It’s still way too early, but Notre Dame’s path is open to CFB Playoff

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It’s still way too early.

I’ll type it again: It’s still way too early. But with one quarter of Notre Dame’s football season behind them, the Irish’s path to the first ever College Football Playoff looks wide open.

Yes, I know the Irish have to travel to Tallahassee. But pushing that game to the back burner for a few seconds, the promising start for Brian Kelly’s team has them looking capable of winning every remaining game on their schedule — the battle with the defending national champs included.

Again, it’s too early. But just like in 2012, when Notre Dame’s near impossible schedule had people almost disqualifying the Irish from any BCS talk in the preseason, the 2014 slate seems to be getting softer by the week, with Stanford, USC, North Carolina, Northwestern, Louisville and even Florida State looking less impressive than expected.

So while the Irish certainly have work to do on their first bye week of the season, let’s give ourself one peek at what’s ahead and handicap just how possible Notre Dame’s inclusion into a four-team playoff really is.

 

SYRACUSE

Yes, Syracuse just rolled past Central Michigan 40-3, the same Chippewas  team that rolled over Purdue convincingly, leading to the Transative Property Game of the Week next Saturday night in the Meadowlands. But the Orange also went to double-overtime with Villanova, so there’s that datapoint as well.

A crude look at Syracuse presents a team with a defense that should be pretty good and an offense that depends largely on running quarterback Terrel Hunt. So after doing a serviceable job against Rice and dual-threat quarterback Driphus Jackson, the Irish will board a plane for the first time this season and play their first not-quite true away game in front of a crowd that’ll likely be 50-50.

Trending: Looks like we thought it would. A game that’s a must and should-win for the Irish.

 

STANFORD

Looking at the box score and rewatching the game against USC, it’s really rather amazing that Stanford ended up losing this football game. The Cardinal outgained USC 413-291, but lost the turnover battle with two lost fumbles en route to a disappointing loss for David Shaw’s squad, who once again struggled in the red zone trying to get seven when three would have done just fine.

With cupcake wins over UC-Davis and Army, we’ve really got no other game to work from when evaluating Stanford. But the Cardinal’s secondary should give the Irish a stiff test and you’ve got to expect Shaw’s “man ball” running game to do its best to over-power the Irish’s relatively undersized front seven.

Still, the Irish get Stanford at home, returning to the site of their emotional 2012 overtime victory. With Everett Golson a much better quarterback than the one the Cardinal saw then, it’s a tough test, but one that looks a little bit easier after the first three games of the season.

Trending: Still one of the season’s toughest games. But maybe not as scary as previously thought.

 

NORTH CAROLINA

A game with all the makings of a trap, the Tar Heels struggled to hold on for a win against San Diego State last week, and face quite the gauntlet themselves before heading to South Bend with East Carolina, Clemson and Virginia Tech their three opponents before taking on the Irish.

The Tar Heels may have some problems along the offensive line, not a good thing to say when you’re going up against Brian VanGorder’s scheme. They’ve also got some uneven quarterback play, though Marquise Williams leads the Tar Heels as both a runner and a passer.

One thing that’s surprising? A defense that’s given up 28 points a game to the duo of Liberty and San Diego State. Playing against Notre Dame on their home field, it looks like a game where the Irish should be able to score some points.

Trending: Looks like an easier game than it did on paper. And the Tar Heels’ schedule has the looks of one that could go pear-shaped pretty quickly.

 

FLORIDA STATE

Who are we kidding. This game still looks every bit as terrifying as it ever did, even if the Seminoles haven’t played like the world-beaters many expected. Florida State struggled to put away Oklahoma State. Then they only beat Citadel 37-12, a game you expected FSU to hang 70 on the board.

Defending Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston hasn’t looked like the part. In fact, an apples-to-apples comparison of quarterbacks would favor Everett Golson’s stat-line quite favorably. Still, if Notre Dame can handle their business leading into mid-October, this has the makings of an epic showdown, and one that the Irish will still likely be double-digit underdogs in.

Trending: Looks better now. But still doesn’t look good.

