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CFP Contenders & Notre Dame’s Opponents: Oklahoma & Wisconsin loom

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For all the talk about 13 data points this time of year, only a few games on each schedule matter. The College Football Playoff selection committee focuses on those when putting together each week’s poll, the most-recent having been released Tuesday night with Notre Dame still at No. 3.

The Irish opened their season by beating Temple; No. 5 Oklahoma began with a 56-7 victory over UTEP. Neither much matters anymore. Notre Dame beat Miami (Ohio) 52-17; No. 4 Clemson hosts the Citadel in two weeks. The eyes naturally move past both games when looking at the schedules. The Irish outran Boston College 49-20; No. 6 TCU rolled past Kansas 43-0. Frankly, the Horned Frogs’ conference opponent remains one of the country’s weakest teams no matter affiliation.

Rather than dissect the various birds’ weekends, a look at the Sooners, the Tigers and TCU makes more sense. Thus, in order of pertinence, import and meaning, the weekly look at opponents pivots from the teams scheduled to the teams who may yet be scheduled for January. In November, that context becomes the more important determining factor, rather than the all-inclusive content of September and October.

Clemson (8-1): In not moving the Tigers past the Irish this week, the committee may have made it impossible to do so moving forward. Clemson’s résumé received a greater boost this weekend, beating now-No. 23 North Carolina State 38-31, despite not leading until the second half and needing a last-minute interception to seal the road victory. Close as it was, the win means more than Notre Dame’s 48-37 topping of Wake Forest.

Yet, the Tigers remain a step back. Even if the best Irish opponents fall apart, diminishing the value of those wins, they may already be worth enough to keep Notre Dame staked ahead of Clemson. The biggest boost the Tigers can get from their past would be No. 10 Auburn beating the top-two teams a total of three times. The Irish would welcome that unlikely scenario, as it would greatly diminish two claims to top spots, even if that meant Clemson jumped to No. 1.

The Tigers still host Florida State (3:30 p.m. ET, ESPN) and the Citadel, have a trip to face South Carolina and meet a yet-to-be-determined foe in the ACC title game. That schedule will not elevate Clemson more than will Notre Dame’s remaining games, including a trip to that likely ACC title game challenger, No. 7 Miami.

Oklahoma (8-1): The Sooners, however, could still jump both the Irish and the Tigers. A 62-52 win over now-No. 15 Oklahoma State was not enough to push Oklahoma into the top-four, but three more games against top-25 opponents, including two against No. 8 TCU, could do it. Neither Notre Dame nor Clemson face as many remaining challenges.

This is not saying the Sooners’ overall résumé is better than either of the two ahead of it. This is saying if the committee already sees it as close, there is enough yet to come to move it ahead in those eyes. Those opinions are, after all, the only ones that matter.

That slate begins this weekend vs. TCU (8 p.m. ET, FOX) with Oklahoma favored by a touchdown. A combined point total over/under of 62.5 posits the Sooners as 34-28 victors and more pressure on the committee to consider moving Oklahoma and Heisman-frontrunner quarterback Baker Mayfield into the Playoff field.

TCU (8-1): Frankly, the next entry on this list is more pertinent, but having the Horned Frogs follow their upcoming opponent makes organizational sense.

TCU has little-to-no chance of jumping Notre Dame. This past weekend’s 24-7 victory against Texas didn’t much help the cause. Sure, the Horned Frogs still have up-to-two top-10 games remaining, but the Irish have one themselves. If TCU wins both this weekend and in the Big 12 title game down the line, that will not likely be enough to make up for a lackluster schedule thus far.

Oklahoma differentiated itself from the rest of the Big 12 with its win at Ohio State in September.

But what about undefeated Wisconsin at No. 8? The 9-0 Badgers could finish 13-0 with only one win of value. Even with Iowa vaulting itself into the top-25 this week thanks to a blowout of the Buckeyes, Wisconsin beating the No. 20 Hawkeyes on Saturday (3:30 p.m. ET, ABC) will not impress much. And yes, presume that will happen. The Badgers are favored by 12 with an over/under of 46, a theoretical 29-17 final.

It is hard to fault Jonathan Taylor and Wisconsin for winning all their games in a major conference. (Getty Images)

The question Notre Dame must wonder: Will an undefeated Power Five conference champion really not make the Playoff? If both Oklahoma and Wisconsin win out, this answer will matter a great deal.

This space does not know this answer, but it will also not fault a team for winning every game on its schedule.

The question may not matter, but it is the question at hand.

Because no one else in the Big Ten can make a claim. Ohio State fell to No. 13 after the Hawkeyes raced to a 55-24 victory. Quarterback J.T. Barrett dashed his Heisman hopes with four interceptions. Meanwhile, Penn State dropped to No. 14 thanks to a 27-24 loss at Michigan State, boosting the Spartans to No. 12. This did the Irish two favors: It removed a CFP contender from the conversation and it made September’s win at Michigan State that much more impressive.

