Refreshing Notre Dame’s Playoff possibilities

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For an old drinking buddy, Curtis missed the implied message when his first two texts went without response for nearly two hours. The delayed two-word reply somehow convinced him to send seven more in rapid succession.

“So what is the best loss Notre Dame could have knock it out of the Playoff and avoid getting embarrassed by Bama?”

I had not even read that text when my phone buzzed again.

“I hate that it’s probably USC. … To get that close and lose it would hurt, even if it’s the logical move to have an actually satisfying ending to the season.”

He soon pondered a loss to Syracuse, then to Northwestern, and finally to Navy, all in the span of seven minutes. Willie Taggart does not garner enough respect to even consider Florida State in a moment of what had to have been Monday-induced optimistic cynicism..

To be honest, I am still not clear on Curtis’ concept of a “best loss,” but he is not the first Irish fan I have heard take the pragmatic view of finding a fate that allows No. 4 Notre Dame to avoid Alabama in the postseason. This may be the best the Irish have looked in decades, but the same can be said about the Tide, and the latter of those two thoughts is a far more powerful statement. How “satisfying” would it be to lose to Alabama 42-14 again? Those overreactions would write themselves.

If I had offered Curtis more than two words in replies — “Define best” — they would have gone something like this …

“This isn’t the usual Navy. Something has gone wrong this year, and I haven’t done the deep dive yet on what. Could an eight-possessions apiece game get flukey? Sure, but that may require a three-interception day from Ian Book AND a special teams score for the Midshipmen.”

“There is some requisite respect for Florida State’s raw talent — 67 percent Blue-Chip Ratio this season, fifth-highest in the country — but that offensive line is such a sieve.”

“Northwestern cannot run the ball. At all. Which means Notre Dame will trot out its dime package pass rush — when Khalid Kareem moves inside and Daelin Hayes joins Julian Okwara on the ends — to notch a Brian Kelly-era record of seven sacks.”

And then the tone would have shifted. It still remains more likely than not Notre Dame loses a game this season. Going by ESPN’s Football Power Index, the Irish have a 64.51 percent chance of winning their next three, but only a 51.02 percent chance of beating both Syracuse and USC. S&P+ numbers set those odds at 63.23 percent and 48.36 percent, respectively.

Curtis, if Notre Dame is going to lose this season, it will likely be in mid-November. As an Irish fan seemingly content with that result — again, if forced to choose between a Fiesta Bowl victory over Oklahoma or an Orange Bowl humiliation at the hands of Alabama, your logic merits consideration — the question you have to ask yourself is, would you rather spend your offseason griping about the unnecessary travel to face Syracuse or ruing the thought of two or three more years of JT Daniels connecting with Amon-Ra St. Brown?

For context on those two games:
FPI: Notre Dame has a 77.9 percent chance against Syracuse, 65.5 percent at USC.
S&P+: The Irish have a 78 percent chance against the Orange, 62 percent facing the Trojans. The Yankee Stadium contest currently has a projected margin of 13.6 points, while the Coliseum would see a game within 5.1 points, per S&P+.

Now let’s revisit the viable College Football Playoff scenarios after a weekend in which three Power-Five undefeateds lost, four top-10 teams fell and the maximum number of Power Fives to end the year unbeaten dropped to four …

THE OBVIOUS: Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State and Notre Dame all finish the year undefeated. The only possible aggrieved party would be Central Florida if it finishes a second consecutive season unblemished. While the Knights would deserve to push whatever narrative they want, they still would not make the College Football Playoff.

THE SEC STRESS: Tide sophomore quarterback Tua Tagovailoa is dealing with a sprained knee of some magnitude. If, hypothetically, that sidelined him against LSU or Georgia and Alabama lost, the selection committee has already granted entry to a team with that kind of an asterisk on its résumé, Clemson in 2016. Both Alabama and LSU or Georgia would be in position to make the Playoff, and that conversation would focus on leaving out either Clemson or Notre Dame.

It would remain untenable for the first excluded undefeated Power Five team to be the only one that does not require a conference to be considered “Power Five,” but that debate would at least be had.

WHAT ABOUT WITH A LOSS? Someone may yet come out of the Big 12 with just one misstep, be it Texas, Oklahoma or West Virginia. That team would have faced a notably more difficult schedule than the Irish, and would likely get in ahead of Notre Dame. The aforementioned SEC possibility would also come at the expense of the Irish at 11-1, if it came to that.

THE UNSATISFYING ONE-LOSS NIGHTMARE: Let’s keep calm across the country except in one specific tri-state area. If the season ended with a controversial Michigan victory at Ohio State and Notre Dame lost a tight game at USC, then the effects of time could put the 12-1 Wolverines into the Playoff ahead of the 11-1 Irish, all while the Buckeyes stage protests over the blown call that cost them the game.

Even Curtis would not handle that outcry well.

IT’S NOTRE DAME’S OFF WEEK …
And yours truly is strongly considering answering every question that shows up in the inbox at insidetheirish@gmail.com.

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.