 

NAVY

The Midshipmen gave Ohio State all they could handle before the Buckeyes pulled away late in the second half. But two wins against a better than expected Temple and Texas State have Navy looking exactly like the pesky underdogs that you’d expect.

The Irish have a week off after playing Florida State before opening the month of November with the Midshipmen. And while he’s likely the best triggerman to run Navy’s offense since Ricky Dobbs (and a much better passer), quarterback Keenan Reynolds sat out last week with a knee injury, so there’s already some wear on his tires.

This will be Brian VanGorder’s first look at an option offense since disassembling one (literally) in his lone season as head coach at Georgia Southern. That’ll be just one of many plotlines to follow by then.

Trending: It’s Navy. Always a difficult out, especially with an already thin Notre Dame defense.

 

ARIZONA STATE

The complexion of the Sun Devils’ season could have changed dramatically late in their victory over Colorado. That’s when quarterback Taylor Kelly, one of the nation’s most underrated players, suffered what could be a serious injury.

There’s been nothing official out of ASU, but it appears that Kelly has a broken bone in his foot and is expected to miss maybe up to a month. That timeline would put Taylor back in time for Notre Dame, but makes it relatively questionable that he’ll return to his dual-threat ways.

After perhaps Notre Dame’s most impressive win of last season, the Sun Devils will look to get some revenge in a home game that former athletic director Steve Patterson did everything possible to save.

Trending: If Kelly’s not 100 percent, that’s a good thing for Notre Dame.

 

NORTHWESTERN

After looking like one of the young coaching stars in college football, the past 14 months haven’t been kind to Pat Fitzgerald. Coming off a really disappointing 5-7 season, Northwestern lost their opening two non-conference games to Cal and Northern Illinois.

Those were the type of wins that Fitzgerald built his reputation on, getting Ws when they were expected and fighting tough through the Big Ten schedule. But without Venric Mark, who left the program in August after initially being suspended for two games, the ground game has been stuck in neutral and Trevor Siemian has thrown more interceptions than touchdowns.

Trending: Doesn’t look like good things are happening in Evanston.

 

LOUISVILLE

The fighting Bobby Petrinos put the college football world on notice with an early dismantling of Miami. But their loss to Virginia likely exposed a little bit more than the early win proved. While Will Gardner looked great against Miami and Murray State, he threw two interceptions against UVA, and completed just 41 percent of his throws.

There is a ton of talent on the Louisville roster, especially on the edges. But after playing a sloppy football game in just about every phase, it’s clear that the Cardinals are farther from being the dark horse contender than many expected.

Trending: A tough loss to Virginia sets back the Petrino renaissance… for at least one Saturday.

 

USC

Oh boy, not too many people saw Saturday night coming. The Trojans, fresh off a rivalry win and flying across the country, absolutely got steamrolled by Boston College. Yep, Boston College.

That loss once again exposes a USC team that is filled with elite skill players but lacks the cohesiveness that championship programs demand. While pollsters really don’t matter anymore, it’s one more reminder to them that the best teams in college football aren’t built around their stars, but on the rank-and-file that fill the rest of the roster.

Former Irish assistant Steve Addazio’s Eagles ran for 452 yards on USC’s defense, a shocking number. And while Cody Kessler threw for four touchdowns and 317 yards, the Trojans could only manage 20 on the ground, a puzzling number considering their ability to run on Stanford and BC giving up 303 yards on the ground to Pitt the week before.

The Trojan roster is already hovering around 60 scholarship players. So before we know if this is merely a blip on the radar or a sign of things to come, another nine games have to be played.

Trending: A shocking loss knocks the Trojans out of the clouds. We’ll see how they rally after a difficult loss.

Lengthy Texas cornerback joins Notre Dame class of 2024

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Maybe Benjamin Morrison and Jaden Mickey will be anomalies, but if they are precedent-setters, then Notre Dame may have snagged another unheralded but promising cornerback with the Saturday afternoon commitment of consensus three-star Leonard Moore (Round Rock High School; Texas).

Moore also holds scholarship offers from Oregon, TCU and Vanderbilt, to name a few. In total, he has offers from six schools in the Pac-12, three in the Big 12, two in the SEC and one in the ACC, an intriguing widespread array from someone not yet lighting recruiting rankings on fire.

