Notre Dame’s Opponents: Mounting losses in games, personnel

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At the beginning of the season, it would have been conservative to project up to three Notre Dame opponents would get through four weeks without a loss. That could have risen to four if expecting Michigan to beat the Irish in the opener. With Virginia Tech and Florida State meeting in the first week and USC heading to Stanford in week two, the projection would have been for those four to total just the two losses inherent to those head-to-head contests; additionally, Northwestern could reach this point undefeated if able to get past Purdue the Friday before most teams took to the field, which the Wildcats did.

Rather than just a pair of defeats, though, those latter five opponents have already combined for seven losses, with the most shocking coming this past Saturday evening at a 20,000-seat stadium in Norfolk, Va.

Michigan (3-1): The Wolverines look like what was anticipated before the season, giving credence to their No. 14 ranking. Michigan held Nebraska to 132 total yards in a 56-10 victory, including a meager 39 rushing yards on 30 carries. The Wolverines, meanwhile, rushed for 285 yards on 45 attempts. No matter how much the Cornhuskers are struggling, those numbers indicate Jim Harbaugh has his team trending in the right direction.

While a trip to Northwestern (4:30 ET; FOX) should not be Michigan’s toughest task of the Big Ten season, it is the most-daunting foe since the opener at Notre Dame. Nonetheless, the Wolverines are favored by two touchdowns with a combined point total over/under of 48. Given Michigan’s blowouts of late (49-3, 45-20, 56-10), a margin greater than 31-17 seems likely.

Ball St. (1-3): The Cardinals botched a great chance at a non-conference win with Western Kentucky visiting. Ball State led 21-20 until the Hilltoppers finished an 8-play, 76-yard drive with a 5-yard touchdown run with only 1:38 remaining. Rather than make the most of that last chance, Cardinals quarterback Riley Neal threw a pick-six to gift Western Kentucky a 33-21 victory.

Ball State will try to forget about that letdown with Kent State (3 ET; ESPN+) visiting Saturday. The Cardinals are favored by 8.5 points and a 61-point over/under hints at a 35-26 finish, granted Neal does not throw any more last-minute interceptions for touchdowns.

Vanderbilt (2-2): The Commodores falling to South Carolina felt inevitable, and averaging 4.8 yards per pass attempt and 2.8 yards per carry very much made it so. Going 2-of-14 on third downs did not help the cause in a 37-14 loss.

Vanderbilt gets a reprieve this week, arguably its last until the season finale vs. Tennessee, with a visit from FCS-level Tennessee State (4 ET; SEC Network).

Wake Forest (2-2): The Deacons’ weekend did not end with their loss to the Irish. On Monday, head coach Dave Clawson fired defensive coordinator Jay Sawvel after just 17 games at Wake Forest, two of which featured Notre Dame running wild.

Clawson did not name a specific interim coordinator, instead deferring to a collective, which will have a chance to find its footing this week against Rice (3:30 ET) as 25.5-point favorites, although the over/under of 67 implies the Deacons will still give up three touchdowns.

In rather typical Cardinal fashion, Stanford turned to a tight end, Colby Parkinson, to provide the winning difference in overtime at Oregon. (AP Photo/Chris Pietsch)

Stanford (4-0): Oregon head coach Mario Cristobal left the door open for a spectacular Cardinal play when he did not opt to kneel out all but the last 10-12 seconds of the clock in a close game. His decision to push for one more first down led to a fumble, a touchdown and a 38-31 overtime victory for Stanford. Let this be once again a reminder: It is idiotic to run for a few yards when simply kneeling and punting will pin an opponent deep in its own territory with just one play left to score a touchdown.

Some credit should go to the Cardinal. The Ducks left the door open, but Stanford forced the issue and took the opportunity presented. Many teams would not do that.

The Cardinal will arrive at Notre Dame Stadium (7:30 ET; NBC) as 4.5-point underdogs with an over/under perhaps lower than expected at 54 points. A 29-24 final would make for a tense night.

Virginia Tech (2-1): The Hokies’ loss at Old Dominion remains hard to fathom, even if it was only the fifth-biggest upset, by money line odds, in the last two seasons. Virginia Tech was a 27.5-point favorite and lost 49-35 to an 0-3 Monarchs team. Bud Foster’s defense gave up 632 yards.

Even harder to fathom? That may not have been the low point of the Hokies’ weekend. Head coach Justin Fuente dismissed defensive end Trevon Hill on Sunday. Hill led Virginia Tech with 3.5 sacks this season after managing 9.5 tackles for loss in 2017.