Then comes the SEC: No. 1 Georgia, No. 2 Alabama and the aforementioned No. 10 Auburn: If Georgia (9-0) and Alabama (9-0) keep winning until they meet in the SEC title game, presume both are in, no matter what Wisconsin worries may exist for others. Both face tests this weekend, though.

The Bulldogs are favored by 2.5 at Auburn, a 25-22 possibility on the horizon (3:30 p.m. ET, CBS). The Tide, meanwhile, heads to No. 16 Mississippi State expecting to cruise to a two-touchdown triumph (7 p.m. ET, ESPN).

If either is upset, that alone will not end Playoff plans, but it would create for a lot more hypotheticals to be bantered about. Let’s cross that bridge if/when we get to it.

For thoroughness’ sake, No. 9 Washington (8-1): The Huskies need some sort of chaos ahead of them to expect a bid. For now, a 38-3 win vs. Oregon didn’t hurt, and neither would a 28-22 notch Friday night at Stanford (10:30 p.m. ET, FS1). Then again, Pac-12 road teams have fared terribly on Friday nights this season.


That covers Georgia, Michigan State and Miami — oh, right, Miami came in at No. 7 in the new poll thanks to its 28-10 victory over now-No. 17 Virginia Tech — and there was a mention of North Carolina State (now heading to Boston College for a 12 p.m. ET kickoff on either ESPN2 or ABC depending on your region) and Stanford (fell out of the poll thanks to a 24-21 defeat to now-No. 19 Washington State). That leaves one more of Notre Dame’s impactful opponents to be mentioned.

USC limited Khalil Tate to only 161 rushing yards and three total touchdowns. (Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images)

USC (8-2) rose to No. 11 in the poll, making the Trojans the second-ranked two-loss team, behind Auburn. A 49-35 win vs. Arizona might not have been expected to provide such a jump in the standings, but the committee clearly respects what the Wildcats have done since inserting sensation Khalil Tate at quarterback. USC, just like Georgia, Michigan State and Miami, still controls its own path to its conference title game. That path should not struggle with this weekend’s obstacle, a trip to Colorado (4 p.m. ET, FOX). Favored by nearly two touchdowns with an over/under of 63.5 would make for a 38-25 Trojan victory.

As for the rest of the Irish schedule:

Temple (4-5): The Owls won 34-26 against Navy on Thursday, and now head to Cincinnati for a Friday-night matchup (7 p.m. ET, ESPN2). Favored by 2.5 with an over/under of 47.5 creates a 25-22 distraction while you ready for a night on the town.

Boston College (5-4): The Eagles come off a bye with the aforementioned date with the Wolfpack as only three-point underdogs. There could be value there, now that North Carolina State’s ACC hopes were dashed by Clemson. Perhaps the Wolfpack will struggle and fall on the wrong side of a 28-25 result.

Miami (OH) (4-6): The RedHawks beat Akron 24-14 on Tuesday night, now readying for a meeting with Eastern Michigan next Wednesday. MACtion, it is the opiate of the midweek miserable.

North Carolina (1-8): The Tar Heels head to Pittsburgh on Thursday (7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN) having had nearly two weeks to prepare in hopes of overcoming a 9.5-point spread in the Panthers favor. A 29-22 score is not a normal football score, and expecting North Carolina to keep it that close might be unreasonable.

Wake Forest (5-4): Can the Deacons secure bowl eligibility at Syracuse? The 3 p.m. ET kickoff, not nationally-televised, has no favorite, only an over/under of 63. A 32-31 nail-biter never hurt anyone.

Navy (5-3): After that loss to Temple, Navy seeks bowl eligibility vs. SMU (3:30 p.m. ET, CBS Sports Network), despite being 4.5-point underdogs. SMU has snuck up on the general public this year, and just may do that to the Midshipmen, as well.

Notre Dame’s Opponents: Early NFL departures hit Georgia, Michigan and Stanford hardest

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A sign of a strong program is one that loses players to the NFL before they exhaust eligibility. In that vein, Notre Dame lost a consensus first-team All-American cornerback, its leading receiver and a long-time tease of a tight end. The last of those (Alizé Mack) was never expected back for a fifth season; replacing Miles Boykin’s production is certainly within reason; and a consensus first-team All-American should be expected to take the route junior Julian Love has.

Even with that expectation, losing Love — and to a lesser extent, Boykin — alters the natural roster cycle, the inherent design intended during recruiting. Reloading is always the hope, the next intention, but very rarely is the young backup comparable to the near professional, even by the end of the coming season.