At 6-foot-2, Moore should have the length to become a physical cornerback, one perhaps more in the mold of current Notre Dame fifth-year cornerback Cam Hart than the rising sophomore Morrison.

Moore’s highlight reel starts with a few interceptions, naturally, and a punt return. Pass breakups are not necessarily the most enthralling of film. But then he sheds a block to force a fumble and soon defends a back-shoulder throw with ease. Moore is clearly a playmaker, particularly given no level of Texas football should be scoffed at. He intercepted three passes, forced two fumbles and broke up four passes in 2022 as a junior.

He readily anticipates routes and when needed funnels his man as the defensive design demands.

Moore runs track, as well, with decent 200-meter times in the low 23-second range.

The eighth commitment in the class of 2024, Moore is the second defensive back, joining consensus three-star cornerback Karson Hobbs (Archbishop Moeller; Cincinnati). While team recruiting rankings are thoroughly premature more than 10 months before anyone can officially sign, thoroughness demands mentioning that Notre Dame’s class is currently ranked No. 2 in the country behind only Georgia with 10 commitments.

RELATED READING: An early look at Notre Dame’s seven commits in the class of 2024, including QB CJ Carr

A cursory look at the depth chart suggests Moore could have an avenue to early playing time in South Bend. Hart likely will move on to the NFL after the 2023 season, a shoulder injury tipping the scales toward returning this offseason. Aside from him, the only cornerbacks with experience on the Irish roster are Morrison and Mickey and rising senior Clarence Lewis. Any of the four young cornerbacks that do make an impression in 2023 will effectively be on equal footing with Moore.

Reports: Tommy Rees heads to Alabama after 10 total years at Notre Dame

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: APR 23 Notre Dame Spring Game
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If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.

Tommy Rees will leave Notre Dame to do just that, heading to be the offensive coordinator at Alabama, according to reports Friday afternoon. Nick Saban and the Tide denied Rees a national championship as a player in 2012 and a title game appearance as an offensive coordinator in 2020.

The South Bend Tribune‘s Mike Berardino first reported Rees’s decision, coming a day after reports initially surfaced that Rees was Alabama’s preferred choice for the gig, and he had flown to Tuscaloosa to consider the position.

Those unbeaten regular seasons, along with one in 2018 as the Irish quarterbacks coach, were the high points of Rees’ total of a decade with the Notre Dame football program. Like his former head coach, he will now head to the SEC chasing a higher peak.

Of course, Rees spurned Brian Kelly’s invite to join him at LSU last winter, instead memorably telling the Irish offensive players, “I’m [bleepin’] staying,” setting the tone for the first week of Marcus Freeman‘s tenure as Notre dame head coach.

RELATED READING: Tommy Rees turns down Brian Kelly’s LSU overture and will remain at Notre Dame
Jack Swarbrick, Marcus Freeman and Tommy Rees brought stability to Notre Dame long before and obviously after Brian Kelly sowed chaos

Alabama made an offer Rees could not refuse, even if a year ago he said, “I love this place (Notre Dame). I believe that we can win a national championship here, and I’m committed to doing everything we can to get to that point.”

Going to Tuscaloosa does not render those words empty. Rees is going to work for the greatest college football coach in history in a role that has repeatedly springboarded coaches to better opportunities. Since Saban arrived at Alabama in 2007, his offensive coordinators have gone on to be, in chronological order, the assistant head coach at Texas (Major Applewhite), head coach at Colorado State (Jim McElwain), offensive coordinator at Michigan (Doug Nussmeier), head coach at Florida Atlantic (Lane Kiffin), head coach at Texas (Steve Sarkisian) and offensive coordinator for the New England Patriots (Bill O’Brien).

Thus, Rees is bettering both his chances at a national title in the short term and his presumed path to whatever gig he wants next in the long term.

He leaves Notre Dame after three seasons as the Irish offensive coordinator, which came after three years as the quarterbacks coach. The Irish have ranked No. 41, No. 19 and No. 30 in scoring offense the last three seasons, peaking with 35.2 points per game in 2021, the second-highest total in Brian Kelly’s tenure.

