Five things we learned: Notre Dame 62, UMass 27

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On paper, Notre Dame did everything you’d expect on Saturday afternoon. The Irish’s dominant 62-27 victory looked every bit the lopsided win you would’ve expected from a 30-point favorite, with Notre Dame running for 457 yards and scoring 62 points, the first time over 60 since Lou Holtz pasted Rutgers in 1996.

So while most scoffed when Brian Kelly did his best to tell everyone this Tuesday that Notre Dame couldn’t afford to look past the Minutemen, the Irish head coach was also telling the truth.

The Minutemen delivered. At least for the game’s first 25 minutes.

Late in the second quarter, UMass was outgaining the Irish. They had 261 yards of offense and were averaging 9.0 yards a play, thanks to a 56-yard pass and an 83-yard touchdown run. They led the turnover battle and also scored touchdowns in both their red zone appearances.

Yet they were still down a point.

From there, the Irish pulled away, capitalizing on a great series of events on special teams. Tyler Newsome pinned UMass inside their one-yard-line. CJ Sanders followed some great blocking and scored Notre Dame’s first punt return touchdown since Golden Tate. And after the Irish put up seven points on the first series after halftime, the route was on. And when the onslaught stopped, the Irish put together a 34-point run that turned Saturday afternoon into a track meet.

Notre Dame accomplished all of their goals this afternoon, setting up an undefeated showdown next weekend in Death Valley as the Irish travel to Clemson.

Let’s find out what else we learned.

 

Notre Dame’s depth is overwhelming. 

Brian Kelly made quite a statement this preseason when he was asked how his 2015 team matched up with the 2012 team that played for a national championship. Kelly said this team was deeper and more athletic than the team that went 12-1. And we saw that on display this afternoon.

In the 62-27 victory, Notre Dame showcased the bottom-half of their roster, a group of players who may be short on experience but are very heavy on athleticism and talent. The Irish offense had its way with UMass from the start, with DeShone Kizer, C.J. Prosise and Will Fuller doing what you’d expect. But when the reserves started getting snaps, the dominance kept coming.

We got a look at Notre Dame’s bright future on Saturday afternoon. And while some fans may have turned the channel during garbage time, Kelly knew how important it was to see young players like Brandon Wimbush and Dexter Williams get opportunities.

Wimbush showcased his rocket arm on a deep ball to Will Fuller. (First called a 50-yard completion before replay overturned the call.) Williams showed a nice burst on the first touchdown run of his career, a 14-yard run that was the highlight of a seven-carry afternoon. Josh Adams went over 100 yards, a 70-yard touchdown the latest highlight for the freshman.

Defensively, Brian VanGorder’s backups got an opportunity to play all of the fourth quarter. Linebackers Greer Martini and Nyles Morgan ate up tackles almost immediately, collecting 15 combined. Te’von Coney played big minutes as well, while young cornerbacks Nick Coleman and Nick Watkins mixed into the secondary.

Getting those snaps is crucial in a game like this. And it also allowed the Irish to make progress even with the back-ups in, showcasing the impressive talent that Kelly and his staff have stockpiled as the program continues to build.

 

The Irish’s first half defense leaves quite a few unanswered questions heading into Clemson. 

Yes, Brian Kelly told us that UMass would challenge Notre Dame’s defense in the first half. But did anybody really believe him?

That the Irish were on pace to give up over 500 yards of offense to the Minutemen has to have people a little worried as Notre Dame prepares to take on Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson. And the early holes in the Irish defense will likely have Brian VanGorder at the greaseboard all night looking for a fix.

Led by Blake Frohnapfel and Tajae Sharpe, the UMass offense has some talent. And Mark Whipple’s use of unbalanced fronts and heavy-doses of screens and draws kept the Irish off-balance before they settled down in the second half.

At 22-21, most Irish fans were grumbling. But if you’re looking for a silver lining, it’s the recover the Irish made after halftime.

In the third quarter, UMass had the ball four times. They gained a total of 51 yards, punting twice, then turning the ball over to Notre Dame twice, once on downs the other time courtesy of a Matthias Farley tip and Cole Luke interception.

That’s a much-needed step forward after a slow start. But 21 early points and two game-changing big plays allowed are cause for concern with one of the toughest challenges of the season awaiting the Irish next Saturday.

