The boldest of preseason predictions remains alive if Notre Dame beats Alabama

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The second half of this space’s preseason predictions hinged on references to ghosts of Notre Dame’s past: 2011 South Florida, 2008 Syracuse and 2005 USC; Hard Rock Stadium, NCAA sanctions and Hard Rock Stadium once again.

Those horrors lined up with 2020 Irish opponents and helped frame the coming expected success, correctly so as it turns out. The boldest of those predictions was the final one, suggesting Notre Dame would play its standard 13 games this season. Included within that was a subtle but implicit hint that the Irish would not have any games canceled, but also not advance past the College Football Playoff semifinal, more likely ending up in a typical one-off bowl. Thanks to the ACC canceling the Wake Forest game, Notre Dame’s path to 13 games is much tougher, though it still exists.

The No. 4 Irish (10-1) simply have to advance past No. 1 Alabama in the Thorn Bowl on Friday (4 ET; ESPN).

The rest of those predictions, including the first half revisited, which went 13-7 upon review  …

21) Notre Dame’s offensive line began the season with a mixed showing, not exactly dominating against Duke in a 27-13 victory. Nonetheless, a strong performance was expected. Three first-team All-ACC honors for left tackle Liam Eichenberg, left guard Aaron Banks and right guard Tommy Kraemer, along with second-team honors for right tackle Robert Hainsey and third-team recognition for center Jarrett Patterson count as evidence of such a strong performance.

22) The second set of predictions was published just before the Irish faced South Florida. Handicapping hypotheticals does not get much better than claiming freshman defensive end Jordan Botelho would make an impact in the mold of a punt block the day before he recovered a blocked punt in the end zone for a touchdown against the Bulls.

The blocked punt thought traced to Isaiah Foskey managing one to end 2019 at Stanford, a feat he would duplicate at North Carolina this season. Notre Dame may face a year of transition in 2021 — losing a consensus if not unanimous first-team All-American in linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, defensive coordinator Clark Lea, at least 60 percent of the country’s best offensive line, fifth-year quarterback Ian Book — but reloading along the defensive line with the likes of Foskey and Botelho will keep the Irish floor higher than most programs’.

Consider that your first prediction for 2021, albeit a vague one.

23) The curiosity of future roster management did not gain much steam this fall until Notre Dame signed 26 players during the early signing period and may yet add more. That influx makes it clear the Irish will exceed 85 scholarships in 2021, a one-year allowance from the NCAA, and have a secret plan to fight inflation of scholarships moving forward.

“You’re not going to be able to figure out what that looks like from the outside-in, because a lot of that has to do with conversations internally about how we manage this,” head coach Brian Kelly said in October. “I know that sounds like a lot of jumbled talk, but it’s really about conversations that have to be had within these walls about what 2022 looks like with guys that are currently on the roster.”

Given this concept came up two months before the early signing period and it yet lingers now, let’s chalk it up as correct when it was suggested this would be the “biggest question of the season.”

24) Yes, the NBA finals were more enthralling than the World Series. One included a sullen star dragging a depleted team into title contention while the other featured blatant and high-profile flouting of basic pandemic decency.

What no one saw coming was the NBA would begin another season before this college football season ended.

25) Kelly did not tie Ara Parseghian with 95 career wins as Notre Dame’s head coach against Florida State. The then-postponed and later canceled Wake Forest game delayed that mark by two weeks, but Kelly did match Parseghian and then Lou Holtz at 100, now sitting at 102. He can no longer catch Knute Rockne’s Irish record of 105 this year but expect Kelly to get there in September.

No matter how much roster turnover awaits Notre Dame — the biggest question on hand may be the defensive tackle pairing of Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa and Kurt Hinish, with the former somewhat expected back but the latter more a wonder — it should win at least three of Florida State, Toledo, Purdue and Wisconsin. Look at that, another 2021 prediction.

26) Book did surpass the Notre Dame record of 29 career wins for a starting quarterback with his 30th against Syracuse, going 15-0 at home in his career.