But perhaps Rees’s finest moment as a Notre Dame assistant came when he finessed a mid-season quarterback switch to Ian Book from Brandon Wimbush despite the Irish remaining unbeaten throughout 2018. In some respects, Rees threaded a similar needle in 2021, incorporating Wisconsin graduate transfer Jack Coan, then-freshman Tyler Buchner and spot-reliever Drew Pyne; each quarterback could be credited as responsible for at least one win as the Irish made a Playoff push.

Then this past season, Rees responded to Buchner’s shoulder sprain that cost him 10 games by working with Pyne to piecemeal an offense.

From December of 2021:

Rees has considered leaving his alma mater before, reportedly interviewing to be Miami’s offensive coordinator in recent years, not to mention weighing Kelly’s offer from LSU 14 months ago, as well as a previous brief dalliance with Alabama a few years ago.

After leading Notre Dame’s offense in one way or another for 10 of the last 13 years, Rees has finally opted to do so elsewhere. It just so happens to be as part of the team that twice turned back the Irish and now faces Kelly every fall.

Opportunities abound for Tommy Rees, earned recognition after a decade at Notre Dame

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A lot of people go to college for seven years. For Tommy Rees, it has been 10 years at Notre Dame, so to speak.

Whether or not Rees leaves his alma mater this week, as multiple Thursday reports indicated Rees is the frontrunner to be Alabama’s next offensive coordinator, there is no bad choice in front of him. Either Rees returns as the Irish offensive coordinator for a fourth season, continues his pursuit of winning a national championship at Notre Dame after three postseason trips already in his career, or he learns under the best college football coach in history in a position that has springboarded coaches to greener pastures for about a decade now.

Irish fans may spend most of their falls criticizing Rees’s play calls, but he is clearly someone well-respected in the coaching community. Seen as a future coach when he was a player and then navigating multiple delicate quarterback situations at Notre Dame, this is not the first time Nick Saban has chased Rees. He reportedly did so following the 2019 season, when Rees had not even spent a day as an offensive coordinator.

Instead, Rees took over that gig in South Bend, losing to Alabama in the 2020 College Football Playoff, albeit a more competitive showing than when Rees and the Irish fell to the Tide in the 2012 title game. Miami sought Rees in recent years, and whispers of vague NFL interest have popped up more offseasons than not.

If most of those people who go to college for seven years are called doctors, then Rees has put together a doctorate-level intellect evidenced by who wants to hire him. Alabama publicly sending a branded plane to South Bend to ferry Rees for a visit on Thursday underscored that reputation.

Set aside the forced references to “Tommy Boy” — though the similarities do go past the first name and to a Catholic university in the Midwest — and realize Rees will leave Notre Dame at some point, probably sooner than later.

Maybe he joins Saban this weekend. Alabama needs to navigate a first-year starter at quarterback next year in a conference that quickly seemed to catch up to the Tide last season, with both LSU and Tennessee staking claims as competitors with Georgia already clearly out in front and Mississippi in the mix. Competing with former Irish head coach Brian Kelly every year would make for juicy headlines, but what speaks louder to Rees’s credit is that this is the time Saban wants to snag him, when Alabama’s footing may be less secure than at any point since the ‘00s.

Maybe Rees returns to Notre Dame, teams with Wake Forest graduate transfer quarterback Sam Hartman to ready for three top-10 matchups in 2023, and gets the Irish into the College Football Playoff for a third time in six years with the only constant quite literally being Rees.

Oh, and both scenarios should come with plenty of money.

Rees has no bad choice in front of him. That is a credit to him, even if fans would rather lampoon him than step back and acknowledge the intricacies of playcalling.

If he heads to Alabama, the annual matchups with LSU will become delightful fodder from afar. His Notre Dame legacy will include “Call duo until you can’t speak,” his emphatic play call when he left the coaches’ booth early as the Irish upset Clemson this past November, and “I’m [bleepin’] staying,” Rees’s declaration to the offensive players last December amid a week of tumult.

If he stays in South Bend, the next matchup with anyone in the SEC, most likely a 2023 bowl game, will drip with an on-field chance at validation. That legacy will include spurning college football’s best not once, but twice.