 

Notre Dame’s special teams—that’s right, the special teams—triggered this victory.

Time to once again tip the cap to Scott Booker and the Irish special teams. It was Notre Dame’s third unit that played a huge role in breaking this game open, something we don’t always say. And it all started with punter Tyler Newsome.

Newsome had a monster day this afternoon, not exactly something you equate with winning. But the first-year punter averaged 52.4 yards a kick, good for the single-game record in school history.

While two of those five punts ended up in the end zone, it was the one that Devin Butler pinned inside the one-yard line that triggered Notre Dame’s explosion. The Irish defense got a three-and-out from UMass and then excellent blocking on the punt return, setting up CJ Sanders with open real estate in front of him. The freshman did the rest, zig-zagging his way through the Minutemen, following his blocks into the end zone for a 50-yard touchdown.

We’ve gotten used to Notre Dame’s excellent kick coverage, with the Irish once again doing a good job on punts and kickoffs. Add to it Jarrett Grace and Greer Martini sniffing out a fake punt by the Minutemen and even Justin Yoon’s missed extra point (the hold didn’t look perfect) can’t sour a great day by the special teams.

 

Notre Dame has established its offensive identity with a power running game. 

Notre Dame ran for 457 yards on Saturday, the most since 1996, when Lou Holtz was still running the option. And the Irish ground game was consistently dominant, there from the opening minutes of the afternoon.

C.J. Prosise ran for 149 yards and two touchdowns, then took the afternoon off after 15 carries. Josh Adams went for 133, his 70-yard score pushing him past Prosise as he averaged 10.2 yards a carry. Dexter Williams was the low man on the totem pole, and he averaged 6.9 a touch, showing great explosiveness and good vision running behind a dominant offensive line.

Each played a key part in Notre Dame’s offensive attack, something Kelly wanted to see as they put together this week’s game plan.

“I think we had made that decision that even last week, that we probably redlined C.J. a little bit, and we had to really get Josh involved early, which we did, and then it was nice to see him run well,” Kelly said. “And then Dexter obviously is a very gifted player, and we saw that today. He’s got great speed. He’s just still learning, but I think we all saw today what kind of athletic ability he has.”

On the day, the Irish averaged nine yards a carry against the Minutemen. Take away the 20-yard team loss when Sam Mustipher rocketed a snap over Brandon Wimbush’s shoulder and that average would’ve been 9.5.

Heading into the toughest road contest on the schedule, the Irish ground game seems to be hitting on all cylinders. That was reflected in Notre Dame’s improvement on third down, converting 8 of 13. It’s also a credit to an offensive line that bullied and pushed around UMass from the opening snap. Again, Clemson is a different beast, and the rebuilt Tiger defense looked impressive against Louisville.

But getting all three backs significant carries—and just as importantly, success—was crucial. So was allowing Prosise some time to rest. Because come next weekend, the Irish are going to ask Prosise to carry the load. And you can bet he and the offensive line will be up for the challenge.

 

Getting Brandon Wimbush experience this afternoon was critical. But DeShone Kizer will determine whether or not Notre Dame can run this pre-bye week gauntlet undefeated. 

In case you didn’t know heading into today, Brandon Wimbush is an exciting player. He’s got the arm strength to overthrow Will Fuller on a go-route and the speed to nearly run for 100 yards, coming up eight yards shy on just four carries.

Wimbush showcased why his future is tantalizingly bright on Saturday. He officially completed three of five passes, yet two throws that didn’t count—the replay overturn on the Fuller deep ball and the flag erasing Equanimeous St. Brown‘s touchdown—give you a better idea of his playmaking ability.

But equally clear is the fate of this team will be decided by DeShone Kizer. The sophomore didn’t play perfect in his second start, but he kept taking positive strides on Saturday afternoon, putting together a solid day at the office completing 15 of 22 for two touchdowns.

Kizer did throw another interception, a slight underthrow on a deep post to Fuller, who had one-on-one coverage until a safety came over late. (Kelly put that on Fuller, a grab the All-American understandably should make). Kizer also showed some shaky accuracy, skipping a few curl routes at receivers’ feet, throws that should be easy completions.

