Notre Dame’s Opponents: Second consecutive weekend of chaos keeps Irish hopes alive

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As long as Notre Dame has only one loss, every piece of national chaos can be considered a positive for the Irish and their Playoff hopes. Not every weekend will include an upset of such magnitude to be deemed chaotic, but the last two have.

“Chaotic” may not even do enough justice in describing the absurdity of Wisconsin’s 24-23 loss at Illinois on Saturday. The Badgers were favored by more than 30 points, and the Illini were simply toiling away until head coach Lovie Smith could be fired with a reasonable buyout. Instead, Wisconsin fell a touchdown short of 30 and Smith’s career might have been elongated by a last-second field goal.

The now-No. 13 Badgers head to No. 3 Ohio State this weekend as the key pieces to a few Big Ten scenarios, all of which could impact Notre Dame’s thread-clinging hopes. From best for the Irish to worst …

Scenario 1: Wisconsin loses this weekend, wins the Big Ten West, and then beats Ohio State in the conference championship game. This is a Notre Dame ideal, particularly if it comes complete with the Buckeyes falling victim to some chaos themselves (maybe at Michigan the weekend after Thanksgiving). Implicit to this possibility is Ohio State beating current No. 7 Penn State and keeping the Nittany Lions out of the Big Ten title game. Notre Dame might have an argument for Playoff pondering over a one-loss Penn State.

Scenario 2: Wisconsin wins this weekend, wins the Big Ten West, and then loses to Ohio State in the conference championship game. The key difference between these first two possibilities is not who wins the Big Ten, but that this order of operations would prohibit the Buckeyes from a second conference loss. In the interest of increasing those odds and recognizing the psyches of 18- to 22-year-olds, perhaps Irish fans should pull for the Badgers to end the season with a victory rather than the Buckeyes, unless …

Scenario 3: Wisconsin wins this weekend, wins the Big Ten West, and then beats Ohio State in the conference championship game. At that point, the Badgers would have two wins more impressive than Notre Dame’s best and would undoubtedly get into the Playoff before the Irish.

Scenario 4: Penn State is still 7-0, but also has to play Ohio State yet. That Nov. 23 matchup could render this weekend moot. As long as the Nittany Lions keep winning, they fit into the looming Big Ten triumvirate.

That all means Notre Dame still needs to worry about outpacing at least one of the Big Ten, Big 12 and ACC champions, and perhaps two of them. The latter thought is too unlikely to spend any more time on, and the Big Ten remains the best bet to catch any one of the three, given the lack of apparent competition for Oklahoma and Clemson.

Consider who they face this weekend, along with the other top contenders for Playoff spots …

No. 1 Alabama: vs. Arkansas, favored by 32.5, even without starting quarterback Tua Tagovailoa (ankle).
No. 2 LSU: vs. No. 9 Auburn, favored by 11.
No. 3 Ohio State: vs. No. 13 Wisconsin, favored by 14.5.
No. 4 Clemson: vs. Boston College, favored by 34.5.
No. 5 Oklahoma: at Kansas State, favored by 23.5.
No. 6 Penn State: at Michigan State, favored by 6.5.

The Sooners and Tigers should be just fine this weekend, but three of those other games are expected to be within two possessions. That’s closer than usual at that point in the pecking order.

Louisville (4-3): The Cardinals had no chance against Clemson, falling 45-10 while giving up 551 yards, getting out-gained by 288. Louisville now hosts Virginia as 3.5-point underdogs (3:30 ET; ACCN) as of late Tuesday night. The 53.5-point combined point total over/under suggests a 28-25 conclusion, but the Cavaliers have given up more than 24 points only once this season, making that an unlikely amount of success for the Cardinals offense.

New Mexico (2-5): The Lobos lost 23-10 at Wyoming, despite gaining 27 yards more than the Cowboys. New Mexico simply could not stop the run, giving up 259 rushing yards on 55 carries. That will not be as much of a concern against pass-happy Hawaii, favored by 10 points (4 ET; Facebook). An over/under of 70 makes for easy math in a 40-30 Lobos defeat.