For a quarterback who lost his starting job at Notre Dame not once (2011 preseason), but twice (2012 preseason), some pride has been earned. Saban’s stamp of approval carries all the weight needed in college football to assure someone of their professional standing.

It may have taken a decade, but Rees can now know he belongs with the best, no matter what decision he makes this weekend.

The lull of National Signing Day underscores need to move the early signing period

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The early-morning chaos of today’s National Signing Day did not disappear with the implementation of the December “early” signing period in the 2018 recruiting cycle. It just moved six weeks earlier.

In 2014, waking up at 6:45 a.m. ET to be logged on and publishing at 7 a.m. led to noticing one expected recruit had not yet signed with Notre Dame by 8 a.m. Pointing that out and reminding the world Michigan State was making a late push led to an Irish media relations staffer reaching out to quietly say something to the extent of, “Just letting the young man have his moment at school.”

In 2017, less than two weeks after taking over this gig, waking up at 3 a.m. CT to churn through 2,000 words before signings could begin becoming official eventually led to napping through Brian Kelly’s Signing Day press conference.

Nothing changed 10 months later. That December, the afternoon of Dec. 22, the Friday before Christmas, was spent waiting for receiver Braden Lenzy to officially choose Notre Dame over Oregon. Sitting at your parents’ kitchen table not helping your niece make a gingerbread house because recruiting-obsessed fans harassed a player through two de-commitments is not a strong way to conjure up holiday spirit.

Coaches across the country advocated for the earlier signing period, claiming it would allow high-school seniors to make their collegiate decisions official earlier on in their senior years, particularly when the prospects had already made up their minds on where to play football at the next level. That was all optics, if even that.

These high schoolers now make their decision official just six weeks earlier. In the preps football calendar, those six weeks are meaningless. Both the December signing period and today, the traditional National Signing Day, come well after the high-school seasons have ended.

The truth was, coaches across the country did not want to tend to their solid commitments over Christmas and New Year’s, particularly not amid bowl prep. It was self-serving at best and short-sighted at worst.

First of all, when the December signing period became reality in 2017, one-time transfers were not yet allowed without losing eligibility the following season. Secondly, no one predicted the early signing period would lead to the coaching carousel beginning earlier and earlier in the season. September firings used to be the result of only off-field scandals, not outright expected from half a dozen programs each fall. Athletic directors now want that headstart on hiring a new coach so he can have time before the December signing period commences.

Exhibit A: Notre Dame may have ended up with Marcus Freeman as its head coach after Brian Kelly’s abrupt departure following the 2021 season, but if the primary signing date had not been lingering just a few weeks away, Kelly likely would not have jumped to LSU before the College Football Playoff field was set, and Irish director of athletics Jack Swarbrick would have taken more time in choosing his next head coach, more than the 48 hours he used last December. After all, Swarbrick took 10 days in hiring Kelly in 2009.

Lastly, with a 12-team Playoff coming in 2025, December will become only more hectic.

Those head coaches who wanted a little less stress over the holidays will then have to deal with, in chronological order:

— Keeping their own jobs.
— Securing their recruiting classes in the days immediately preceding Christmas.
— Preparing their teams for bowl games.
— Preparing their teams for up to four games if in the Playoff.
— Re-recruiting any players considering entering the transfer portal before the winter window closes.
— Winning a bowl game.
— Retaining their coaching staffs.
— Oh, and celebrate the holidays with their families, as was their want when they hollered for the early signing period.

Most of those tasks are immutable and inherent to the sport.

But one can move. It already has once.

The logic is too clear. Nothing was gained in moving up the primary signing date by six weeks. And sanity was lost.

This is, of course, a sport that prefers to ignore logic, but usually that is charming. A mustard bottle on the field is quirky; lacking a worthwhile voice of authority is stubbornly stupid.

So the early signing period may not move as soon as it should (now), but it will move. There are no anti-trust worries tied to it, fortunately.

And aside from the logic, cramming more content into December costs the media, too. Spreading out that context through the vacuum of mid-January to mid-March will be much appreciated.