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Notre Dame’s Opponents: Remaining Irish schedule quite average at 17-16


Perhaps this should become the space for a recurring and weekly reminder. To pull the exact wording from Saturday’s primer … No undefeated Power Five team has ever been left out of the Playoff — and the odds the first excluded undefeated team is the one that doesn’t need a conference to be considered “Power Five” are slim-to-none … and Slim just rode out of town on a horse named Relevance.

The evaluation of Notre Dame’s schedule could come into play if the Irish finish 11-1, though, and that remains more likely than not, even if there are no ranked opponents remaining on the calendar.

Michigan (5-1): The No. 12 Wolverines continued their march through the Big Ten with a 42-21 victory against Maryland. Michigan flipped the score to a 27-7 commanding lead with a 24-0 run sandwiching halftime. Shea Patterson led the overall effort with 282 yards and three touchdowns on 19-of-27 passing.

By now, Shea Patterson is living up to the offseason hype that accompanied his transfer to Michigan from Ole Miss. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

Just how impressive have the Wolverines looked of late? Enough so they are now favored by a full touchdown against No. 15 Wisconsin this weekend (7:30 ET; ABC). The combined point total over/under of 47.5 indicates a 27-20 conclusion, which would be the only the third time Michigan hasn’t scored more than 40 this season.

Ball St. (2-4): The Cardinals gave up 227 rushing yards to Northern Illinois in a 24-16 loss, rushing for only 131 of their own on 40 attempts.

A poor rushing defense may not be a ruinous liability this weekend against Central Michigan (3 ET; ESPN3), who averages just 3.37 yards per rush and 118.5 per game. Nonetheless, the Chippewas are favored by two points with a 54-point over/under suggesting a 28-26 finish.

Vanderbilt (3-3): The Commodores’ losing streak in the SEC to teams not sharing their state of residence reached nine with a 41-13 loss at Georgia. Vanderbilt did do something no one else had this season — take a lead against the Bulldogs. It lasted a total of 15 seconds, with a 75-yard touchdown then sparking Georgia to outgain the ‘Dores 560 yards to 321.

That losing streak should should stretch further against Florida on Saturday (12 ET; ESPN). The Gators are favored by a touchdown in a game likely to end 29-22.

Wake Forest (3-3): If following college football largely via Twitter this weekend, the updates from the Deacons meeting with Clemson were few and far between. Why? Because there is only so much merit to reporting every Tigers touchdown when Wake Forest does not manage a single one of its own in a 63-3 shellacking highlighted by six Clemson scores of more than 50 yards.

Note: Deacons head coach Dave Clawson did not fire his defensive coordinator after this loss which included giving up 698 yards; he does not have one.

Also note: How good is the Tigers’ defense? Wake Forest ganed 249 total yards.

That loss will echo in Deacons’ heads for another week thanks to this being a weekend off.

Stanford (4-2): The Cardinal outgained Utah by two yards, which is not usually a recipe to lose by three possessions, 40-21, but four turnovers will have that effect.

Stanford will also have to deal with that bitter taste for another week.

Virginia Tech (3-2): Not for nothing, the Hokies’ ACC Coastal title hopes are still alive, and their schedule sets up well to pursue them. Both Boston College and Miami visit Lane Stadium, while Virginia Tech already owns a win at Duke.

The Hokies should be the first in the division to reach 3-0 at North Carolina this weekend (7 ET; ESPNU), favored by 5.5 points with an over/under of 57.5. The 31-26 implied result would keep a pertinent carrot ahead of Justin Fuente’s team.

Pittsburgh (3-3): The Panthers needed every break they could create to top Syracuse 44-37 in overtime. Each team offered up three turnovers — Pittsburgh turned those three into 13 points, highlighted by a fumble returned for a touchdown but also including two field goals on drives that netted nine yards total. Add in the overtime touchdown, and the Panthers hardly had to move the ball for 20 of their 44 points.