Pouring rain made Georgia’s 21-0 win against Kentucky an ugly one, but Jake Fromm & Co. did enough to get by, the bare necessity a week after their loss to South Carolina. (Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images)

Georgia (6-1): The Bulldogs rushed for 235 yards while passing for 35 yards on 12 attempts in an utter downpour, turning a scoreless first half into a 21-0 lead against Kentucky. They now have plenty of time to dry off with an off week.

Virginia (5-2): The Cavaliers are back in the driver’s seat of the ACC Coastal thanks to a 48-14 walloping of Duke. Every week matters in that nonsense of a division, though, so winning at Louisville will be vital. It could also be enough to bump Virginia back into the top 25, currently second among “others receiving votes.”

Bowling Green (2-5): The Falcons returned to familiar ways in a 38-20 loss to Central Michigan, done in by quarterback Grant Loy’s 13-of-29 passing for 166 yards with three interceptions compared to only one touchdown. More of the same should be on the way, this time at the hands of Western Michigan (12 ET; ESPN3). The Broncos are favored by a mere 26.5 points, the over/under of 63 setting up a 45-18 finish.

Trojans freshman quarterback Kedon Slovis continues to impress, now with nine passing touchdowns against only four interceptions while completing 73.6 percent of his passes. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

USC (4-3): Don’t look now, but the Trojans are in first in the Pac 12 South and just eased through what was expected to be a challenge, blowing past Arizona, 41-14. USC initially led 34-0, in part thanks to quarterback Kedon Slovis’ efficient 19-of-28 passing for 232 yards and two touchdowns.

The Trojans should not be tested Friday at Colorado (9 ET; ESPN2), favored by 13.5 points with an over/under of 62. If the scoreboard reads 38-24 at the end, USC will presumably be pleased.

Michigan (5-2): The Wolverines 28-21 loss at Penn State does not qualify as a moral victory, but at least Michigan got up off the mat after falling behind 21-0 and even 28-14. In a season going as much sideways as forward, that was no sure thing.

It is also undoubtedly part of why the Wolverines remain a one-point favorite against Notre Dame (7:30 ET; ABC). With only 51 total points expected, the defenses may star in a 26-25 scrap.

Virginia Tech (5-2): In a game for the ages, one that will forever be known as a first because it reached a fifth, the Hokies beat North Carolina 43-41 in six overtimes. The first usage of the new overtime rules, in which only two-point conversions are run beginning in the fifth overtime, Virginia Tech won when its third-string quarterback plowed in from three yards out. (To clarify, as was needed on the patio of Saturday’s wedding reception, the new rules do not mandate a two-point conversion attempt after a touchdown. That already existed in the third overtime. The new rules mandate only two-point conversion attempts, one after another, in a dramatic form of football unlike anything else in the game.)

Starter Hendon Hooker should be back in action after an idle week.

Duke (4-3): Virginia utterly shut down Blue Devils fifth-year quarterback Quentin Harris, holding him to 13-of-26 for 88 yards and one touchdown against two interceptions. If Harris cannot bounce back from that, then North Carolina (4 ET; ACCN) may not have much trouble making good on being favored by 3.5 points with an over/under of 55. That forecasts a 29-26 result, but don’t be shocked if the Tar Heels score more than that.

Navy (5-1): The Midshipmen rushed for 434 yards on 59 carries, a 7.4 yards per attempt average, in a 35-3 rout of South Florida. Life will not be so easy against Tulane (3:30 ET; CBSSN), though Navy is still favored by 3.5 points. The over/under of 53 works out to a 28-25 result.

Boston College (4-3): The Eagles would have had to make perfect use of their off week to do much against Clemson this weekend (7:30 ET; ACCN). Frankly, if Boston College scores the 12 points innate to a 58.5-point over/under, that will be more about the Tigers easing up than anything else.

Stanford (3-4): The chances are slim the Cardinal can reach its season win total over/under of 7, but it will need to prevail as a one-point underdog against Arizona (3:30 ET; Pac-12 Network) to keep those hopes alive. However that is to occur, Stanford will have to do better than losing 27-26, as projected by a 53.5-point over/under.

 

Lengthy Texas cornerback joins Notre Dame class of 2024

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Maybe Benjamin Morrison and Jaden Mickey will be anomalies, but if they are precedent-setters, then Notre Dame may have snagged another unheralded but promising cornerback with the Saturday afternoon commitment of consensus three-star Leonard Moore (Round Rock High School; Texas).

