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Notre Dame’s Playoff Possibilities & Opponents: One looks better and the other still average

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It is an awkward time of year when looking outward. Most of Notre Dame’s opponents are not inherently good, and the College Football Playoff selection committee has long made it clear it cares most about good victories, not just okay wins or bad losses.

Meanwhile, that committee does not release its first ranking for another six days, so any suggestions of the national pecking order are conjecture at best, perhaps educated conjecture, but based largely in speculation, nonetheless.

Oh, and the engine behind this space has learned to never again host a bachelor party during football season because the food poisoning gods are undefeated in ways even Alabama cannot imagine. An awkward time of year, indeed.

Thus, for at least this week, let’s combine the look at the Irish opponents with the Playoff possibilities, minimizing them both as we bide our time until the first committee reveal on Tuesday.

Doug, I know you hate all of the pointless polls that come out before the Committee begins its meetings, and if I recall, you don’t care much for the early versions of the Committee polls either. But, if forced to engage in speculation regarding these meaningless events, what is your prediction about where the Irish land in the first poll? — Matthew C.

To be fair, Matt sent that in a little more than 24 hours before Ohio State lost to Purdue, removing some of the impetus to the question. Personally, I was not far from a Cajun dinner that may or may not be the source of my downfall this week.

To be clear, I do not have any issue with the early Committee polls. I do have issue with overreaction to items that will obviously sort themselves out. As an example, let’s say the Buckeyes had not lost, and the Committee put both Ohio State and Michigan directly in front of Notre Dame at No. 5. There would be an outcry, an unnecessary one. The Buckeyes and Wolverines play each other the final week of the regular season. It would seem safe to presume the loser would drop below the Irish. No need to be upset. The disrespect is not real. Also, that was an impossible hypothetical.

To offer an answer, Notre Dame should come in at No. 3 next week, barring any monumental occurrences this weekend. Unless granting real credence to Navy in a down year, the only chance of such an upset would come in Tallahassee, and let’s not go giving Willie Taggart too much credit on a one-game winning streak. (Wait, it can’t be a streak if it is only one? Whoops.)

To continue to the answer that matters, who will loom at Nos. 4 and 5? LSU and Michigan, in some order. Of note: LSU still has to face Alabama and Texas A&M (on the road) while Michigan awaits both Penn State and Ohio State (on the road). Even the Big-12 one-loss trio cannot result in more than one of them running the table.

This is where the Ohio State loss was a big deal for Irish concerns. It not only fell an unbeaten, but it reduced the possible pool of one-loss headaches in a tangible way. Rather than both Michigan and Ohio State conceivably finishing the season with one-loss and both elbowing out a one-loss Notre Dame, now only one can. Only one (non-‘Bama) SEC team can finish the regular season with as few as one loss. Only one Big 12 team can. Get the idea?

Even in the cleanest of conclusions, a path is emerging for the Irish to cruise to the Playoff even with a loss.

Now then, to those opponents, obviously beginning with …

Michigan (7-1): Overblown and obnoxious antics stole the headlines in Michigan’s 21-7 win at Michigan State, but the game itself was a lesson in dominance. The Wolverines had the ball for 41:03 and gave up only 94 total yards. Even though they lost the turnover battle 2-1, they cruised. In fact, one of those turnovers set up the Spartans for a 7-yard touchdown drive, their only points of the day.

Those off-the-field storylines will continue for the week in Ann Arbor, given the idle week in those parts.

Ball St. (3-5): The Cardinals lost 42-20 vs. Eastern Michigan, and even that includes Ball State breaking an 80-yard touchdown run with two minutes to go.

Ball State hosts Ohio (Thursday; 7 ET; CBSSN) as 10.5-point underdogs with a combined point total over/under of 64. Just enjoy the weekday football.

Vanderbilt (3-5): This space projected the Commodores would not score 19 against Kentucky, and that was accurate, but it would be a lie to call that anywhere near precise. Vanderbilt nearly upset Kentucky, falling only 14-7.

As a result, the ‘Dores are favored this weekend, just the fourth time they have been favored in an SEC game during Derek Mason’s five-year tenure. Hosting Arkansas (12ET; SEC Network) with a 1.5-point edge hints at a 27-25 result.

Wake Forest (3-4): The Deacons fell 38-17 at Florida State after jumping to a 10-0 lead. They now head to Louisville (12 ET) as 2.5-point underdogs with a lofty over/under of 65.