Nonetheless, the Irish got off easy this cycle compared to four of their 2019 opponents …

GEORGIA: Junior running back Elijah Holyfield, the Bulldogs’ second-leading rusher, departs after gaining 1,018 rushing yards with seven touchdowns on 6.4 yards per carry this season. Frankly, that is the least of Georgia’s losses. Three of quarterback Jake Fromm’s four favorite targets will leave eligibility on the figurative table:

— Junior receiver Riley Ridley: 44 catches for 570 yards and nine touchdowns in 2018.
— Junior receiver Mecole Hardman: 34 catches for 532 yards and seven touchdowns.
— Junior tight end Isaac Nauta: 30 catches for 430 yards and three touchdowns.

Without running back Karan Higdon, Michigan will presumably rely on its passing game more in 2019, quarterback Shea Patterson’s second season as a Wolverine. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

MICHIGAN: The Wolverines got good news when quarterback Shea Patterson opted to return for 2019, but losing leading-rusher Karan Higdon (1,178 yards, 10 touchdowns, 5.3 average) will be an issue head coach Jim Harbaugh undoubtedly hoped to avoid. Junior tight end Zach Gentry, Patterson’s third-most prolific target with 32 catches for 514 yards and two scores, will also head to the next level.

On the flip side, Harbaugh could have hoped linebacker Devin Bush (team-leading 80 tackles with 9.5 for loss including five sacks), defensive end Rashan Gary (44 tackles with seven for loss including 3.5 sacks) or linebacker David Long (17 tackles with one interception) might return, but no such luck for Michigan.

Duke junior quarterback Daniel Jones will head to the NFL after his third season as a starter, immediately lowering the Blue Devils’ 2019 expectations. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

DUKE: Junior linebacker Joe Giles-Harris paced the Blue Devils with 81 tackles, including seven for loss with one sack, doing so in only nine games. But losing Giles-Harris is hardly the concern for Duke. The decision to turn pro from quarterback Daniel Jones is.

In his third year as a starter, the junior fought through a broken collarbone to still play in 11 games in 2018, completing 60.5 percent of his passes for 2,674 yards and 22 touchdowns with nine interceptions. He added 319 rushing yards and three touchdowns.

Jones’ decision may come as a surprise, but it is one that should work out well for both him and Notre Dame. Some mock drafts project him as a top-10 pick. In a draft light on quarterbacks — partly because Oregon’s Justin Herbert returned for another season, yet already somewhat counteracted by the Monday draft entry from Oklahoma’s Kyler Murray — Jones could end up being the third or fourth passer picked.

BOSTON COLLEGE: The Eagles will say farewell to junior cornerback Hemp Cheevers after he notched seven interceptions this season, returning one for a touchdown, to go along with 39 tackles.

STANFORD: This will seem like the Cardinal lost a lot to the NFL draft, but it could have been worse: As the departures mounted, so did speculation junior quarterback K.J. Costello might follow them. He opted not to.

Stanford will be without running back Bryce Love after his prodigious two seasons as the starter. Consider that a loss akin to the Irish Love, the inevitable price of enjoying the success in the first place.

Junior receiver J.J. Arcega-Whiteside will capitalize on his breakout season of 1,059 yards and 14 touchdowns, depriving Costello of his favorite jump-ball threat.

Junior tight end Kaden Smith will also head to the next level, in large part thanks to his 47 catches for 635 yards and two touchdowns this past season.

Louisville, New Mexico, Virginia, Bowling Green, USC, Virginia Tech and Navy all did not lose anyone early or pseudo-early to the NFL draft.

Autry Denson leaves Notre Dame to take over at Charleston Southern

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Notre Dame’s all-time leading rusher will no longer coach its current running backs. After four seasons at his alma mater, Autry Denson has been named the head coach at Charleston Southern, an FCS-level program, per a release Monday afternoon.

The second-longest tenured coach on Brian Kelly’s staff (behind only defensive line coach Mike Elston; tied with cornerbacks coach Todd Lyght), Denson had produced quality Irish backs, peaking with Josh Adams’ 1,430 rushing yards in 2017, leading an offense that averaged 269.5 rushing yards per game.

“I am so excited for Autry as he embarks on the next step of his coaching career as the new head coach at Charleston Southern,” Kelly said in a statement. “He has done a tremendous job for us during his time at Notre Dame.

“He not only developed our running backs to produce at a high level on the field, but he was also instrumental in their growth as young men.”

Only Adams and C.J. Prosise broke 1,000 rushing yards in a season under Denson, though Dexter Williams gained 995 in only nine games this past season. A third-round pick in 2016, Prosise has spent his entire career with the Seattle Seahawks, while Adams rushed for 511 yards and three touchdowns in his rookie season with the Philadelphia Eagles. Williams should join them in the NFL in April’s draft.