Moore also holds scholarship offers from Oregon, TCU and Vanderbilt, to name a few. In total, he has offers from six schools in the Pac-12, three in the Big 12, two in the SEC and one in the ACC, an intriguing widespread array from someone not yet lighting recruiting rankings on fire.

At 6-foot-2, Moore should have the length to become a physical cornerback, one perhaps more in the mold of current Notre Dame fifth-year cornerback Cam Hart than the rising sophomore Morrison.

Moore’s highlight reel starts with a few interceptions, naturally, and a punt return. Pass breakups are not necessarily the most enthralling of film. But then he sheds a block to force a fumble and soon defends a back-shoulder throw with ease. Moore is clearly a playmaker, particularly given no level of Texas football should be scoffed at. He intercepted three passes, forced two fumbles and broke up four passes in 2022 as a junior.

He readily anticipates routes and when needed funnels his man as the defensive design demands.

Moore runs track, as well, with decent 200-meter times in the low 23-second range.

The eighth commitment in the class of 2024, Moore is the second defensive back, joining consensus three-star cornerback Karson Hobbs (Archbishop Moeller; Cincinnati). While team recruiting rankings are thoroughly premature more than 10 months before anyone can officially sign, thoroughness demands mentioning that Notre Dame’s class is currently ranked No. 2 in the country behind only Georgia with 10 commitments.

RELATED READING: An early look at Notre Dame’s seven commits in the class of 2024, including QB CJ Carr

A cursory look at the depth chart suggests Moore could have an avenue to early playing time in South Bend. Hart likely will move on to the NFL after the 2023 season, a shoulder injury tipping the scales toward returning this offseason. Aside from him, the only cornerbacks with experience on the Irish roster are Morrison and Mickey and rising senior Clarence Lewis. Any of the four young cornerbacks that do make an impression in 2023 will effectively be on equal footing with Moore.

Reports: Tommy Rees heads to Alabama after 10 total years at Notre Dame

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: APR 23 Notre Dame Spring Game
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If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.

Tommy Rees will leave Notre Dame to do just that, heading to be the offensive coordinator at Alabama, according to reports Friday afternoon. Nick Saban and the Tide denied Rees a national championship as a player in 2012 and a title game appearance as an offensive coordinator in 2020.

The South Bend Tribune‘s Mike Berardino first reported Rees’s decision, coming a day after reports initially surfaced that Rees was Alabama’s preferred choice for the gig, and he had flown to Tuscaloosa to consider the position.

Those unbeaten regular seasons, along with one in 2018 as the Irish quarterbacks coach, were the high points of Rees’ total of a decade with the Notre Dame football program. Like his former head coach, he will now head to the SEC chasing a higher peak.

Of course, Rees spurned Brian Kelly’s invite to join him at LSU last winter, instead memorably telling the Irish offensive players, “I’m [bleepin’] staying,” setting the tone for the first week of Marcus Freeman‘s tenure as Notre dame head coach.

RELATED READING: Tommy Rees turns down Brian Kelly’s LSU overture and will remain at Notre Dame
Jack Swarbrick, Marcus Freeman and Tommy Rees brought stability to Notre Dame long before and obviously after Brian Kelly sowed chaos

Alabama made an offer Rees could not refuse, even if a year ago he said, “I love this place (Notre Dame). I believe that we can win a national championship here, and I’m committed to doing everything we can to get to that point.”

Going to Tuscaloosa does not render those words empty. Rees is going to work for the greatest college football coach in history in a role that has repeatedly springboarded coaches to better opportunities. Since Saban arrived at Alabama in 2007, his offensive coordinators have gone on to be, in chronological order, the assistant head coach at Texas (Major Applewhite), head coach at Colorado State (Jim McElwain), offensive coordinator at Michigan (Doug Nussmeier), head coach at Florida Atlantic (Lane Kiffin), head coach at Texas (Steve Sarkisian) and offensive coordinator for the New England Patriots (Bill O’Brien).

Thus, Rees is bettering both his chances at a national title in the short term and his presumed path to whatever gig he wants next in the long term.

