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Notre Dame’s Opponents: Rise of Pittsburgh, Northwestern, Syracuse

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Welcome to a world where Northwestern and possibly Pittsburgh contend for conference championships while Virginia Tech, Florida State and USC have work to do to even be eligible for a bowl game. Welcome to a year in which No. 12 Syracuse is one of only three Irish opponents currently ranked. Welcome once again to Notre Dame’s schedule frustrations of 2018.

Michigan (9-1): Bookmakers predicted the Wolverines would beat Rutgers 43-6, so the actual 42-7 victory goes to show just how little Vegas knows. Michigan rattled off 35 unanswered points after giving up an 80-yard touchdown run in the first quarter.

Expect more of the same from the Wolverines this weekend, favored by 28.5 against Indiana (4 ET; FS1). A combined point total over/under of 53.5 suggests a 41-13 finish, but who would ever trust Vegas to properly handicap these things?

Ball St. (4-7): The Cardinals came out of their off week with a 42-41 overtime victory against Western Michigan on Tuesday. That win alone may cool Mike Neu’s seat this winter.

Vanderbilt (4-6): A 33-28 loss at Missouri puts the Commodores in a tough spot as far as bowl eligibility goes. The two-touchdown underdogs won the turnover battle 2-0 and did not trail until the final nine minutes, but Vanderbilt just could not pull off the surprise.

As a result, the ‘Dores need to finish 2-0 against Mississippi (7:30 ET; SEC Network) and Tennessee. Vanderbilt is favored by 2.5 points this weekend, and likely will be next, as well. For an SEC game, the 66.5 over/under stands out, projecting a 35-32 result.

Wake Forest (5-5): Maybe the Deacons will have another quarterback controversy next season. With freshman Sam Hartman out for the year, junior Jamie Newman led Wake Forest to a 27-23 victory at NC State on Thursday, completing 22-of-33 passes for 297 yards and three touchdowns. Two fourth-quarter scores brought the Deacons back from a 23-13 deficit.

Now Wake Forest can play the role of spoiler. Pittsburgh (12 ET) arrives as a touchdown favorite with a chance to win the ACC Coastal with a victory. A 34-27 game could go either way, quite frankly, when Greg Dortch is in the mix.

One of Stanford tight end Colby Parkinson’s four touchdown grabs against Oregon State on Saturday. (Photo by Jason O. Watson/Getty Images)

Stanford (6-4): The Cardinal finally brought its running game, rushing for 244 yards in a 48-17 victory at Oregon State. Even with an 8.1 yards per carry average, Stanford’s passing game still stole the show. Tight end Colby Parkinson finished with six catches for 166 yards and not one touchdown, not two, not three, but four scores.

The Cardinal now head to Cal (7:30 ET; Pac 12 Network) for the first wave of Pac-12 rivalries. Cal has not beaten Stanford since 2009, but did just snap a longer streak to USC, one tracing back to 2003. This would be a mild upset, with the Bears only two-point underdogs with a 45-point over/under making for a 24-22 projection.

Virginia Tech (4-5): It is not that Hokies defensive coordinator Bud Foster is inherently on a hot seat. His career is too well-established for that. But head coach Justin Fuente must be considering offseason possibilities after Virginia Tech gave up 492 rushing yards in a 52-22 loss at Pittsburgh.

Righting the ship, and keeping bowl possibilities afloat, will require the Hokies to win as 5.5-point underdogs at Miami (3:30 ET; ESPN). A 51.5-point over/under hints at a 28-23 Hurricanes victory.

Pittsburgh (6-4): The Panthers can clinch the ACC Coastal with a win at Wake Forest. Considering Pittsburgh ran for 13.7 yards per carry against Virginia Tech and Qadree Ollison led the way with 235 yards and three touchdowns on 16 rushes, that title game appearance should become a reality. The Deacons rank No. 103 in rushing yards allowed per game (203.6) and No. 113 in yards per carry (5.19).

Navy (2-8): The Midshipmen gave up 297 rushing yards on 52 carries in a not-as-close-as-it-seems 35-24 loss at Central Florida. Navy might snag a win this weekend, though, with Tulsa (3:30 ET; CBSSN) visiting and the Middies favored by five.

Northwestern (6-4): The Wildcats won the Big Ten West with a 14-10 triumph at Iowa led by freshman running back Isaiah Bowser’s 165 yards on 31 rushes.

That could lead to a letdown as Northwestern heads to Minnesota (12 ET: BTN) as 2.5-point favorites. If nothing else, the 50.5-point over/under seems high, a 26-24 conclusion out of character for the Wildcats this season, only reaching 26 points three times thus far.

Florida State (4-6): The Seminoles bowl chances took a drastic hit with their 42-13 loss at Notre Dame. They now need to win out, beginning as 1.5-point home underdogs to Boston College, who may be without starting quarterback Anthony Brown (3:30 ET; ESPN2). The absence of Brown and the ineptitude of Florida State’s offense combine for a 48.5-point over/under, a possible 25-24 squeaker.

Syracuse (8-2): The Orange put the final nail in the coffin of Bobby Petrino’s head coaching career with a 54-23 victory against Louisville on Friday. Presumably as a result of someone needing to hang around to coach the team for two more weeks, Cardinals defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder was not fired along with Petrino despite giving up 518 total yards and 326 rushing yards to Syracuse.

The Orange will look to continue their turnover-forcing ways against Notre Dame (2:30 ET; NBC) after forcing four last week. This line has moved back up to 10.5 in favor of the No. 3 team in the country while the over/under has fallen from 66.5 to 61.5 due to harsher weather expectations. A 36-25 Irish victory would assuredly be enough to keep Notre Dame comfortably in all Playoff considerations.

USC (5-5): The 15-14 loss to Cal turned up the heat on Clay Helton, even if he says he expects to coach at USC for another 15 years. The Trojans gained 277 total yards, rushing for 97 on 38 carries, a 2.6 yards per rush average.

Losing to UCLA (3:30 ET; FOX) might seal Helton’s fate, but USC should prevail as 3.5-point favorites.

12 ET: Wake Forest vs. Pittsburgh; Northwestern at Minnesota on BTN.
2:30 ET: Syracuse vs. Notre Dame on NBC.
3:30 ET: Virginia Tech vs. Miami on ESPN; Navy vs. Tulsa on CBSSN; Florida State vs. Boston College on ESPN2; USC at UCLA on FOX.
4:00 ET: Michigan vs. Indiana on FS1.
7:30 ET: Vanderbilt vs. Mississippi on SECN; Stanford at Cal on Pac-12 Network.

Favorites: Michigan -28.5; Vanderbilt -2.5; Stanford -2; Pittsburgh -7; Navy -5; Northwestern -2.5; USC -3.5
Underdogs: Wake Forest +7; Virginia Tech +5.5; Florida State +1.5; Syracuse +10.5.

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

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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.