And then Fuente announced the Hokies will be without starting quarterback Josh Jackson for the foreseeable future thanks to a fractured fibula suffered in the fourth quarter of that loss, when the game was tied at 28.

Without Jackson, Virginia Tech will turn to junior Ryan Willis at Duke (7 ET; ESPN2) as 5.5-point underdogs. Foster’s defense may be needed to rebound, even without Hill, in order to keep the game close in Willis’ first career start. An over/under of 50 suggests a 27-22 final.

Pittsburgh (2-2): The Panthers are not good, and few things make that clearer than losing 38-35 at North Carolina in what should be Larry Fedora’s final year, if he even lasts the whole season. Pittsburgh was outscored 17-0 in the third quarter of a loss that will look only worse with time.

Things will not get better at Central Florida (3:30 ET; ESPNU). The Knights are favored by 15.5 in what should end up along the lines of a 41-25 result.

Navy (2-2): The Midshipmen scored first in overtime at SMU, forcing the Mustangs to need a touchdown. Once they had that, first-year head coach Sonny Dykes opted for a trick play to score a two-point conversion and knock off Navy 31-30. It is hard to blame the Midshipmen defense; when an offensive lineman positions himself in the slot, you expect the screen pass to go to him, not to be a fake before a throw to the backside.

Navy rushed for a prototypical 349 yards on 78 attempts, an average of 4.5 yards per carry, but three turnovers played a role in its undoing. The Midshipmen have a bye this weekend.

Jeremy Larkin, No. 28. (AP Photo/Matt Marton)

Northwestern (1-2): The Wildcats’ bye presumably gave senior quarterback Clayton Thorson time to finally get his barely-healed ACL a bit healthier. Northwestern will need him even more now, as running back Jeremy Larkin announced a Monday retirement due to a diagnosis of cervical stenosis. In three games this year, Larkin had rushed for 346 yards and five touchdowns, adding another 127 yards receiving.

Not to put too fine a point on that unfortunate situation, but it should make Michigan’s strengthening rush defense seem that much stouter.

Florida State quarterback Deondre Francois finally led the way to a relatively easy Seminoles win this weekend, topping Northern Illinois 37-19. (AP Photo/Steve Cannon)

Florida State (2-2): The Seminoles started to right the proverbial ship with a 37-19 victory against Northern Illinois. While quarterback Deondre Francois threw for 352 yards and two touchdowns on 23-of-31 passing, what may have been more impressive was Florida State’s offensive line limiting Huskies defensive end Sutton Smith to just two tackles for loss, including one sack.

The Seminoles will have a chance to string together a winning streak at Louisville (3:30 ET; ESPN2), favored by six points. The 47-point over/under would make for a lower-scoring affair, 27-21 or so.

Syracuse (4-0): Senior quarterback Eric Dungey accounted for five touchdowns in a 51-21 rout of Connecticut, part of the Orange’s 636 total yards. As well as Syracuse and Dungey are playing, Connecticut’s defense makes Wake Forest’s look like an SEC contender’s.

On the complete opposite end of the spectrum is Clemson (12 ET; ABC), where the Orange head this weekend as 22-point underdogs. Given how well Dungey has the offense humming, it may be reasonable to think Syracuse will do better than the 21 points allotted by a 64-point over/under, but coming within three touchdowns of Clemson seems unlikely as the Tigers have officially turned to Trevor Lawrence as their starting quarterback.

USC (2-2): The Trojans were outgained 435 yards to 354 in a 39-36 victory against Washington State on Friday, needing a blocked field goal with 1:41 left to prevent overtime.

USC has yet to cover the spread this season; doing so this week will require more than a field-goal margin at Arizona (10:30 ET; ESPN2). The Wildcats average 29.5 points per game, exactly what would be needed to make good on a 61-point over/under.

12 p.m. ET: Syracuse at Clemson on ABC.
3 p.m. ET: Ball State vs. Kent State on ESPN+.
3:30 ET: Wake Forest vs. Rice; Pittsburgh at Central Florida on ESPN; Florida State at Louisville on ESPN2.
4 ET: Vanderbilt vs. Tennessee St. on the SEC Network.
4:30 ET: Michigan at Northwestern on FOX.
7 ET: Virginia Tech at Duke on ESPN2.
7:30 ET: Stanford at Notre Dame on NBC.
10:30 ET: USC at Arizona on ESPN2.

Favorites: Michigan -14; Ball State -8.5; Wake Forest -25.5; Florida State -6; USC -3.
Underdogs: Stanford +4.5; Virginia Tech +5.5; Pittsburgh +15.5; Northwestern +14; Syracuse +22.

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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

Clemson v 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.