Hello, college football season, our dear old friend. We are glad you made it back. These 34 weeks without you have been long and intolerable, if also sanity-preserving. Never before has a failed Colorado State comeback attempt felt so fulfilling.
Obviously, this week’s Irish focus is on No. 14 Michigan, but before falling down that rabbit hole, some season-long thoughts occurred while finishing up the “Notre Dame Opponents” series. The summation of those is, the Irish will face some talented competition this season, but there may be just one complete team on the schedule, and it is not whom you expect.
Consider … The most-veteran quarterbacks on the calendar lead teams outside the preseason top-25 polls: Vanderbilt senior Kyle Shurmur has 30 career starts entering this season, Northwestern senior Clayton Thorson has started all 39 games of his time in Evanston and Syracuse senior Eric Dungey has managed 25 starts despite three season-ending injuries in his career.
Of those three corresponding defenses, the Commodores and Orange both gave up more than 30 points per game last year. Only the most optimistic would expect Vanderbilt’s defense to show marked improvement under first-year defensive coordinator Jason Tarver, and Syracuse has to field an entirely-new linebacker corps.
The Wildcats, meanwhile, allowed only 20.1 points per game and return seven defensive starters including its two leading tacklers and much of its defensive line rotation.
Four of Notre Dame’s other opponents gave up fewer points last season. Virginia Tech’s 14.8 leads the way, but the Hokies return only four defensive starters and have lost two others expected to step in this year. That defense should regress.
Next up are the Wolverines, who allowed 18.8 points per game in 2017. That defense will be improved, but the offense remains a question until proven otherwise, despite naming Ole Miss transfer Shea Patterson its starting quarterback.
Florida State gave up just 21.2 points each week last year, and that defense was genuinely excellent. Now, though, it has to replace six of its top-seven tacklers and embrace a new coaching staff.
That leaves Stanford, 22.7 points per game. With four of the Cardinal’s top-six tacklers gone, it is not exactly the same unit, nor was that unit as stellar as the points against average indicates. It gave up a David Shaw-era worst 405 yards per game. Without safety Justin Reid’s five interceptions leading the way to 28 forced turnovers, that scoring figure could spike this fall.
Furthermore, the quarterbacking counterparts of those defenses have questions following them involving transfer compatibility (Patterson), small sample size (Stanford sophomore K.J. Costello), academic rumors (Virginia Tech sophomore Josh Jackson) and ACL recovery (Florida State junior Deondre Francois).
Only one Irish opponent can claim both an established quarterback and a strong defense, and even Thorson has major health concerns at the moment having torn his ACL less than nine months ago.
Of course, this is college football. A young quarterback (Wake Forest freshman Sam Hartman? USC’s J.T. Daniels?) will emerge or an inconsistent threat (Jackson or Francois) will put together a stellar month just before Notre Dame meets him. An inexperienced defense (again, Virginia Tech or Florida State) will prove better than expected or a presumed weak spot (USC’s defensive line or Michigan’s entire offense) will, in fact, be a strength, a la Notre Dame’s defensive line last season.
Speaking of J.T. Daniels
Trojans head coach Clay Helton named the true freshman his starting quarterback over the weekend. This surprised exactly nobody but still warrants notice heading into a crucial opening month for USC. Daniels will begin his career without much worry against UNLV on Saturday, but then he has to travel to Stanford and to Texas before a short week leads into Washington State. To close the month, the Trojans will head to Arizona to face their stiffest competition for the division title.
Leftover “40 Predictions”
A couple broad categories were not addressed in this year’s set of predictions when compared to last year’s. They were considered, but the thoughts were not as confident as they were a year ago, thus meaning they should not be shared as definitively. Among them …
— No juniors are mentioned as possible early entrants into the NFL draft, unlike the 2017 trio of Josh Adams, Equanimeous St. Brown and Alizé Mack. Only one jumps to mind, junior cornerback Julian Love.
— How opposing teams will fare in the polls was not pondered. Some of the above may explain why. Too many uncertainties cloud guessing which teams will stay ranked or break into the polls. Currently, five are between No. 13 and No. 20 while Northwestern lingers. It does not defy possibility to think Wake Forest could ride a victory over the Irish and a 5-0 start into the polls, but then consecutive losses to Clemson and Florida State should quickly dash that storyline.
It seems safe to expect at least four to end the season ranked. Which four is not a guess to make with any conviction. That disclaimer in mind, Michigan, Virginia Tech and the Pac-12 pair feel most likely.
A Yoon Prediction
The Irish record for longest field goal made is 53 yards. Senior kicker Justin Yoon can claim a 52-yarder in his career. Breaking that record will be more a matter of opportunity for Yoon than it will be a startling feat.
INSIDE THE IRISH READING
— Notre Dame in top 15 of both polls; Kelly on ‘demanding’ culture
— Kelly willing to play both QBs: ‘They can both help us win’
— 40 Predictions, 21-40 with a defensive focus and season-long expectations
— Notre Dame’s Opponents: Northwestern
— Notre Dame’s Opponents: Florida State
— Notre Dame’s Opponents: Syracuse
— Notre Dame’s Opponents: USC
— Shea Patterson ready for opportunity of a lifetime
— Wake Forest names Sam Hartman starting QB
— Eric Dungey has something to say to people who say he’s injury-prone
— Open practices at Wake Forest, the only place that has a legitimate reason not to have them
— Blue-Chip Ratio 2018: 13 teams have recruited well enough to win a national title
— Athletic directors striking delicate balance with schedules
— Coaches take pride in added pressure of returning to their alma mater ($)