Associated Press

Notre Dame’s Playoff Possibilities & Opponents: Just Win Edition


It is simple at this point, and this will not be the last time it is said: If No. 3 Notre Dame (11-0) wins at USC on Saturday (8 ET; ABC), it will be in the College Football Playoff. The odds of both No. 1 Alabama and No. 2 Clemson losing are utterly slim, so the Irish will rise no higher than No. 2 and conceivably have to face both of them in a chase for a title.

Any hopes of Notre Dame jumping those unbeatens were all-but dashed by Playoff selection committee chairman Rob Mullens on Tuesday night after the most-recent poll was released.

“I want to be clear, we said there was a deep discussion on 3, 4, 5, and the head-to-head at this point still does carry the weight,” Mullens said. “That’s why Notre Dame is 3, Michigan is 4, and Georgia is 5.

“… When you look at those, we see Alabama and Clemson through week 12 as more complete teams with strength on both sides of the ball.”

Whether agreeing with that or not, the committee’s view is unlikely to change, barring an upset. That removes most all drama from the equation if the Irish can prevail this weekend.

If they lose, is there a route to the Playoff still? Yes.

It will help if Alabama and Clemson keep things easy and finish 13-0 each. Then, Notre Dame would need either, or both, Michigan or No. 6 Oklahoma (Friday; 8 ET; ESPN) to lose. No. 10 Ohio State’s body of work is unlikely to top an 11-1 Irish season, meaning the Buckeyes winning the Big Ten should not affect Notre Dame concerns.

Then, to reduce stress, it would help the Irish if No. 8 Washington State also lost, most likely Friday vs. No. 16 Washington (8:30 ET; FOX). Presuming, as an example, the Cougars and the Sooners lose but the Wolverines win out, that would leave a set Playoff field of Alabama, Clemson and Michigan with 11-1 Notre Dame and 13-0 Central Florida the likely candidates for the last spot.

That is far from an outlandish scenario for the Irish to suffer a loss but still reach the Playoff. It is, however, an unnecessary one. For once, Notre Dame controls what comes next. Just win.

Michigan (10-1): The Wolverines struggled for a bit with Indiana, trailing 17-15 at halftime before riding 50 rush attempts for 257 yards to a 31-20 victory.

Michigan now gets its make-or-break moment. Its first one, at least. As 5-point favorites at Ohio State (12 ET; FOX), the Wolverines should put a dagger in the Buckeyes’ faint Playoff hopes. A combined point total over/under of 56.5 paints a 31-26 picture.

Former Notre Dame assistant coach Chuck Martin has Miami (OH) bowl eligible and theoretically still in contention for a conference championship. (Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)

Ball St. (4-8): The Cardinals ended their season with a 42-21 loss Tuesday at Miami (OH). For the RedHawks’ concerns, that win brought bowl eligibility to Chuck Martin’s team and kept alive the faintest of MAC title hopes; to reach the conference championship game, Martin now needs Ohio to win as 23.5-point favorites vs. Akron and Bowling Green to upset Buffalo as 14.5-point underdogs. Both games are Friday at 12 ET.

Vanderbilt (5-6): The Commodores beat Ole Miss 36-29 in overtime to bring themselves to the precipice of bowl eligibility, a third SEC win at their fingertips. If Vanderbilt can hold serve as a 3.5-point favorite against Tennessee (4 ET; SEC Network), it will be the third-straight win against the in-state rival.

Wake Forest (5-6): The Deacons were manhandled by Pittsburgh to the tune of 34-13 with only 285 total yards, 79 rushing yards and 20:29 time of possession. Things may not get better at Duke (12:30 ET) as 12-point underdogs with an over/under of 58.5 hinting at a 35-23 loss.

Stanford (6-4): Poor air quality due to the rampant wildfires in northern California forced the Cardinal and Cal to postpone their annual meeting until Dec. 1, a possibility because Stanford is not in conference title contention this season.

The Cardinal are favored by 6.5 points at UCLA (3 ET; Pac-12 Network).

Virginia Tech (4-6): A 38-14 loss to Miami forced the Hokies to conditionally schedule a game with Marshall on Dec. 1 in pursuit of bowl eligibility. If Virginia Tech upsets Virginia (Friday; 3:30 ET; ABC) despite being 4-point ‘dogs, then it will play the Thundering Herd. If the Hokies lose this weekend, though, that December contest will never come to be.

Pat Narduzzi and Pittsburgh will have the pleasure of meeting No. 2 Clemson in the ACC title game next weekend. (Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images)

Pittsburgh (7-4): The Panthers won the ACC Coastal courtesy of their dismantling of Wake Forest. As a result, a letdown may be expected this weekend at Miami (3:30 ET; ESPN), with the Hurricanes favored by 4.5 and an over/under of 49 setting the stage for a 27-22 result.

Navy (3-8): The Midshipmen topped Tulsa 37-29 and are now 7-point underdogs heading to Tulane (12 ET; ESPNU). For most this would be the merciful end to a disappointing season, but obviously Army awaits in a couple weeks.

Northwestern (7-4): This screamed a letdown moment for the Wildcats, the week after winning the Big Ten West, but instead they handled their business at Minnesota, 24-14. Doing so again against Illinois (3:30 ET; Big Ten Network) would be impressive in its own right, even if favored by 17.

Florida State (5-6): The Seminoles needed a 74-yard touchdown pass with 1:49 left followed by a two-point conversion to beat Boston College 22-21 and keep their bowl hopes alive. The longest bowl streak in the NCAA will live or die against Florida (12 ET; ABC), with the Gators favored by 6.5 and the over/under of 53 indicating a 30-23 ending to the postseason run.

Syracuse (8-3): Losing by 33 points to Notre Dame may have a residual effect on the Orange, now touchdown underdogs at Boston College (12 ET; ESPN), though the status of senior quarterback Eric Dungey will undoubtedly impact those expectations, as yet unknown.

USC (5-6): The Trojans were outscored 13-0 in the final frame of a 34-27 loss at UCLA, continuing their spiral before facing the Irish (8 ET; ABC) as 10.5-point underdogs. The over/under of 54.5 equals a 32-22 projected score.

Friday 3:30 ET: Virginia Tech vs. Virginia on ABC.
Saturday 12 ET: Michigan at Ohio State on FOX; Navy at Tulane on ESPNU; Florida State vs. Florida on ABC; Syracuse at Boston College on ESPN.
12:30 ET: Wake Forest at Duke.
3 ET: Stanford at UCLA on Pac-12 Network.
3:30 ET: Pittsburgh at Miami on ESPN; Northwestern vs. Illinois on BTN.
4 ET: Vanderbilt vs. Tennessee on SEC Network.
8 ET: USC vs. Notre Dame on ABC.

Favorites: Michigan -5; Vanderbilt -3.5; Stanford -6.5; Northwestern -17.
Underdogs: Wake Forest +12; Virginia Tech +4; Pittsburgh +4.5; Navy +7; Florida State +6.5; Syracuse +7; USC +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

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

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

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.