He leaves Notre Dame after three seasons as the Irish offensive coordinator, which came after three years as the quarterbacks coach. The Irish have ranked No. 41, No. 19 and No. 30 in scoring offense the last three seasons, peaking with 35.2 points per game in 2021, the second-highest total in Brian Kelly’s tenure.

But perhaps Rees’s finest moment as a Notre Dame assistant came when he finessed a mid-season quarterback switch to Ian Book from Brandon Wimbush despite the Irish remaining unbeaten throughout 2018. In some respects, Rees threaded a similar needle in 2021, incorporating Wisconsin graduate transfer Jack Coan, then-freshman Tyler Buchner and spot-reliever Drew Pyne; each quarterback could be credited as responsible for at least one win as the Irish made a Playoff push.

Then this past season, Rees responded to Buchner’s shoulder sprain that cost him 10 games by working with Pyne to piecemeal an offense.

From December of 2021:

Rees has considered leaving his alma mater before, reportedly interviewing to be Miami’s offensive coordinator in recent years, not to mention weighing Kelly’s offer from LSU 14 months ago, as well as a previous brief dalliance with Alabama a few years ago.

After leading Notre Dame’s offense in one way or another for 10 of the last 13 years, Rees has finally opted to do so elsewhere. It just so happens to be as part of the team that twice turned back the Irish and now faces Kelly every fall.

Opportunities abound for Tommy Rees, earned recognition after a decade at Notre Dame

Clemson v Notre Dame
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A lot of people go to college for seven years. For Tommy Rees, it has been 10 years at Notre Dame, so to speak.

Whether or not Rees leaves his alma mater this week, as multiple Thursday reports indicated Rees is the frontrunner to be Alabama’s next offensive coordinator, there is no bad choice in front of him. Either Rees returns as the Irish offensive coordinator for a fourth season, continues his pursuit of winning a national championship at Notre Dame after three postseason trips already in his career, or he learns under the best college football coach in history in a position that has springboarded coaches to greener pastures for about a decade now.

Irish fans may spend most of their falls criticizing Rees’s play calls, but he is clearly someone well-respected in the coaching community. Seen as a future coach when he was a player and then navigating multiple delicate quarterback situations at Notre Dame, this is not the first time Nick Saban has chased Rees. He reportedly did so following the 2019 season, when Rees had not even spent a day as an offensive coordinator.

Instead, Rees took over that gig in South Bend, losing to Alabama in the 2020 College Football Playoff, albeit a more competitive showing than when Rees and the Irish fell to the Tide in the 2012 title game. Miami sought Rees in recent years, and whispers of vague NFL interest have popped up more offseasons than not.

If most of those people who go to college for seven years are called doctors, then Rees has put together a doctorate-level intellect evidenced by who wants to hire him. Alabama publicly sending a branded plane to South Bend to ferry Rees for a visit on Thursday underscored that reputation.

Set aside the forced references to “Tommy Boy” — though the similarities do go past the first name and to a Catholic university in the Midwest — and realize Rees will leave Notre Dame at some point, probably sooner than later.

Maybe he joins Saban this weekend. Alabama needs to navigate a first-year starter at quarterback next year in a conference that quickly seemed to catch up to the Tide last season, with both LSU and Tennessee staking claims as competitors with Georgia already clearly out in front and Mississippi in the mix. Competing with former Irish head coach Brian Kelly every year would make for juicy headlines, but what speaks louder to Rees’s credit is that this is the time Saban wants to snag him, when Alabama’s footing may be less secure than at any point since the ‘00s.

Maybe Rees returns to Notre Dame, teams with Wake Forest graduate transfer quarterback Sam Hartman to ready for three top-10 matchups in 2023, and gets the Irish into the College Football Playoff for a third time in six years with the only constant quite literally being Rees.

Oh, and both scenarios should come with plenty of money.

Rees has no bad choice in front of him. That is a credit to him, even if fans would rather lampoon him than step back and acknowledge the intricacies of playcalling.

If he heads to Alabama, the annual matchups with LSU will become delightful fodder from afar. His Notre Dame legacy will include “Call duo until you can’t speak,” his emphatic play call when he left the coaches’ booth early as the Irish upset Clemson this past November, and “I’m [bleepin’] staying,” Rees’s declaration to the offensive players last December amid a week of tumult.