Pittsburgh running back Qadree Ollison is averaging 6.48 yards per carry this season to rush for 596 yards and five touchdowns through six games. (Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images)

Running back Qadree Ollison led the way with 192 yards and a touchdown on 24 carries, part of Pittsburgh’s 265 rushing yards.

Relying on that ground game will be a risky proposition at Notre Dame (2:30 ET; NBC), where the Panthers will arrive as 21-point underdogs with an over/under of 57 giving the Irish a 39-18 edge.

Navy (2-3): The Midshipmen are worn done in an uncharacteristic fashion, showing itself this weekend in a 35-7 loss at Air Force. Navy scored the first touchdown and then, well, gave up 35 unanswered points. The Falcons outgained the Midshipmen 399 yards to 178. Navy quarterback Malcolm Perry gained only 54 yards on 19 rush attempts.

The Midshipmen have not missed a bowl game since 2011, the only such occurrence since 2002, but a loss against Temple (3:30 ET; CBSSN) this weekend could spell doom, and Navy is a 5.5-point underdog. The Midshipmen sill have to face three undefeated teams. A 52-point over/under would result in a 29-23 Owls victory.

Northwestern (2-3): The Wildcats went on the road as double-digit underdogs and upset then-No. 20 Michigan State, 29-19. They were outgained, lost the turnover margin and struggled to establish a running game. Okay, that is being generous. Northwestern gained eight yards on 20 carries.

How in the world did the Wildcats win, then? Senior quarterback Clayton Thorson finally found his groove, throwing for 373 yards and three touchdowns on 31-of-47 passing.

He should be able to keep that going against Nebraska (12 ET; ABC). Northwestern is favored by 5.5 points with an over/under of 58.5 hinting at a 32-27 victory and a return to a .500 record.

Florida State (3-3): The Seminoles could have changed the entire storyline around their season, but instead they coughed up a 27-7 lead at Miami to lose 28-27. The Hurricanes scored three touchdowns within 8:01.

In retrospect, Miami controlled the game more than those scores indicate. Florida State benefited from a punt return touchdown and 13 other points coming off short fields.

The Seminoles can think about that missed opportunity during their week off.

Syracuse (4-2): Trying to figure out how the Orange lost to Pittsburgh gets even more difficult when realizing it held the Panthers to 3-of-12 on third downs. The issue really was turnovers.

As is a theme this week, Syracuse enters its week off with a loss its most recent memory.

USC (3-2): The Trojans had the week off, allowing them to focus on what may be the biggest game of their season. It is certainly one no one expected to be important before the year. USC hosts undefeated Colorado (10:30 ET; FS1). Despite the differences in record, the Trojans are touchdown favorites, which speaks more to how bookmakers view the Buffaloes than how they approach USC.

If nothing else, expect more than the projected 57 points to be scored.

12 p.m. ET: Vanderbilt vs. Florida on ESPN; Northwestern vs. Nebraska on ABC.
2:30 ET: Pittsburgh at Notre Dame on NBC.
3 ET: Ball St. at Central Michigan on ESPN3.
3:30 ET: Navy vs. Temple on CBSSN.
7 ET: Virginia Tech at North Carolina on ESPNU.
7:30 ET: Michigan vs. Wisconsin on ABC.
10:30 ET: USC vs. Colorado on FS1.

Favorites: Michigan -7; Virginia Tech -5.5; Northwestern -5.5; USC -7.
Underdogs: Ball St. +2; Vanderbilt +7; Pittsburgh +21; Navy +5.5.

Spring won’t answer all of Notre Dame’s questions

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With spring practice mere weeks away, it is tempting to think Notre Dame’s 2019 will be well in focus by mid-April, if not by the end of March. Some positions may find clarity in that timespan, but other wonderings will hardly be put to rest, if at all. Admittedly, that will not stop discussions of those questions in the interim, including in these parts before spring practice even commences.