27) This tally is 6-0 so far, but let’s call this a TBD push. Arguing all five Irish captains will be drafted may yet prove true, but fifth-year defensive ends Ade Ogundeji and Daelin Hayes do not hold clear draft statuses.

They may both be the beneficiaries of a unique draft phenomenon in 2021. With the NCAA allowing any players to return next season, there is an expectation some-to-many mid-round prospects will return for another year to try to boost themselves into second- or third-round draftees. That will create a vacuum for late-rounders to move up into and then players who would usually be undrafted free agents to become sixth- or seventh-round picks.

Of course, there is an argument to be made it is preferable to be an undrafted free agent picking from options, but that is a different conversation.

28) Clemson did indeed arrive in South Bend as the No. 1 team in November.

29) While the prognostication argued that would be a close game, it also predicted Notre Dame would lose, a preseason guess this space stuck to in its pregame analysis. Obviously, both were wrong.

30) The Irish had little trouble with Phil Jurkovec at Boston College in mid-November, holding the former Notre Dame quarterback to 18-of-40 passing for 272 yards and two touchdowns. The day may come he invokes “sellers’ remorse,” but without that arising in 2020, the remorse quickly diminished, particularly with consensus four-star recruit Tyler Buchner about six weeks away from arriving on campus.

31) The Irish were No. 2 in the initial College Football Playoff rankings, a position they held until the final — and only meaningful — poll.

32) Notre Dame was not forced into a “tight game” at North Carolina, the 31-17 final score hardly telling the story of an absolute defensive demolition from Clark Lea’s unit, and the game was somehow not in primetime, ruining any hopes of claiming a correct prediction here.

It remains a unique twist in 2020 that all five of the Irish road games (including the ACC title game in Charlotte) were mid-afternoon tilts, just as the Thorn Bowl will be. A delightful and welcome but unique twist.

33) As much as finishing the season against Syracuse elicited memories of the 2008 Snowball Showdown, it also showcased how far Kelly has brought the Irish in his 11 years. Memories of snowballs and double-overtime losses to Connecticut are now exactly that, memories, as Notre Dame is 43-7 in the last four seasons with two Playoff berths, one of only five programs to make multiple Playoffs.

34) All that said, the Orange season was as dismal as expected.

35) On a personal note, the final Irish regular-season game is traditionally followed by a Sunday evening in a California airport bar thinking about postseason plans, such as attending NBA games, catching up with friends and enjoying some nights on the rink. Instead, there has not yet been a breather, there are no tickets to be used and only so much time can be spent around a fire pit in 10-degree weather, realities that hit home while driving away from that Syracuse finale.

Suffice it to say, miss you, USC.

36) This line was published more than three months ago: “… [some early-season optimism for Notre Dame fans] will be tempered when they realize the national championship game this season is in Hard Rock Stadium in Miami.”

The only way that could have been more accurate was if it had somehow known the Rose Bowl would be moved to a different site of past Irish horrors, AT&T Stadium in Arlington outside of Texas, and feature a past dispenser of despair.

Early-season optimism has certainly been tempered.

37) Most team win total over/under wagers were refunded when a schedule was altered in any respect, even if the team had already surpassed its total when a game was canceled, so despite properly suggesting the Irish would win more than 8.5 games, that insight yielded no profit.

38) Looking back at No. 33 and the progress Kelly has instilled in South Bend, one of the greatest but simplest steps forward has been Notre Dame’s success against unranked teams. The Irish have now beaten 31 unranked opponents in a row, a program record.

That is how Notre Dame got to 10-1 this season, “winning the games it should win.” There may be a technicality here, that the Irish finished the regular season 10-0 and only reached 10-1 in the postseason, but let’s charitably claim this as accurate.

39) Notre Dame has reached a New Year’s Six Bowl.

40) And as mentioned at the top, the boldest prediction was not that the Irish would go 10-1, that Kelly would reach 100 wins and Book 30, or that the Trojans’ absence would make the heart grow fonder. It was that Notre Dame would play 13 games this season.

It still may.

It just has to beat Alabama to do so.

First half tally: 13-7
Second half: 16-2-2
Total: 29-9-2