion:

There isn’t a sure loss on the schedule. In fact, there’s only one game in which Notre Dame has a worse than 59 percent chance of winning. But operating in close games will be critical. That means finding go-to receivers for the quarterback in times of need, continued quality from Yoon, and a defense that improves up front despite turnover and holds steady in the back despite freshmen on the two-deep.

All of the “ifs” are realistic, and while the defense still has plenty to prove, I’m not going to doubt Kelly after last year. If I had a poll vote — and thank goodness I don’t — I would seriously consider Notre Dame in the preseason top five.

With Notre Dame’s two regular-season losses coming in the final moments of road games to top-five teams, this isn’t the type of “Here Come the Irish” headline that invaded our psyche and ruined the enjoyment of seasons under Bob Davie, Ty Willingham or Charlie Weis, the later still finding his way into the schlock headlines thanks to Notre Dame’s latest tax return release.

But Brian Kelly’s consistency has turned proclamations like Connelly’s into a decidedly uninteresting one. And at the same time that we go inch-by-inch through the roster, it’s helpful to see what the Irish look like from a 30,000-foot view—a better vantage point to evaluate progress than the perch most of us inhabit.

So while all previews in May expire by the time the calendar hits August, let’s go through the bullet points (as appropriated by me, not Connelly) just to add to the discussion.

 

Brian Kelly: elite coach. (No question mark) 

Right now, that’s a fairly undeniable assertion. And for those of you who’ll haggle about the definition of elite or harken back to a two-point conversion chart or the selection of the team’s defensive coordinator, this might be the best question to ask yourself: “After Nick Saban and Urban Meyer, who else do you want running your program?”

 

The quarterback battle.

If there’s something that I find reassuring, it’s the fact that Connelly hasn’t lost the plot on this. Whoever wins the quarterback battle will play at a very high level. Or they won’t play at all.

As Kelly, Mike Denbrock and Mike Sanford showed last season, the Irish will coach up a quarterback and get very productive play out of them. (Unlike what happened at Ohio State last year.) And with Brandon Wimbush putting the redshirt on, Notre Dame has one of the country’s most dangerous weapons waiting in the wings.

 

The offensive line should be good again.

Remember all those data-driven pieces about minutes-played correlating to excellent offensive line play? I still believe them. But I also think the Irish will produce a very, very productive offensive line even with three new starters, thanks to two starting NFL linemen on the left side of their center and Alex Bars likely on his way, too.

 

Those skill players? They’ll be good.  

I’m bullish on the ground game. I’m high on the young talent in the secondary. And I’ll give the benefit of the doubt to a receiving corps that I think is still a little more unsorted than I’d guess this staff wants.

Torii Hunter should lead the unit. After that, I’m not sure what to expect.

The move of Alizé Jones to the “W” (boundary side) receiver gives you an idea that this staff is preparing to go forward if Corey Robinson steps away from the game because of concussions. It also might point to an offensive direction that’s more similar to 2012, a physical approach that could put more tight ends on the field and would allow the Irish to lean on a very strong running game and a quarterback who’ll be able to take deep shots down the field.

 

The Defense?

How you improve after losing headliners like Sheldon Day, Jaylon Smith, Joe Schmidt, Elijah Shumate and KeiVarae Russell is hard to comprehend. But I think this unit will have more versatility, as injuries and certain personnel limitations really hamstrung a unit that was maddeningly inconsistent at times.

Can they improve against the run? I think the answer starts with Jarron Jones and Jerry Tillery, two stout guys who’ll hold up in the trenches in front of Nyles Morgan. That’ll serve as the critical building block to the scheme, with pieces added and subtracted to make sure the Irish can be multiple and match-up with opponents on a weekly basis.

I’m punting on this topic (for now), while acknowledging that improvement on this side of the football is critical to success and the biggest unknown heading into the season.

 

Good play in tight games

Remember those heart-stopping finishes in the Weis era? Or that dreadful feeling you got every time a game got close and an opponent mounted a comeback?

For some, it’ll never go away. But under Brian Kelly, the Irish have been a very good close game team—even considering the two tight losses last year.

I appreciate the comparison Connelly made in his piece to a baseball team with a good bullpen. When the Irish have been at their best, they’ve been able to control the game late with solid quarterback play, a dependable running game and a defense that held up.

Justin Yoon and Tyler Newsome play an important part in this process, too. The specialist duo will help control field position and make critical kicks, with Yoon putting together a really respectable freshman season and Newsome showcasing a booming leg.

 

The Schedule

I haven’t fully dug into the intricacies of the schedule, but just at face value it’s a much less daunting climb that years past. The Irish get Michigan State and Stanford at home (and under the lights) and replace Clemson with North Carolina State. Army comes back onto the schedule and Navy loses the majority of its team, including star Keenan Reynolds.

There is no shortage of coaching pedigree that Brian Kelly will face. Mark Richt, David Cutcliffe, and some young rising talent like Justin Fuente and Clay Helton in a regular season finale in Los Angeles.

But you can only win the games you play, and you can only play the teams on your schedule. (Thanks, Yogi.) As Connelly mentioned, there’s no “sure loss” on this slate, and I think Notre Dame will be favored every time they take the field next year.