Stanford (5-2): Outgained by 101 yards, the Cardinal forced three turnovers and held onto the ball for 38:17 to beat Arizona State 20-13 on Thursday. Its Pac-12 North fate may be on the line this week against Washington State (7 ET; Pac 12 Network). Somewhat surprisingly, Stanford is favored by a field goal with an over/under of 53 suggesting a 28-25 result.

Virginia Tech (4-2): After a week off, Virginia Tech will get another long week once done hosting Georgia Tech on Thursday (7:30 ET; ESPN). As three-point favorites, the Hokies are expected to handle the triple-option to the tune of 31-28.

Pittsburgh (3-4): Duke is rarely given the credit it deserves for being a solid football program, and that shows in the spread setting Pittsburgh as only a 2.5-point underdog (3:30 ET) with an over/under of 46. Expect the Blue Devils to enjoy more of a cushion than 24-22.

Navy (2-5): Statistically, it looks like a normal Navy output, rushing for 349 yards on 67 carries, a 5.2 average, but it was not enough to overcome Houston’s 413 passing yards in a 49-36 Cougars victory.

Navy now hosts Notre Dame in San Diego (8 ET; CBS) in a game that had its time slot determined back in the summer. The Irish are favored by 23.5 with an over/under of 54 speaking to a 39-15 finale.

Northwestern may have finally found a running attack in Isaiah Bowser, who took 24 carries for 108 yards and two touchdowns against Rutgers, including the game-winning, fourth-quarter score. (Photo by Corey Perrine/Getty Images)

Northwestern (4-3): It is a result of the schedule that the Wildcats remain in the division title conversation in the Big Ten West, but they do thanks to an 18-15 victory at Rutgers. Ahh, 2018, when “Big Ten West” and “Rutgers” logically fit in the same sentence.

Northwestern’s title hopes will be on the line against Wisconsin this weekend (12 ET; FOX) as touchdown underdogs with an over/under of 51. That feels like too many total points. This is still Big Ten West football, right?

Florida State (4-3): With the 38-17 victory against Wake Forest, the Seminoles are averaging 32.5 points per game in their last four games. They will need every one of those against Clemson (12 ET; ABC) as 16.5-point underdogs. The over/under of 51 indicates Florida State may hardly reach half that average, an expected final score of 34-17.

Syracuse sophomore Tommy DeVito may have wrested away the starting quarterback job from four-year starter Eric Dungey over the weekend. (Scott Schild/The Post-Standard via AP)

Syracuse (5-2): The Orange needed double overtime to beat North Carolina 40-37, turning to sophomore quarterback Tommy DeVito to do so, benching four-year starter Eric Dungey. Their Saturday stat lines:
Dungey: 17-of-33 for 225 yards; 15 rushes for 42 yards and a score.
DeVito: 11-of-19 for 181 yards and three touchdowns.

Head coach Dino Babers has yet to commit to either quarterback against N.C. State (7 ET; ESPN2), indicating he has some loyalty to a four-year starter who has played through injuries throughout his career. Syracuse is a 2.5-point underdog, but that line will move quickly if a starter is leaked, especially if it is DeVito.

USC (4-3): The story is about the Trojans’ quarterbacks getting banged up. That ignores the fact that their defense gave up 541 yards, 27 first downs and 34 unanswered points in a 41-28 loss at Utah.

Arizona State (3:30 ET; ABC/ESPN2) will look to rack up similar damage even though USC is favored by 6.5 with an over/under of 54.5.

Thursday 7 p.m. ET: Ball State vs. Ohio on CBSSN.
Thursday 7:30 p.m. ET: Virginia Tech vs. Georgia Tech on ESPN.
Saturday 12 p.m. ET: Vanderbilt at Arkansas on SEC Network; Wake Forest at Louisville; Northwestern vs. Wisconsin on FOX; Florida State vs. Clemson on ABC.
3:30 p.m. ET: Pittsburgh vs. Duke; USC vs. Arizona State on ABC/ESPN2.
7 ET: Stanford vs. Washington State on Pac 12 Network; Syracuse vs. N.C. State on ESPN2.
8 ET: Navy vs. Notre Dame on CBS

Favorites: Vanderbilt -1.5; Stanford -3; Virginia Tech -3; USC -6.5
Underdogs: Ball State +10.5; Wake Forest +1.5; Pittsburgh +2.5; Navy +23.5; Northwestern +6.5; Florida State +16.5; Syracuse +2.

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.