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Notre Dame’s Opponents: Four losses to top-20 competition with five more possible this week

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As Notre Dame’s success thus far puts more and more scrutiny on its remaining schedule, weekends like this past one stand out. The Irish opponents went 7-4 with those four losses all coming against teams now ranked in the AP top 15, including No. 6 Notre Dame itself.

Michigan (4-1): The Wolverines tried their hardest to gift a game to Northwestern, yet came back with 20 unanswered points to win 20-17. Michigan outgained the Wildcats 376 yards to 202, but three short fields gave Northwestern a 17-0 lead. Jim Harbaugh’s team could exhale only when running back Karan Higdon took a carry five yards for the 20-17 margin with 4:06 left, his second touchdown of the day.

The Wolverines now host Maryland (12 ET; ABC) as 17.5-point favorites. The combined point total over/under of 53 implies a 35-18 result.

Ball St. (2-3): The Cardinals enjoyed their best day of the season in a 52-24 victory against Kent State, snagging a conference victory in their first MAC game. Considering Ball State has not won multiple conference games since 2015, this start creates a decent chance at matching that pair, if not more.

Quarterback Riley Neal led the way by completing 30 of his 50 passes for 402 yards and four touchdowns, adding 61 yards and another score on 11 rushes.

The Cardinals now host Northern Illinois (3 ET; ESPN3) and are only 3.5-point underdogs, so perhaps they can flip the indicated 27-24 conclusion and keep the MAC success rolling.

Vanderbilt (3-2): The Commodores were not supposed to struggle against FCS-level Tennessee State. Suffice it to say, they did. It took a 68-yard touchdown pass from Kyle Shurmur to Kalija Lipscomb with 6:20 remaining to pull out a 31-27 victory. Vanderbilt had no one but itself to blame, losing the turnover battle by a negative-two margin and therefore cancelling out much of the total yardage differential, which was 553 yards for the ‘Dores and 373 for the Tigers.

From here on out, Vanderbilt gets to enjoy SEC play, and this week that means heading to No. 2 Georgia (7:30 ET; SEC Network) as a 26.5-point underdog. The over/under of 52 means bookmakers expect Georgia to struggle offensively, relatively speaking. A 39-13 Bulldogs victory would be the second-fewest points they have scored this season, ahead of only last week’s 38.

Wake Forest junior receiver Greg Dortch tied his career high with four touchdown receptions in a rout over Rice. (AP Photo/Woody Marshall)

Wake Forest (3-2): The Deacons’ efficient offensive performance in a 56-24 victory against Rice just a week after Notre Dame kept them in check speaks to the level of the Irish defense. Facing Notre Dame, freshman quarterback Sam Hartman completed 12 of 24 passes and junior receiver Greg Dortch caught only six for 56 yards. They fared better with the Owls in town; Hartman completed 15 of 17 passes for 241 yards and four touchdowns. All four of those scores went to Dortch, as did 11 completions for 163 yards.

Hartman and Dortch may need to replicate all of that against No. 4 Clemson (12 ET; ESPN) to cover a 17-point spread, especially if Tigers freshman quarterback Trevor Lawrence starts. The 62-point over/under suggests he will in a 40-22 Clemson win.

Stanford (4-1): The 21-point loss handed to the Cardinal by Notre Dame was only the fifth of that magnitude during David Shaw’s tenure as head coach, a span that reached exactly 100 games Saturday. The previous four:

2011 vs. No. 6 Oregon, 53-30.
2014 at No. 5 Oregon, 45-16.
2016 at No. 10 Washington, 44-6.
2016 a week later vs. Washington State, 42-16.

In the games following those, Stanford covered the spread only in the last instance, upsetting Notre Dame, making this weekend’s 5-point edge against Utah (3 ET; ESPN) seem a bit dubious. The Utes may not win, but they should fare better than the 26-21 result expected by an over/under of 46.5.

Virginia Tech (3-1): The Hokies rebounded well after that humbling loss to Old Dominion two weeks ago. Virginia Tech went back on the road and beat a genuinely good Duke team 31-14. Starting in place of injured Josh Jackson, quarterback Ryan Willis went 17-of-27 for 332 yards and three touchdowns. It may not be accurate to say the Hokies are better off with Willis than they were with Jackson, but the thought can at least be considered after Willis’ debut, especially if remembering Virginia Tech was a 5.5-point underdog.

That same margin currently applies to the Hokies matchup with the Irish (8 ET; ABC). A 54-point over/under infers a 30-24 ending.

