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Notre Dame’s four possible paths to Playoff

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Notre Dame will most likely lose yet this season. Looking at the next six opponents, logic may disagree, but there is a reason so few teams finish a season undefeated. Not only is winning hard, but doing it week after week after week for three months is improbable.

Nonetheless, the No. 5 Irish (6-0) have a better chance of making it to 12-0 than just about anyone else in the country. That dichotomy sums up the expectations of unexpected outcomes in October and November.

Thus, there are three paths to the College Football Playoff in front of Notre Dame with a fourth route involving national upheaval.

THE OBVIOUS: Finish undefeated with no more than one or two other teams doing so. How much more needs to be said? If the Irish reach 12-0 and only two Power-Five champions get to 13-0, even undefeated Georgia handing Alabama its first loss of the season in the SEC Championship Game would not knock Notre Dame out of the Playoff.

Advanced analytics systems projecting the future give the Irish a 43.7 percent chance (Brian Fremeau’s Efficiency Index), a 38.3 percent chance of going undefeated (ESPN’s Football Power Index) and a 32 percent chance (Bill Connely’s S&P+). It remains more unlikely than not, but that is also the case for every team in the country except for Clemson in the S&P+ (51 percent).

THE EXTREMELY UNLIKELY: It remains possible all five of the Power Five conferences boast undefeated champions at season end, but common sense laughs at the concept, and not just because No. 19 Colorado (5-0) is a touchdown underdog this weekend at USC. In the four years of the Playoff era, a total of three Power-Five teams have finished undefeated: 2016 Alabama, 2015 Clemson and 2014 Florida State. Wondering if that number will be exceeded, let alone doubled, this year is, to be blunt, preposterous.

Want an estimation of that possibility? First, remove Colorado. No outlook grants the Buffaloes a significant chance at running the table. If that projection does not become a reality this week, then expect it next at Washington.

That would leave four undefeated conference champions and Notre Dame as the maximum possible. The best chance of that being the case BEFORE conference championship games? The FEI suggests it is 0.18 percent. S&P+ projects it at 0.15 percent. The FPI comes in at 0.038 percent. It would be an unprecedented occurrence in not just the Playoff era or college football history but in sports and statistics and gambling and this list could go on for awhile. For that matter, it would still leave conference championship games to restore order to the world’s understanding of what is possible.

AN SEC ISSUE is more likely and presents a similar concern as it applies to the Irish. Suppose Georgia did reach 13-0 with a victory over Alabama to knock the Tide to 12-1 while both Ohio State and Clemson finish 13-0. Using the FPI odds and giving Georgia a 40 percent chance at that upset while the Buckeyes and Tigers remain strong favorites in their respective championship games … there is about a 0.21 percent chance of this becoming a December conversation.

Both Alabama and Georgia would have to win at No. 13 LSU. Then, the Bulldogs would come back from their subsequent bye week with three more consecutive top-25 opponents awaiting them.

Ohio State would need to make it through a three-week close to the regular season of at Michigan State, at Maryland and vs. Michigan. No. 15 Wisconsin could next await in the Big Ten title game.

And remember, this thought process holds up only if Georgia beats Alabama for the SEC crown. Reverse that and the selection committee will not think twice about leaving out the Bulldogs. Nick Saban’s current battering rod is clearly the class of the SEC; that is the only reason an Atlanta upset would lead to thought of entering two SEC teams.

12-0 Notre Dame; 13-0 Georgia; 13-0 Clemson; 13-0 Ohio State; 12-1 Alabama.
Or 12-0 Notre Dame; 13-0 Alabama; 13-0 Clemson; 13-0 Ohio State; 12-0 West Virginia.

Why presume the Irish would get in? It is becoming a mantra in this space … No undefeated Power Five team has ever been left out of the Playoff, and the first excluded undefeated team will not be the one that does not need a conference to be considered “Power Five.” That may break poorly for the Tigers or the Mountaineers, or perhaps the one-loss Tide. It will not be Notre Dame that gets the short straw.

THE MOST LIKELY, THE LOSS: None of the remaining six Irish opponents should beat Notre Dame, but one probably will. S&P+ expects the toughest remaining game to be at USC, giving the Irish a 67 percent chance of winning, a projected margin of victory of 7.6 points. The FPI largely agrees, offering 69.8 percent chances for the weekend after Thanksgiving. Northwestern warrants mention. Maybe a loss at Yankee Stadium is ironically inevitable given the hand-wringing over moving the Syracuse game away from South Bend.

This is where the struggles of the Notre Dame schedule make things frustrating for the Irish argument. Notice Florida State’s lack of mention in the previous paragraph’s pondering of pitfalls? That is how far the second half of this fall has fallen compared to its preseason hype. S&P+ gives Notre Dame a 90 percent chance of a positive binary result on Nov. 10, and FPI skews even higher to 91.2 percent.

While the SEC’s best are likely to emerge with more quality wins than need to be counted and Ohio State could have positive data points against TCU, Penn State, Michigan and Wisconsin, Notre Dame will be able to claim … Michigan, and that may be it.

Stanford is now 4-2 and the heart of its Pac-12 slate awaits. Run the table in the North, and the Cardinal again becomes a win to be proud of. Otherwise, Irish fans will need to retract everything they said after this weekend and insist Lane Stadium was an extremely intimidating environment and to beat Virginia Tech there was an accomplishment unparalleled.

BUT WHAT ABOUT CHAOS? This is college football, after all. Given its remaining schedule, let’s grant Clemson clear path to 13-0, and, as a nod to its dominance to this point, let’s do the same for Alabama.

Maybe Ohio State loses to Michigan who has looked the part of Big-Ten challenger since its season-opening loss. Perhaps West Virginia wins at Texas to start November but loses to the Longhorns a month later. USC could beat Notre Dame and then fall to one-loss Washington in the Pac-12 championship. That would leave:

11-1 Ohio State with a loss to Michigan.
12-1 Michigan with a loss to Notre Dame.
11-1 Notre Dame with a loss to USC but a win over Michigan.
12-1 Washington with a loss to Auburn but a win over USC.
11-1 West Virginia with a loss to Texas.
11-2 Texas with a loss to Maryland.
12-1 Georgia with a loss to Alabama.
11-1 Colorado with a loss to USC.
11-1 N.C. State with a loss to Clemson.

Individually, none of that seems absurd. All together, the likelihood ends up back in the zero-point percentages again. How would the Irish fare? They might join Georgia in filling out the semifinals bracket.

It would be easiest to just get a seventh win against a team that has shocked a top-five opponent in each of the last two seasons, then add the eighth against the triple-option before continuing on one-by-one-by-one to 12.

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

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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 rivals.com four-star defensive tackle Aidan Keanaaina (J.K. Mullen High School; Denver).

The No. 17 defensive tackle in the country, per rivals.com, 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

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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.