But you can also see the game slowing down for Kizer. Sure, part of that was UMass’s defense. But the rest is Kizer understanding what a defense is showing him, and the cerebral first-year player is taking advantage.

“One thing about him is that if you do a good job of showing him something, he’s going to pick it up,” Kelly said. “If you remind him about it, he can self-correct. Some can’t. Some need more film. Some need more repetition. He’s not that kind of guy.”

So while Wimbush showed some flashes of talent, Kizer will be asked to lead this team to victory. And while he wasn’t given much of a challenge on Saturday, he’ll be pushed to the max next weekend.

 

Notre Dame’s successful early signing period now begets early visit questions

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Notre Dame used the first early signing period to its advantage, but in many respects, succeeding in that initial foray was by default. The Irish already had strong relationships with the recruiting class of 2018 when the NCAA finally agreed upon setting a 72-hour window for December. No other recruiting changes went into effect in the cycle, so the only shift was getting the paperwork ready and the grades verified six weeks earlier than usual.

“When you are presented with a new rule that gives you — go ahead, sign them early — and you’ve done all that work, that’s kind of a lay-up,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said on National Signing Day, Feb. 7. “The real work now begins with the early visits.”

A bit before finally nailing down the December early signing period, the NCAA also approved official visits for high school juniors in April, May and June. Previously, a recruit could not take an official visit until September of his senior year in high school.

For a program with a national reach in recruiting — pulling in multiple prospects from both coasts in the cycle of 2018, for example — it can be difficult to get a player to visit for a home game amidst his own football season. When it is possible, it is often a rushed trip. The recruit plays a high school game Friday night, flies to South Bend, possibly via Chicago, early Saturday morning and then departs mid-day Sunday to get back home in time for the school week.

Notre Dame can now instead slate that official visit for the summer, perhaps around a camp environment or the Blue-Gold Game (April 21).

In years to come, this expedited timing could have a greater effect on recruiting than the early signing period does.

“How we handle the back end of it, the back end being when are those visits going to start, when do you start them, when do you end them,” Kelly said, “That’s really what we’re trying to figure out at this point relative to tweaking and how that’s going to work.”

Theoretically, earlier visits could lead to earlier commitments, increasing the likelihood of more signings in December than in February, further de-emphasizing the traditional National Signing Day.

Amid all those changes, though, recruits are still allowed only five official visits and only one to each school. Of course, a recruit can make multiple unofficial visits, paying for those out of his and his family’s own pocket, but Notre Dame can pay for only one. As much as getting a recruit on campus earlier in the process should bode well for any program, it becomes a double-edged sword: Is it better to get a player on campus early and make that impression before other schools have the opportunity, or is it better to showcase a primetime game against a rival?

Irish recruiting coordinator Brian Polian suggested allowing two official visits per school, although remaining at only five total, on National Signing Day.

“Why not let a young man make two official visits to one institution? Because if somebody says to us, from far distance, I want to come make a visit to your place in the spring, well, ideally you want them to see a game atmosphere, as well,” Polian said. “There’s nothing like Notre Dame Stadium and this campus on a game weekend.

“Now we’re going to have to get into some strategic decisions about when do we want young men to take visits.”

Perhaps in time the NCAA will consider that adjustment, but it will not be for the cycle of 2019.

While when a player visits may impact the recruitment, Polian does not much care about when they commit, as long as they do. Notre Dame signed five prospects on National Signing Day who had not previously committed publicly, making it appear to be a strong finish to the class. Then again, the Irish also signed 21 players in the early signing period and received a 22nd commitment less than a week afterward.

“If you’ve got a really good class and they’ve been committed for a while, who cares when they said yes?” Polian said. “It’s as though the answers that you get at the end dictate your class.”

‘Accelerated’ start creates bright outlook for Notre Dame’s 2019 recruiting cycle

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Thanks to signing 21 prospects during December’s early signing period, Notre Dame’s coaching staff began looking ahead to the 2019 recruiting cycle sooner than it usually would. The Irish needed to focus on only a handful of remaining 2018 possibilities, thus taking the time usually spent checking in on verbal commits and devoting it toward the needs of the future.

“[The early signing period] really allows us to accelerate and reach out into ’19, ’20 and beyond,” head coach Brian Kelly said in December. “You always feel in recruiting that you’re a click behind. You’re always trying to get ahead of it. This is the first time you truly feel like you’re about to get ahead of it.”

