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Notre Dame’s Opponents: Seven bowl eligible with an eighth possible

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Let the Playoff worry end. Notre Dame is in. Clemson almost certainly awaits the Irish, unless Pittsburgh has something to say about that (or Georgia pulls off a shocking upset). More on the Panthers in a bit …

Michigan (10-2): The Wolverines dreams died not with a bang, but a whimper. Ohio State trounced Michigan 62-39, a score so lopsided it immediately put the Buckeyes back into the Playoff discussion.

The Wolverines still exceeded preseason expectations, which included a season win total over/under of 8.5.

Ball St. (4-8): Not that Notre Dame is really worried about the Cardinals next season — Bowling Green takes that spot in the schedule — but Ball State has now lost both its quarterback and its running back, as Riley Neal and James Gilbert have each announced intentions of transferring as graduate students. Neal may be a bit of a hot commodity, and Gilbert is no slouch, having averaged 4.3 yards per carry this season. For thoroughness’ sake: The Cardinals had a preseason win total over/under of 4.5.

Vanderbilt (6-6): The Commodores cruised past Tennessee 38-13 for their third straight win against the Volunteers, earning bowl eligibility in doing so. In pondering their preseason over/under of 4.5, this space accurately predicted the subset of eight games in which Vanderbilt could manage enough victories to reach the over.

Wake Forest (6-6): In one of the most unexpected scores in recent years, the Deacons beat Duke 59-7 over the weekend. Such are the motivating powers of bowl eligibility, though Wake Forest still fell short of its preseason over/under of 6.5.

Stanford (7-4): The Cardinal always expected to be playing this weekend following a victory at UCLA, but it did not expect to have given up 528 total yards to Chip Kelly’s offense in reaching the 49-42 triumph. Stanford also did not expect to be playing at Cal (3 ET; Pac 12 Network) this weekend in a game rescheduled from two weeks ago, rather than the Pac-12 championship game.

Virginia Tech (5-6): The Hokies were gifted a 34-31 overtime win against Virginia to win the in-state rivalry for a 15th consecutive year and keep their hopes of bowl eligibility alive. Somehow the Cavaliers scored 17 unanswered in the fourth quarter to take a late touchdown lead and still lost.

Virginia Tech will now host Marshall (12 ET; ACC Network) in a game scheduled for bowl hopes. By no means should it be a rollover, with the Hokies favored by just four and a combined points total over/under of 51 suggesting a 28-24 result.

Pittsburgh (7-5): The Panthers may have already been looking ahead a week when they arrived in Miami and thus walked into a 24-3 loss. That will quickly be forgotten about if they can prove wrong a 27.5-point spread to beat Clemson (8 ET; ABC). An over/under of 52.5 paints a picture wherein Pittsburgh does not even manage two touchdowns. Things may end up a bit closer than that, but the Tigers know, win and they join Notre Dame in the Playoff.

If this space is going to pat itself on the back for nailing those preseason Vanderbilt thoughts, it should also acknowledge it fully expected the Panthers to fail to reach their 5.5-win over/under.

Navy (3-9): A 29-28 loss at Tulane will not end the Midshipmen’s season, not with Army yet awaiting in two weeks. The Knights will be looking to extend their series winning streak to three, their longest since 1992-96.

Northwestern (8-4): A 24-16 win against Illinois sets up the Wildcats well before they take on the Buckeyes (8 ET; FOX) as two-touchdown underdogs. If looking at the season as a whole, this space’s preseason preview not only predicted Northwestern hitting the over on 6.5 wins, but it also suggested a divisional title was possible.

Florida State (5-7): The Seminoles saw their nearly four decade bowl streak end with a 41-14 loss against Florida, also falling well short of an 8.5 win over/under, as expected.

A week after getting knocked out in the first quarter against Notre Dame, Syracuse senior quarterback Eric Dungey scored six total touchdowns at Boston College. (Photo by Omar Rawlings/Getty Images)

Syracuse (9-3): The Orange responded to their 33-point loss to Notre Dame with a 42-21 win at Boston College, courtesy of 559 total yards, led by senior quarterback Eric Dungey’s 362 and three touchdowns on 21-of-34 passing. Suffice it to say, Syracuse blew the doors off its preseason win total of 5.5.

USC athletic director Lynn Swann made the somewhat unpopular decision to retain Trojans head coach Clay Helton. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

USC (5-7): Losing 24-17 to Notre Dame did not spell the end of the Clay Helton era, though it did make the preseason mark of 8.5 wins seem even more outlandish.

12 ET: Virginia Tech vs. Marshall on ACC Network.
3 ET: Stanford at Cal on Pac 12 Network.
8 ET: Pittsburgh vs. Clemson on ABC; Northwestern vs. Ohio State on FOX.

Favorites: Virginia Tech -4; Stanford -2.5
Underdogs: Pittsburgh +27.5; Northwestern +14.

Over win totals — Michigan: 10 wins, 8.5 over/under.
Vanderbilt: 6 wins; 4.5 over/under.
Pittsburgh: 7 wins; 5.5 over/under.
Northwestern: 8 wins; 6.5 over/under.
Syracuse: 9 wins; 5.5 over/under.

Under win totals — Ball State: 4 wins, 4.5 over/under.
Wake Forest: 6 wins, 6.5 over/under.
Stanford: 7 wins with one more game to play, 8.5 over/under.
Virginia Tech: 5 wins with one more game to play, 8 over/under.
Navy: 3 wins, 7.5 over/under.
Florida State: 5 wins, 8.5 over/under.
USC: 5 wins, 8.5 over/under.

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.