Before diving into spring practice previews, let’s acknowledge the things not to be learned before the summer …

Phil Jurkovec’s development will be neither rapid nor dismal this spring. The sample size of drill-heavy moments should not be weighed too heavily when discussing the rising sophomore quarterback’s progress. Barring injury to rising senior Ian Book, Jurkovec will not enter the summer as the Irish starter. Barring injury to Jurkovec, he will not fall lower than second on the depth chart, either.

What may be most crucial to Jurkovec’s short-term success will be the time he spends in the summer studying film of himself throughout the spring. Those lessons could lead to leaps and bounds before August, not necessarily in the meantime.

Notre Dame will not firmly determine a No. 2 cornerback anytime before August, at least not until fifth-year cornerback Shaun Crawford gets a chance to practice healthy following a torn ACL last August. Rising senior Troy Pride will be the unquestioned heir to Julian Love’s role as the best coverage corner while rising sophomore TaRiq Bracy challenges rising senior Donte Vaughn (pictured at top) to be Pride’s counterpart.

One of those two may emerge, but Crawford will still get a chance in the preseason. If nothing else, his ability to prove healthy and capable enough to handle nickel back duties could ease the pressure on finding someone to fit there, thus perhaps altering the equation throughout the entire secondary.

Running backs coach Lance Taylor’s impact will not be perceptible, possibly not for quite awhile. Taylor’s work will be seen in positional recruiting — which could conceivably take a cycle or two to actually yield the desired results — and in the usage of the running backs in offensive coordinator Chip Long’s September game plans.

Just last preseason, Avery Davis looked the part of a dangerous utility knife. His work in the red zone in preseason practices foreshadowed coming headaches for opposing defensive coordinators. Instead, the quarterback-turned-running back managed just 27 touches for 100 yards and no scores. By November, opposing defensive coordinators’ scouting reports barely mentioned Davis.

If Davis or a rising sophomore (C’Bo Flemister more likely than Jahmir Smith) or even the upperclassmen atop the depth chart impress in the passing game this spring, hold the exhilaration until they do so against a Power-Five foe in September, and preferably not one coming off a season viewed as nothing but a defensive calamity. (No offense, Louisville.)

The Irish will have punter and kicker questions into September. Despite the early enrollment of punter Jay Bramblett and a full offseason devoted to rising junior kicker Jonathan Doerer, replacing multi-year starting specialists is not an undertaking to be taken lightly. Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly and special teams coordinator Brian Polian will spend more time with the legs than they have in recent years.

Winters in South Bend reduce how much spring work kickers and punters get. The new indoor facility will not be ready for use until mid-to-late summer, meaning every day the Irish have to spend indoors this spring is a day the kickers are unlikely to get more than a few swings in.

Doerer might have an excellent Blue-Gold Game (on April 13), knocking in multiple 40-yard field goals. Bramblett could boom a couple punts with no signs of nerves. Until they show such in pressure situations, their real worth will remain unknown.

Such are the perils of talkin’ ‘bout practice, to quote an 11-time NBA All-Star as All-Star Weekend begins.

Notre Dame’s defensive line recruiting success continues into 2020

Notre Dame’s recruiting class of 2019 included a defensive line emphasis featuring 5 four-star prospects. That trend has already continued into the next recruiting cycle with the Wednesday commitment from four-star defensive tackle Aidan Keanaaina (J.K. Mullen High School; Denver).

The No. 17 defensive tackle in the country, per, Keanaaina joins Düsseldorf defensive end Alexander Ehrensberger among the five commits in the Irish class of 2020. Keanaaina holds offers from all the Power Five conferences, including the majority of the Pac 12, led by Oregon and USC, and the majority of the Big 10, led by Michigan and Ohio State.

His anticipatory play is aided by solid tackling form and a wide body. That frame, in particular, should lend itself to further development in a collegiate strength and conditioning program.

By signing two defensive tackles in the class of 2019, the Irish depth chart reached minimum levels at the position. All six tackles currently on that depth chart should return in 2020, making it less of an absolute necessity to sign a pair this cycle, though that remains more likely than not.