When Kelly or another coach says something to the effect of being ahead of schedule, they mean in terms of evaluating, communicating and beginning the year-long wooing more than they mean securing verbal commitments. Nonetheless, Notre Dame already has three pledges in the class of 2019.

Consensus four-star quarterback Cade McNamara (Demonte Ranch High School; Reno, Nev.) made it the second-consecutive cycle in which a highly-touted quarterback was the first Irish commitment, following Phil Jurkovec’s lead. Consensus four-star defensive tackle Jacob Lacey (South Warren H.S.; Bowling Green, Ky.), pictured above, committed shortly after McNamara, both in July, and rivals.com three-star cornerback K.J. Wallace (Lovett; Atlanta) made it a trio in late January.

Moving forward, the class’s success or failure may largely be determined by the defensive line commitments joining Lacey, or lack thereof. It is already the driving emphasis, part of that head start provided by the early signing period, and the preliminary responses have Irish defensive line coach Mike Elston optimistic.

“I’ve been at Notre Dame now going on for nine years, and I haven’t had a stronger group of underclassmen that I’m recruiting than I have this year in 2019,” Elston said on Feb. 7. “This could be the best defensive line haul we’ve ever had here.

“A lot of it is because I’ve been able to put ’18 to bed and get moving on the ’19s, go visit in their schools all throughout January.”

The Irish hosted about 20 juniors for a day in late January, and among them were five of the reasons Elston is so bullish on the defensive line possibilities, including the committed Lacey.

Twitter: @JacobLacey6

Pictured, from left to right: Consensus four-star defensive end/outside linebacker Nana Osafo-Mensah (Nolan Catholic; Forth Worth, Texas); consensus four-star defensive end Joseph Anderson (Siegel; Murfreesboro, Tenn.); Elston; consensus four-star defensive tackle Mazi Smith (East Kentwood; Kentwood, Mich.); Lacey; and consensus four-star defensive end Hunter Spears (Sachse; Texas).

Obviously, it is early in the cycle, any relative success or failure in the 2018 season could prove to be influential, and the number of other variables is innumerable, but getting such a group on campus a full year before they need to put pen to figurative paper is a big step for any recruiting process.

Notre Dame will also need to focus on finding more running back talent. Pulling in two this class only replaces what was lost in the dismissals of current sophomore Deon McIntosh and current freshman C.J. Holmes. It does not create depth for the future, and with rising senior Dexter Williams entering his final season of eligibility, the Irish will need to find that depth immediately following 2018.

Similarly, one of the 2019 recruits will almost certainly be a punter, with Tyler Newsome entering his fifth and final year with Notre Dame.

Williams will be one of six rising seniors entering their final years of eligibility. Add them to Newsome and the eight other fifth-years on the roster, and that makes for an immediate 15 spots to fill in the class of 2019.

Obviously, 15 recruits would be a small class. The subsequent question is usually, “How many players will Notre Dame be able to sign in 2019?” That is not the question to ask. The question to ask is, “How many players will leave Notre Dame before August of 2019?”

The Irish roster, as it stands now, would have 89 players this fall, four more than the NCAA maximum. Presume the four who depart before this coming August are not rising seniors. (Any such player would be better served to wait a year, get his degree and transfer as a graduate with immediate eligibility.)

After the 2018 season, eight then-seniors would have one more year of eligibility available, but it is unlikely more than three or four are asked to return for a fifth year. In rough order of likelihood: quarterback Brandon Wimbush, cornerback Shaun Crawford, receiver Miles Boykin, offensive lineman Trevor Ruhland, tight end Alizé Mack, linebacker Asmar Bilal, receiver Chris Finke, defensive tackle Micah Dew-Treadway. If only three of those are asked to return, now 20 spots have theoretically opened up for the recruiting class of 2019.

If rising junior Julian Love puts together a third stellar season, he will have an NFL decision to make. His departure would immediately raise the operating figure to 21.

That becomes the floor for the size of the next recruiting class. Next offseason’s natural, and perhaps presumed, attrition can raise that total. Another year of 27 recruits is unlikely, but 24 or 25 would create what could be by then a familiar numbers crunch.

