The first Saturday of the college football season yielded many a surprising result. Though perhaps one thing wasn’t all that shocking—those preseason polls weren’t worth the paper they’re printed on, nor the oxygen of the ensuing debate.
Saturday belonged to the underdog. Houston, Wisconsin and Texas A&M all beat College Football Playoff contenders, perhaps making themselves as one in the process. Western Michigan beat Northwestern, South Alabama beat Mississippi State and Richmond dominated Virginia—with just as many big programs surviving a near upset.
What does that mean for Notre Dame? Nothing really. But on a weekend where the unexpected was rather common, a few conclusions drawn from a wild weekend could play into Sunday’s primetime kickoff between the Irish and the Longhorns.
Notre Dame and Texas aren’t the only programs juggling two quarterbacks.
Brian Kelly made the unorthodox announcement that both DeShone Kizer and Malik Zaire were going to play against Texas. Charlie Strong was unwilling to tell anybody but his team who was starting between senior Tyrone Swoopes and freshman Shane Buechele.
Turns out, Kelly and Strong are hardly alone. Turn on a game this weekend and you likely saw head coaches shuffling between quarterbacks. Perhaps just as telling, just about every one of the scenarios seemed to skew closer to the old adage, not the belief of Kelly’s that two of his best playmakers are at the same position.
As if anybody needed a reminder, the juggling act isn’t easy. Even good coaches like David Shaw derailed offensive momentum the moment he brought in No. 2.
But it helps to have talented players. Notre Dame’s two-headed monster doesn’t resemble most of the tandems that were largely ineffective this weekend. Both it’ll still take plenty of work to bring out the best in the position, let alone both Kizer and Zaire.
Trench warfare is critical.
Nothing was more telling this weekend than the battles in the trenches. Saturday seemed to be separated mostly by the ability for teams to win at the point of attack.
Notre Dame should have the edge in both matchups, with the Irish offensive line capable of getting Texas’s front four on their heels, while a beaten up Longhorns offensive line faces a physical defensive front that will attempt to slow down an up-tempo Texas attack.
It might not be that simple. We’ll see how Harry Hiestand’s restacked offensive line performs with new center Sam Mustiper calling the shots and Colin McGovern and Alex Bars working together for the first time on the right side.
On defense, Isaac Rochell is a proven commodity, but getting a true status check on Jarron Jones is critical. At his best, Jones can ruin Texas’s game plan. As a 25-snap player, he’ll turn the keys over to Daniel Cage and some unproven depth. Add in a critical season from Jerry Tillery and a still unsolved weakside defensive end, and take some time to keep an eye on Keith Gilmore’s group.
Over seven recruiting cycles, Brian Kelly has built an offensive line that’s the envy of the (non-Alabama) college football world. He’s struggled a bit more on the defensive front, but there’s a lot talented (but unproven) depth that’ll have to get experience this season.
Two critical showdowns. And two battles that the Irish need to win.
In front of the first sellout crowd of the Charlie Strong era, poise is critical.
Brian Kelly acknowledges that he won’t fully know his young team until he sees how they react running out of the tunnel.
“We’ve got some young players. They’re going to have to settle down and play with some poise,” Kelly told ESPN Sunday morning. “But we’ve got a good nucleus of guys who have been on the road in some pretty raucous environments. It’s like any opener, we’re going to have some guys that’ll need to settle into the game, but I think we’re well prepared and they’re excited about the opportunity.
Kelly has talked multiple times this week about the idea of sparring with the Longhorns—almost willing to get into the feel of the game to get a sense of how they plan on defending the Irish. That could be a way of helping his team to find its footing, or it could be a smoke screen. (Notre Dame all but landed a first-round knockout last year against Texas. Don’t expect the offense to be all that vanilla.)
But this is a far less experienced group than the one that opened up last season. And with an offense that’ll be mixing and matching quarterbacks and a defense that’ll be breaking in a lot of new faces, making sure the Irish aren’t digging out of an early hole might be the first point of order.
Who is going to make the big plays?
Will Fuller is gone. Jaylon Smith is as well. While both former All-Americans could be in the stadium cheering on the Irish, they’ll be in street clothes, passing off their big-play duties to still-to-be-determined former teammates.
Most expect big things from Torii Hunter in the passing game. We’ll see if he’s up to the task against a hometown program that only showed lukewarm interest in him. Nyles Morgan is now the man in the middle of the Irish defense. Against Smash Brothers D'Onta Foreman and Chris Warren, he’ll need to be a tackling machine.
Shaun Crawford is making his debut as a starter in the secondary. Freshman Daelin Hayes gets his chance to show off his pass rush skills.
Most believe the Irish offense will continue to excel, replacing Fuller and C.J. Prosise and a unit that had the highest yards per play average in school history. But standouts on both sides of the ball need to emerge.