Pittsburgh (2-3): If possible, the Panthers’ 45-14 loss at Central Florida was worse than the score indicates. The Knights outgained Pittsburgh 568 yards to 272 and held the Panthers to 109 yards on 33 rushing attempts, an average of 3.3 yards per carry,

Pittsburgh should at least be able to score more this weekend even though they are 5-point underdogs against Syracuse (12:20 ET). Odd as it may seem, the ACC matchup is available on only regional sports networks, which is bothersome considering the possible early-afternoon entertainment value of a game cruising past its over/under of 60 points.

Navy (2-2): Coming off a bye needed simply due to travel demands that have already been quite lengthy, the Midshipmen now travel up into the Rockies to face Air Force (3:30 ET; CBS SN). Navy is favored by 3.5, and should win thanks to the week off, but a grinding, methodical afternoon will be in store. The service academies rarely combine to score more than the 49.5 expected points, a theoretical 27-23 tally.

Northwestern (1-3): Without running back Jeremy Larkin — who retired from football last Monday due to a diagnosis of cervical stenosis — the Wildcats struggled mightily to run the ball. Adjusting for sacks (of which Michigan managed six), Northwestern took 28 carries for 71 yards, a 2.54 yards per attempt average. That is how you give up a 17-point lead to a conference opponent.

Life does not get much easier for the Wildcats, traveling to No. 20 Michigan State (12 ET; FS1). The 11.5-point underdogs did cover without much trouble last weekend, and while that hardly matters in the real-world of binary results, little more should be expected from Northwestern this weekend, keeping things within the 29-18 score projected by a 47.5-point over/under.

Deondre Francois put together his most-complete performance of the season in leading Florida State to a 28-24 victory at Louisville. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

Florida State (3-2): The Seminoles won an ACC game. To repeat: Florida State will not go winless in conference play. That was never a strong possibility, but losing their first two by lopsided scores left the Seminoles in position for such quips. They ended that fun with a 28-24 win at Louisville.

Quarterback Deondre Francois completed 16 of 27 passes for 294 yards and four touchdowns, the most important of which came from a 58-yard completion to Nyqwan Murray with only 1:13 left.

Florida State probably will not turn the triumph into a winning streak as it heads to No. 17 Miami (3:30 ET; ABC) with the Hurricanes favored by 12.5 with an over/under of 50.5. A 32-19 loss to an in-state rival would not be a good chapter for Willie Taggart to add to his first season in Tallahassee, but expect something along those lines, nonetheless.

Syracuse (4-1): There was more to the Orange’s 27-23 loss at Clemson than the injury to Tigers freshman quarterback Trevor Lawrence and the subsequent solid play from backup Chase Brice. The observant eye hardly expected Syracuse to pull off the upset even as the clock ticked into the final minute with the Orange still ahead.

That acceptance of the inevitable tied to Clemson’s success in recent years and winning ways in close games. It was a result of Syracuse kicking three first-half field goals, a tough way to find a victory on the road. And it had logic when realizing Clemson outgained the Orange 469 yards to 311 but turned over the ball three times to only one from the Orange.

Syracuse should be able to rebound against Pittsburgh, though, despite that regional sports network idiocy. At least it is better than pay-per-view.

USC (3-2): The Trojans barely got by Arizona, 24-20, but they did, and that was despite three turnovers compared to only one from the Wildcats. Running back Aca’Cedric Ware (pictured at top) paced USC with 21 carries for 173 yards and two scores, part of the team’s 47 rushes for 253 yards, a 5.4 yards per attempt average.

This win mattered more than may be realized. The Trojans got off to a slow start this season, and a 24-20 victory against Kevin Sumlin’s staggering Arizona is hardly a sign that USC has figured it out, but as long as the Trojans win their games in the Pac-12 South, they are in position to reach the conference title game. At this point, USC is 2-1 in the conference heading into a bye.

12 p.m. ET: Michigan vs. Maryland on ABC; Wake Forest vs. Clemson on ESPN; Northwestern at Michigan State on FS1.
12:20 ET: Pittsburgh vs. Syracuse.
3 p.m. ET: Ball State vs. Northern Illinois on ESPN3; Stanford vs. Utah on ESPN.
3:30 ET: Navy at Air Force on CBS SN; Florida State at Miami on ABC.
7:30 ET: Vanderbilt at Georgia on the SEC Network
8 ET: Virginia Tech vs. Notre Dame on ABC.

Favorites: Michigan -17.5; Stanford -5; Navy -3.5; Syracuse -5.
Underdogs: Ball State +3.5; Vanderbilt +26.5; Wake Forest +17; Virginia Tech +5.5; Pittsburgh +5; Northwestern +11.5; Florida State +12.5.

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.