If he stays in South Bend, the next matchup with anyone in the SEC, most likely a 2023 bowl game, will drip with an on-field chance at validation. That legacy will include spurning college football’s best not once, but twice.

For a quarterback who lost his starting job at Notre Dame not once (2011 preseason), but twice (2012 preseason), some pride has been earned. Saban’s stamp of approval carries all the weight needed in college football to assure someone of their professional standing.

It may have taken a decade, but Rees can now know he belongs with the best, no matter what decision he makes this weekend.

The lull of National Signing Day underscores need to move the early signing period

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The early-morning chaos of today’s National Signing Day did not disappear with the implementation of the December “early” signing period in the 2018 recruiting cycle. It just moved six weeks earlier.

In 2014, waking up at 6:45 a.m. ET to be logged on and publishing at 7 a.m. led to noticing one expected recruit had not yet signed with Notre Dame by 8 a.m. Pointing that out and reminding the world Michigan State was making a late push led to an Irish media relations staffer reaching out to quietly say something to the extent of, “Just letting the young man have his moment at school.”

In 2017, less than two weeks after taking over this gig, waking up at 3 a.m. CT to churn through 2,000 words before signings could begin becoming official eventually led to napping through Brian Kelly’s Signing Day press conference.

Nothing changed 10 months later. That December, the afternoon of Dec. 22, the Friday before Christmas, was spent waiting for receiver Braden Lenzy to officially choose Notre Dame over Oregon. Sitting at your parents’ kitchen table not helping your niece make a gingerbread house because recruiting-obsessed fans harassed a player through two de-commitments is not a strong way to conjure up holiday spirit.

Coaches across the country advocated for the earlier signing period, claiming it would allow high-school seniors to make their collegiate decisions official earlier on in their senior years, particularly when the prospects had already made up their minds on where to play football at the next level. That was all optics, if even that.

These high schoolers now make their decision official just six weeks earlier. In the preps football calendar, those six weeks are meaningless. Both the December signing period and today, the traditional National Signing Day, come well after the high-school seasons have ended.

The truth was, coaches across the country did not want to tend to their solid commitments over Christmas and New Year’s, particularly not amid bowl prep. It was self-serving at best and short-sighted at worst.

First of all, when the December signing period became reality in 2017, one-time transfers were not yet allowed without losing eligibility the following season. Secondly, no one predicted the early signing period would lead to the coaching carousel beginning earlier and earlier in the season. September firings used to be the result of only off-field scandals, not outright expected from half a dozen programs each fall. Athletic directors now want that headstart on hiring a new coach so he can have time before the December signing period commences.

Exhibit A: Notre Dame may have ended up with Marcus Freeman as its head coach after Brian Kelly’s abrupt departure following the 2021 season, but if the primary signing date had not been lingering just a few weeks away, Kelly likely would not have jumped to LSU before the College Football Playoff field was set, and Irish director of athletics Jack Swarbrick would have taken more time in choosing his next head coach, more than the 48 hours he used last December. After all, Swarbrick took 10 days in hiring Kelly in 2009.

Lastly, with a 12-team Playoff coming in 2025, December will become only more hectic.

Those head coaches who wanted a little less stress over the holidays will then have to deal with, in chronological order:

— Keeping their own jobs.
— Securing their recruiting classes in the days immediately preceding Christmas.
— Preparing their teams for bowl games.
— Preparing their teams for up to four games if in the Playoff.
— Re-recruiting any players considering entering the transfer portal before the winter window closes.
— Winning a bowl game.
— Retaining their coaching staffs.
— Oh, and celebrate the holidays with their families, as was their want when they hollered for the early signing period.

Most of those tasks are immutable and inherent to the sport.

But one can move. It already has once.

The logic is too clear. Nothing was gained in moving up the primary signing date by six weeks. And sanity was lost.

This is, of course, a sport that prefers to ignore logic, but usually that is charming. A mustard bottle on the field is quirky; lacking a worthwhile voice of authority is stubbornly stupid.

So the early signing period may not move as soon as it should (now), but it will move. There are no anti-trust worries tied to it, fortunately.

And aside from the logic, cramming more content into December costs the media, too. Spreading out that context through the vacuum of mid-January to mid-March will be much appreciated.