Leftovers & Links: The beginning of the end of the offseason highlights Notre Dame’s Playoff chances

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The day may come that Phil Steele pays players to appear on the cover of his annual season preview, but that is not the effect of today’s implementation of name, image and likeness rights. Steele can get those images from photo depositories or even the schools themselves. His Mike McGlinchey and Ian Book covers of recent years would not have benefitted the former Notre Dame captains.

And NIL moments will not start appearing in his annual preview, despite it being so renowned for its comprehensiveness. For all the hand-wringing around student-athletes finally having a basic right that every other one of their classmates has long enjoyed, NIL rights will not change the game on the field, at all.

Hard to believe it was still put off for so long.

Already a few Notre Dame players have announced opportunities to make money off their own names. Former Irish walk-on running back Mick Assaf has developed a platform that allows fans to pay to play video games against particular players. From the first minutes NIL compensation was permissible, Assaf has added players to the platform.

That demand should only increase when EA Sports releases a new college football video game in two years.

But that’s in two years. This season is slowly but also rapidly approaching. The beginning of the end of the offseason begins with the arrival of Steele’s tome each summer. That mail showed up here nine days ago, and though I have not worked through every page yet — saving that task for a week soon spent in Wisconsin’s woods — there are some initial Notre Dame takeaways from Steel’s thoughts.

That is not a preseason ranking from Steele. His renowned and unrivaled thoroughness not only creates a wonderful reference, but also a baseline for him to project the entire season. He predicts the Irish will end the season at No. 7, just a few spots ahead of Cincinnati, Wisconsin, North Carolina and USC, in that order.

The No. 7 finish is a midpoint of what Steele’s various computer models predict. While most of his power rankings suggest Notre Dame will lose 1-2 games, “My main set of power ratings still calls for the Irish to go 12-0 again so they are again a legitimate playoff contender.”

In other words, the Playoff is possible, but not likely. If it was likely, then Steele would slot Notre Dame a few slots higher, obviously.

Many might expect that suggested loss to come to the Tar Heels; early desert odds indicated the only likelier loss would be to the Badgers. Steele agrees with the latter thought, picking Wisconsin as his No. 2 “surprise team” in 2021, but he then puts USC at No. 3 and gives a Group of Five asterisk to Cincinnati.

For context: Steele named the Irish his No. 1 surprise team in 2018, the distinction of “surprise” meaning that they are not a widely-held preseason top-10 team.

The two thoughts Steele drills down on regarding the Badgers and the Trojans, respectively, that have been noted repeatedly this summer in my proverbial running legal pads: Wisconsin’s 2020 season was upended by pandemic protocols, more so than most; USC’s schedule dodges both Washington and Oregon, so if it can beat Notre Dame, it could be in a strong position to get through the regular season unscathed.

But let’s not look too far past North Carolina. Steele ranks North Carolina’s offensive line the No. 10 unit in the country and its defensive line No. 15. That latter ranking should worry the Irish considering he ranks their offensive line at No. 54, an understandable though rare low ranking for that grouping.

Despite sending two defensive ends to the NFL draft, Notre Dame has the No. 9 defensive line in the country, per Steele. Maybe the defensive line really has overcome the Irish offensive line as the most talented grouping on the roster.

First-team safety: Kyle Hamilton, also the top draft-eligible safety in 2021, to no one’s surprise, and the reason Notre Dame has the country’s No. 12 secondary in Steele’s rankings.
Second-team guard: Cain Madden
Third-team guard: Jarrett Patterson
Third-team running back: Kyren Williams, also the No. 3 draft-eligible running back in 2021. If Williams can get through this season healthy, expect him to head to the NFL.

Looking at those draft-eligible rankings, the thought occurs that the royal and inclusive “we” do not yet discuss USC receiver Drake London enough. That will change no later than August.

“They could have the best TE in the FBS and with 11 [very-highly touted former recruits] in the unit, someone will emerge like (Javon) McKinley did last year as the unit is actually more experienced than last year.”

The skepticism comes from yours truly. Steele’s optimism is convincing, but not so much as to believe the Irish linebackers “again return 2 starters and are just as experienced and despite learning a new defensive system should be just as strong.” Sometimes computers fail, and it would seem Steele’s computers failed to appreciate the brilliance that was Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah.

That said, Steele’s system is absurdly accurate predicting yardage and scoring outputs each season, and it predicts Notre Dame will have the No. 10 scoring defense in 2021. If that proves true in Marcus Freeman’s first year as Irish defensive coordinator, then maybe those Playoff thoughts should be taken a touch more seriously.

Notre Dame’s Playoff path tradeoff, schedule shifts and another Hinish
Former USC pledge, linebacker Niuafe Tuihalamaka commits to Notre Dame
Third offensive lineman joins Notre Dame’s class of 2022, while DE starts 2023’s commitments
DE Devin Aupiu announces transfer from Notre Dame, after only one semester
No. 26 Clarence Lewis, sophomore cornerback, second-year starter
No. 27 JD Bertrand, junior linebacker
No. 28 TaRiq Bracy, senior cornerback, possible nickel back
No. 29 Matt Salerno, senior punt returner, walk-on
No. 33 Shayne Simon, senior linebacker

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