All of them paled in comparison to Denson’s college days, a career that saw him gain 4,318 rushing yards, 43 touchdowns and three seasons of more than 1,000 rushing yards. A 1998 All-American, Denson then spent five years in the NFL.

Denson began his coaching career at the FCS level at Bethune-Cookman in Daytona Beach, Fla., a couple hundred miles up the coast from his hometown outside of Miami.

“I was drawn to Charleston Southern by the vision of this great Christian university of integrating faith in learning, leading and serving,” Denson said. “As a result, I knew this could be a place where I could build and lead a program to honor Christ by operating with character, integrity, transparency, accountability and community.”

Charleston Southern went 5-6 in 2018 under Mark Tucker, who went 11-11 in two seasons before resigning last month.

Program-record 10 early enrollees mark the beginning of Notre Dame’s 2019

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With the early enrollment of 10 freshmen, Notre Dame’s 2019 has begun. Usually this sparks a debate among outsiders pitting the advantages of early enrollment against the high school experiences lost. Not only is that an argument held by those far from both the program and high school, but it is also one missing the team-wide edge gained.

With 10 additional scholarship bodies this spring, the Irish will have 77 on hand, as of now. A total of 16 of those will be offensive linemen, including four mid-year arrivals. Whereas there are some springs in which Notre Dame struggles to field a second unit on its offensive line, this March and April will feature three complete units with a body to spare.

There will be just as many defensive lines, with three early enrollees bringing the total up to 14 scholarship players knocking around this spring, though the health of rising sophomore Ja’Mion Franklin (quad) may drop that a notch.

Either way, the Irish will have more depth on hand this spring than usual. The 10 freshmen spurning a semester of high school will still have their chance at added weight room time, meaningful spring repetitions and theoretical development, but those rewards can end up as much hypothetical as realized. It is nearly impossible to predict if running back Kyren Williams (pictured above) will be tangibly more developed in September because he got to South Bend in January. Linebacker Jack Kiser is unlikely to play much as a freshman in either scenario; punter Jay Bramblett is certainly going to no matter what. However, the opportunity to have thorough practices with up-front depth should only enhance the effects of this spring.

None of this will ever become exactly normal, even if Notre Dame has increased its early enrollee numbers from beginning in 2006 to seven last season and now these 10. Of this grouping, some are the first to make this exact leap in their high school’s history. Many private schools do not make such possible. For that matter, this influx speaks to this group in particular, not an overall trend.

It is, nonetheless, a group receiving many of the same praises Irish head coach Brian Kelly has offered in years past and will undoubtedly offer as long as he remains in this post.

“These guys are serious about what they are doing,” Kelly said in December’s early signing period. “They are signing up for getting a degree and winning a national championship. These are not silly guys. These are guys that are really focused on coming here to win a national championship.”

Of course, that is always Kelly’s stated goal. The national championship game may be 364 days from now, but that process has already begun anew.

The 10 early enrollees:
Offensive tackles Quinn Carroll and Andrew Kristofic
Offensive guard John Olmstead
Center Zeke Correll
Running back Kyren Williams
Defensive tackles Jacob Lacey and Hunter Spears
Defensive end NaNa Osafo-Mensah
Linebacker Jack Kiser
Punter Jay Bramblett

Claypool’s return welcome news for Notre Dame

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Notre Dame will need to replace only one receiver next season. Chase Claypool announced he will return for his senior season Thursday evening. This may have been long presumed, but less qualified players have entered the NFL draft with eligibility remaining in years past.

With the departure of Miles Boykin, Claypool will become the leading Irish target, the prime candidate to replace Boykin’s 59 catches for 872 yards and eight touchdowns. A year ago, asking Claypool to put up numbers like that would have been a leap beyond reason, but after a 2018 season in which he accounted for 50 catches, 639 yards and four touchdowns, Claypool becoming an offense’s best playmaker is fathomable beyond just pinning those hopes on the Canadian native’s athleticism.

Claypool’s career began as a special teams star, making 11 tackles in 2016, while catching only five passes for 81 yards. An inconsistent sophomore season followed, managing 29 catches for 402 yards and two touchdowns. Those may sound like solid numbers, but they include only five catches in the season’s final four games and only one game with more than four catches all season.

Claypool had at least four catches in seven games this season, all started by junior quarterback Ian Book. With Book throwing, Claypool averaged 4.67 catches and 58.56 yards per game, highlighted by eight for 130 at Northwestern.

Claypool and current senior Chris Finke will presumably both start again, while one of a number of rising sophomores could step in either for Boykin on the boundary or for Claypool on the field side with Claypool possibly taking over boundary duties.

With five catches for 90 yards in his freshman campaign and a skill set similar to Boykin’s, Kevin Austin may be the front-runner for that starting role.