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Notre Dame’s Opponents: How many divisions might they win?

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For all the struggles of Notre Dame’s opponents, five of them remain in genuine contention to win their divisions in their respective conferences. That is, as much as anything else, a reflection of concentrated pockets of mediocrity across the country, but it remains the case. Northwestern, Pittsburgh, Virginia Tech and USC could all still end their seasons with one-off chances at a conference title. Obviously, Michigan joins that group, as well, though the Wolverines have their eyes on bigger fish than a Big Ten championship at this point.

Michigan (8-1): When an offense gets shut down, it makes sense for it to fall down the national rankings in output. Thus, one would think what the Wolverines defense did in a 42-7 victory against Penn State would lead to the Nittany Lions no longer rating among the nation’s offensive leaders. Nonetheless, even though Michigan held them to seven points, they remain No. 23 in the country in scoring offense at 37.2 points per game. Rushing for only 2.3 yards per carry dropped Penn State all the way to No. 21, still averaging 5.35 yards per rush.

The Wolverines gave up 186 yards to one of the most-potent offenses in the country. This defense is playing at an exceptionally high level.

It will continue to do so at Rutgers (3:30 ET; Big Ten Network). Bookmakers nearly predict a shutout, something they will never actually literally do. Michigan is favored by 37.5 with a combined points total over/under of 48.5. That math produces a projected 43-6 conclusion.

Ball St. (3-7): Without senior quarterback Riley Neal (knee), the Cardinals lost 45-13 at Toledo, and with the game, they also lost any hopes of bowl eligibility. In a bit of an oddity, both teams had five turnovers.

Ball State did see some of its future in sophomore quarterback Drew Plitt’s performance, completing 27-of-49 passes for 340 yards and a touchdown, though with two interceptions. Neither Plitt nor Neal will be needed this week as the Cardinals enjoy a break.

Vanderbilt (4-5): After a week off, the Commodores head to Missouri as 17-point underdogs (12 ET; SEC Network). A bowl game remains possible for Vanderbilt, but it will take an upset either this week or next against Ole Miss. The latter is far more likely.

Wake Forest quarterback Sam Hartman’s freshman season ended after nine games with 16 touchdowns and only eight interceptions. He threw for 220.4 yards per game with a 55.3 completion percentage. (Photo by Mike Comer/Getty Images)

Wake Forest (4-5): The Deacons took a 10-0 lead against Syracuse before giving up four unanswered touchdowns to the Orange in an eventual 41-24 loss. Things got only worse when freshman quarterback Sam Hartman was knocked out for the season with a foot injury.

Without Hartman, Wake Forest is a 17-point underdog at NC State on Thursday (7:30 ET; ESPN). The over/under of 67.5 at least means it should be entertaining weeknight football.

Stanford (5-4): The Cardinal saw any conference title pipe dreams dashed by a 27-23 loss at Washington. While Bryce Love managed all of 71 yards on 18 rushes, quarterback KJ Costello threw for 347 yards on 29-of-43 passing. He also threw three interceptions while Stanford’s defense forced no turnovers.

Things should get better for the Cardinal, and with them should come bowl eligibility. Stanford enjoys a projected 23.5-point cushion against Oregon State (9 ET; Pac-12 Network) with an over/under of 59, a 41-18 theoretical finish.

Virginia Tech (4-4): A nondescript 31-21 loss to Boston College knocked the Hokies from pole position in the ACC Coastal division, though they are still in the mix along with the next entry. Eagles running back A.J. Dillon ran for 96 yards and a touchdown on 24 carries in his second week of extended action (32 rushes, 149 yards and a score against Miami a week ago) since an ankle injury kept him sidelined. Is it too soon to start thinking about Dillon’s arrival in South Bend next November?

Virginia Tech can re-establish its Coastal chances by upsetting Pittsburgh (3:30 ET; ESPNU) this weekend as 2.5-point underdogs. As hard as it is to believe on the surface, the hosting Panthers are expected to walk away with a 27-24 victory.