Notre Dame is right: The NCAA’s terrible precedent matters, but vacating wins does not

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No matter what the NCAA might say now, the Notre Dame defense held its own in the rain and slop against Stanford on Oct. 13, 2012. Whether und.com already notes the wins as vacated or not (it does), the Irish held Michigan State, Michigan and Miami without touchdowns in the three weeks leading up to that goal line stand. Notre Dame arrived in Miami with 12 wins and no losses that January, an undefeated top-ranked underdog in the national championship.

Vacating those 12 wins, and the nine in the following season, does not matter in any regard.

However, the NCAA established a new precedent Tuesday when it denied Notre Dame’s appeal to retain those wins in its records. That new standard could change how schools across the country handle controversy, allegations and educational fraud. That does matter.

Notre Dame President Fr. John Jenkins made his feelings clear after the NCAA denied the University’s appeal of vacated wins due to academic transgressions by a handful of players in 2012 and 2013. (AP Photo/Joe Raymond, File)

In his response to the ruling, Notre Dame President Fr. John Jenkins distinguished between his University and the NCAA.

“The NCAA is not, of course, an academic association with general responsibility for academic integrity at America’s colleges and universities,” he wrote.

Of course.

As an academic institution with general responsibility for academic integrity within its own buildings, when Notre Dame came across the academic transgressions involving nine student-athletes, it immediately suspended four of those players remaining on the 2014 roster, soon adding a fifth. It launched an internal investigation to gauge the scope of the situation, and handed the NCAA a completed understanding of what transpired largely at the hands of a student-trainer.

Some may argue that was the right thing to do, both on principle and in practice. After all, history showed cooperating institutions were granted some benefit of the doubt from the NCAA, only partly because that cooperation lessened the workload of an overworked, understaffed and fangless NCAA investigation department.

Hindsight does not argue Jenkins’ 2014 public deferral to the NCAA was the right maneuver.

“The University has decided that if the investigation determines that student-athletes would have been ineligible for past competitions, Notre Dame will voluntarily vacate any victories in which they participated,” he said then.

That was an unnecessary offering, and from a public relations viewpoint, it is now the greatest mistake made by the University in this process. That comment floats amid the internet’s cobwebs to be thrown back in Jenkins’ and Notre Dame’s face four years later. Doing so misses the more pertinent and meaningful pieces of the NCAA’s decision.

The NCAA opted to punish an institution when there was never any indication of involvement from anyone higher up than an undergraduate student. Per Tuesday’s announcement, “The appeals committee confirmed that at the time of the violations, the athletic training student was considered a university employee under NCAA rules.”

This is neither the space nor the time to launch into a debate regarding amateurism, but it is hard to understand the student-trainer being an employee but the student-athletes — the same ones she aided both illicitly in the classroom and medically in the football facilities — are not employees.

That questionable logic was joined by the NCAA pointing out, “In this case, the university acknowledged the academic misconduct impacted the eligibility of student-athletes and resulted in student-athletes competing while ineligible.”

Yes, Notre Dame did acknowledge that. The University went so far as to correct the past grades, deeming certain players retroactively ineligible. Notre Dame chose to do that. It could have followed the lead of other institutions, most dramatically North Carolina, and never granted the premise of falsehoods or academic missteps. North Carolina never declared any grades or classes fraudulent, and as a result, the NCAA Committee on Infractions deemed such judgements beyond its jurisdiction.

As a result, North Carolina emerged from a six-year investigation essentially unscathed, wins intact along with scholarships, staffers and players. If Notre Dame had not reevaluated ill-gotten grades, then the NCAA would not have, either, and those 21 wins would be safe.

With that in mind, why should any school, be it Notre Dame or North Carolina, Harvard or USC, West Point or Mount Union, “acknowledge” any academic fault in relation to its athletics?

That concerning piece of Tuesday’s appeal ruling did not escape Jenkins’ wrath.

“We are deeply disappointed that the NCAA failed to recognize these critical points,” he wrote. “Yet we are committed to work with partner institutions to introduce NCAA legislation that will lead to more reasonable decisions — decisions that will support rather than discourage institutions that do their best to uncover and respond to academic dishonesty in accord with their respective honor codes.”