Notre Dame officially announces Lance Taylor as RB coach

Notre Dame finally confirmed the hire of Lance Taylor as running backs coach Tuesday. Taylor’s addition to the Irish coaching staff was first widely reported last month.

Replacing Autry Denson — who took over as head coach at Charleston Southern — Taylor spent the last two seasons coaching receivers with the Carolina Panthers and was the running backs coach at Stanford from 2014 to 2016.

“I was primarily looking for two things,” head coach Brian Kelly said in a statement. “The candidate had to have the right skill set. He needs to be a great teacher and communicator. He also needs to fit Notre Dame, culturally, and Lance, most certainly, possesses all of those qualities. He recruited at an extremely high level during his time at Stanford, and he worked with the very best in the NFL. His ability to bring both of those experiences together makes him a perfect fit for our staff.”

The time at Stanford, in particular, sets up Taylor for success at Notre Dame, having successfully recruited players to an academic institution and then developed them to on-field success. Namely, Taylor recruited Bryce Love and worked with both him and Christian McCaffrey.

RELATED READING: Lance Taylor checks all the boxes Notre Dame needs in new running backs coach

“I’ve been blessed to work at some incredible places in my career, but Notre Dame is truly special,” Taylor said. “I’m honored and humbled to represent this incredible University as its running backs coach. I’d like to thank both Brian Kelly and Jack Swarbrick for this opportunity. I’m excited to get on campus, meet our players and get to work.”

Taylor will have his work cut out for him this spring as the Irish need to replace Dexter Williams. Rising junior Jafar Armstrong is the presumed starter, granted health, with rising senior Tony Jones his primary backup. After those two, Taylor has nothing but raw and unproven talent awaiting him in rising sophomores Jahmir Smith and C’Bo Flemister and early-enrolled freshman Kyren Williams, not to mention rising junior quarterback-turned-running back Avery Davis.

No other coaching staff turnover should be expected at this point in the offseason.

Leading candidates to be Notre Dame captains

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Notre Dame has not begun spring practice yet, unlike Labor Day opponent Louisville. (Yes, really, the Cardinals held their first practice under new head coach Scott Satterfield on Monday.) At some point near the beginning of spring practice, though, Irish head coach Brian Kelly will likely name a few 2019 team captains.

Notre Dame narrowed the candidates for the parlor game of guessing those captains by announcing the eight “SWAT” leaders earlier this month, a subset identified as the motivating and organizing forces of offseason activities. Those eight …

— Senior quarterback Ian Book
— Senior left tackle Liam Eichenberg
— Senior safety Jalen Elliott
— Fifth-year receiver Chris Finke
— Senior safety Alohi Gilman (pictured at top)
— Junior right tackle Robert Hainsey
— Senior defensive end Khalid Kareem
— Senior defensive end Julian Okwara

Half of the eight could have eligibility in 2020 — Book, Eichenberg, Gilman and Hainsey — but the better indicators of captainship do not inherently tie to that. For example, it is expected Gilman will head to the NFL following the 2019 season if he plays well enough to warrant that pondering at all. His transfer following the 2017 season was entirely due to professional aspirations. That, along with his competitive attitude very clearly demonstrated during last season’s unbeaten run, makes Gilman a frontrunner in this speculation.

Book, meanwhile, is unlikely to be one of the captains simply because the starting quarterback already serves in that role to some de facto extent. The coaching staff generally prefers to elevate a few others while not taking away from the inherent nature of the quarterback position.

On the other hand, the Irish have had at least one captain on the offensive line each of the last seven seasons. Either Eichenberg or Hainsey seems positioned to continue that, the former with an additional year in the program but the latter with one more season of playing time under his belt.

Presuming one of those offensive linemen joins Gilman, it remains likely Notre Dame names at least one more captain. His rise from walk-on to offensive contributor and multiple-year starter makes Finke uniquely relatable to the entire roster.

Guessing here is, of course, inconsequential, but with spring practice about three weeks away on the horizon, pondering now helps pass that time.