Pittsburgh (5-4): The Panthers caused much of this Coastal chaos with a 23-13 win at Virginia on Friday despite throwing for just 61 yards on 7-of-14 passing. How did they then win by two possessions? Taking 42 rushes for 254 yards, an average of 6.0 yards per carry, certainly had something to do with it. As did giving up only 44 yards on 26 rushes.

Navy (2-7):The Midshipmen will not be going bowling for just the second time in Ken Niumatalolo’s 11-year tenure thanks to a 42-0 loss at Cincinnati in which Navy gained a total of 171 yards.

Central Florida (12 ET; ESPN2) may not offer as much of a rout by the book’s thoughts, but a 25.5-point spread is hardly something to scoff at. The 63.5-point over/under hints at a mere 45-19 Midshipmen loss.

Northwestern (5-4): A 31-21 loss to Notre Dame does not affect the Wildcats’ Big Ten West concerns, hopes which can be all-but solidified with an upset at Iowa (3:30 ET; FOX). As 10-point underdogs on the road, that may be a bit of a reach for Northwestern, but winning the two games after that would still send the Wildcats to Indianapolis.

Filling in for injured starter Deondre Francois, James Blackman threw for 421 yards and four touchdowns in Florida State’s 47-28 loss at NC State last weekend, perhaps creating a Seminoles quarterback controversy. (Photo by Lance King/Getty Images)

Florida State (4-5): A 47-28 loss to NC State does not sound as bad as it should. The scoreboard perspective was brightened by a Seminoles score with 40 seconds remaining, but the statistical nightmare cannot be hidden. Florida State rushed 20 times … for 24 yards.

Notre Dame’s defensive front should lick its chops at the reality of facing this Seminoles’ offensive line. When considering the disparities between those two units, the 18-point spread in the Irish favor may not seem like enough, though it makes for easy math with an over/under of 54.5. (7:30 ET; NBC)

Syracuse (7-2): The high-flying Orange took to the ground to beat Wake Forest. Compared to 35 pass attempts, Syracuse rushed 60 times for 264 yards, an average of 4.4 yards per carry.

That mentality should pay even more dividends against Brian VanGorder’s Louisville defense on Friday (7 ET; ESPN2). The 21-point spread will not be enough in Bobby Petrino’s penultimate game at Louisville, though the Orange could reach the 69-point over/under all on its own. After all, Clemson did just hang 77 on the Cardinals, less than a month after Georgia Tech torched them for 66.

USC (5-4): The Trojans found their footing, if only for a week, with a 38-21 win at Oregon State. Aca’Cedric Ware (pictured at top) led the way with 205 yards and three touchdowns on 17 rushes, part of a team effort for 332 rushing yards on a 7.5 yards per carry average.

USC remains favored this week, by 5.5 to exact, and needs to beat Cal (10:30 ET; ESPN) to keep pace in the utterly-middling Pac-12 South.

Thursday, 7:30 ET: Wake Forest at NC State on ESPN.
Friday, 7 ET: Syracuse vs. Louisville on ESPN2.
Saturday, 12 ET: Vanderbilt at Missouri on SEC Network; Navy at Central Florida on ESPN2.
3:30 ET: Michigan at Rutgers on the Big Ten Network; Virginia Tech at Pittsburgh on ESPNU; Northwestern at Iowa on FOX.
7:30 ET: Florida State at Notre Dame on NBC.
9 ET: Stanford vs. Oregon State on the Pac-12 Network.
10:30 ET: USC vs. Cal on ESPN.

Favorites: Michigan -37.5; Stanford -23.5; Pittsburgh -2.5; Syracuse -21; USC -5.5.
Underdogs: Vanderbilt +17; Wake Forest +17; Virginia Tech +2.5; Navy +25.5; Northwestern +10; Florida State +18.

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.