The NCAA wants to allow academic institutions autonomy. It is, in fact, inherent to the NCAA’s structure. Apparently the NCAA wants that autonomy to extend so far it grants the governing body willful and blissful ignorance.

That is a dangerous precedent, and if Notre Dame needs to vacate 21 wins, must add an asterisk of a talking point for Irish critics and supposedly diminish the luster of that 2012 undefeated regular season, so be it. That is a worthwhile cost to produce a conversation for consistency and accountability moving forward.

That should be the sought result, too. Unless Notre Dame wants to turn the full complement of its sports into glorified barnstorming exhibitions, it will not be departing the NCAA. It does, though, still have the influence to effect change. That change will not come through a prolonged court case. There is no forward-looking damage to the University to protect against.

The greatest actual damage done to the here-and-now is to a meaningless stat. Notre Dame is now two or three seasons, at least, away from challenging Michigan (or Boise State) for the lead in all-time winning percentage, rather than one game away. That is the most tangible and lasting effect — remember, this investigation resulted in no bowl ban or reduced scholarship allotment — of this fiasco felt by Notre Dame, and it deserves little more than someone reminding me of the sequence of punctuation needed to create that shrug response.

But now we know, next time Notre Dame or Stanford or Michigan or Boise State or University of Wisconsin-Whitewater has an academic issue the NCAA is concerned with, it should filibuster, deny the premise and change the topic. That warrants more than a shrug. It warrants every bit of worry from anyone still wanting to believe college athletics involve just some academics, as Jenkins and Notre Dame do.

NCAA denies Notre Dame’s appeal, vacating 21 wins, including 12-0 in 2012

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The NCAA denied Notre Dame’s appeal to maintain its 21 wins from 2012 and 2013, the NCAA announced Tuesday. The ruling stems from the academic violations of nine players during those seasons, eight of them with the assistance of a former student-athletic trainer.

Notre Dame’s argument hinged on there being no university involvement or knowledge of the academic misconduct. The NCAA does not dispute that wholesale, but since the student-trainer was considered a university employee under NCAA rules, that lumps the violations into a category usually resulting in vacated wins.

“We are deeply disappointed by and strongly disagree with the denial of the University’s appeal …,” Notre Dame President Fr. John Jenkins said in a statement. “Our concerns go beyond the particulars of our case and the record of two football seasons to the academic autonomy of our institutions, the integrity of college athletics, and the ability of the NCAA to achieve its fundamental purpose.”

As the academic violations came to light and were self-reported by Notre Dame in 2014, the Irish suspended five then-current players: DaVaris Daniels, Eilar Hardy, Kendall Moore, Ishaq Williams and KeiVarae Russell. The University also set to recalculating the appropriate grades from years past. In doing so, it rendered certain players retroactively ineligible.

“In the curious logic of the NCAA, however, it is precisely the application of our Honor Code that is the source of the vacation of wins penalty, for the recalculation of grades in 2014 led to three student-athletes being deemed ineligible retroactively,” Jenkins said. “To impose a severe penalty for this retroactive ineligibility establishes a dangerous precedent and turns the seminal concept of academic autonomy on its head.

“At its best, the NCAA’s decision in this case creates a randomness of outcome based solely on how an institution chooses to define its honor code; at worst, it creates an incentive for colleges and universities to change their honor codes to avoid sanctions like that imposed here.”

Jenkins claims the ruling by the NCAA is unprecedented since there was no broader institutional involvement or lack of control.

“There is no precedent in previous NCAA cases for the decision to add a discretionary penalty of vacation of team records in a case of student-student cheating involving a part-time student worker who had no role in academic advising,” Jenkins wrote. “… The Committee simply failed to provide any rationale why it viewed the student-worker as an institutional representative in our case.”

Such a view was actually amended out of the academic misconduct rules in 2016, meaning student-trainers would not be considered institutional representatives.

Vacating the 12 wins from 2012 and the nine from 2013 drops Notre Dame’s all-time win total to 885 from 906 and its all-time winning percentage to .724 from .729. The Irish still stand at No. 2 in winning percentage, behind only Michigan, but that top spot will no longer be at stake in the 2018 season opener against the Wolverines on Sept. 1.

Jenkins’ full statement can be read here.

The NCAA’s announcement denying the appeal can be read here.