To look to the end before the begin is to reach the end without having begun, yet it is an annual rite to predict Notre Dame’s entire season before the No. 5 Irish kick off in their opener (at Ohio State on Saturday, 7 ET; ABC).
Never before has a Notre Dame offseason included so much while leaving the program in such a stable position on the field. The greatest shame of Brian Kelly’s in-the-dark-of-night departure is that exit will forever overshadow the solid footing of the Irish at the end of his 12-year tenure.
That comes to first-year head coach Marcus Freeman’s benefit.
That footing will not impact this weekend against the No. 2 Buckeyes, but it is part of why Freeman was hired despite being the fourth-youngest coach in the FBS, and it will help Notre Dame navigate this season with three possible Playoff teams on the schedule.
1) This matchup at Ohio Stadium, better known as The Horseshoe, has been awaited since it was announced halfway through last decade, but for Irish purposes, the build-up to this season began with one raspy introduction in December …
— Notre Dame Football (@NDFootball) December 3, 2021
That is a highlight both this Saturday night’s broadcast and next Saturday’s will assuredly include.
2) Neither broadcast will spend much time discussing how inefficient Notre Dame’s run game was last season, despite enjoying 1,000-yard rusher Kyren Williams. Reclaiming effectiveness on the ground will be crucial Saturday, not to mention all season. Most notably, both No. 25 BYU and No. 4 Clemson have stout defensive fronts.
Have we all internalized how bad Notre Dame's 2021 run game was?
99th in EPA/rush, 91st in rushing success rate. Maybe the most disappointing unit in 2021?
— parker (@statsowar) April 18, 2022
3) Junior Chris Tyree may top the depth chart, and now-sophomore Logan Diggs may have impressed more last season before an April labrum injury cost him some preseason work, but sophomore Audric Estime could be the key to the Irish ground game, beginning in Columbus.
“Unveiling is probably a heavy word, but we feel confident in Audric’s ability,” Notre Dame offensive coordinator Tommy Rees said. “He has worked extremely hard this offseason to put himself in position to have an impactful year for us.”
Audric Estime with 10+ touchdowns? Hmmm … Let's take a quick meander down recent season leaders.
2021: Kyren Williams 17
2020: Williams 14
2019: Chase Claypool 13
2018: Dexter Williams 13
2017: Brandon Wimbush with 14 rushing TDs. https://t.co/1YfQ6oWMt2
— Douglas Farmer (@D_Farmer) September 2, 2022
4) Maybe it is Estime. Maybe it is Tyree. Maybe it is sophomore quarterback Tyler Buchner. But whoever it is, the Irish will score first this weekend.
5) And they will still lose at Ohio State.
6) The Buckeyes will make the College Football Playoff.
7) Unfortunately, that will not be the only Playoff conversation this year. Expansion talk was always inevitable this fall while conference realignment thoughts linger, and a vote to move to a 12-team Playoff has reentered the fray this week, though its timing remains uncertain.
Sources: The CFP Board of Managers has decided on a 12-team College Football Playoff during today's meeting.
— Pete Thamel (@PeteThamel) September 2, 2022
8) Notre Dame will score first in at least nine games this season, including against Marshall as a 17-plus-point favorite.
9) Regarding that hefty spread, codenameagee asked, “Can someone tell me the last time Notre Dame lost a game it was favored by 2 TD’s?”
The Irish last lost as a favorite at Stanford in 2017 as about a two-point favorite, but as a 14-point favorite or so, Notre Dame’s last loss came against Duke in 2016, with the Irish then favored by 20 points.
In that interim, the Irish were favored by at least 13 points a total of 27 times.
That should not be taken for granted. Some favorite of at least 13 points will lose by the end of next weekend.
10) Jac Collinsworth will provide the one characteristic that is most vital to a broadcast booth: He will be excited to be there at Notre Dame Stadium. Everyone has heard an announcer going through the motions torpedo a broadcast.
— Jac Collinsworth (@JacCollinsworth) August 19, 2022
11) With 42 straight wins against unranked opponents entering this season, the Irish will run that to 50 straight. The greatest threat to the streak may be Syracuse, but there is also a decent chance the Orange season spirals quickly after a couple losses spell the end of Dino Babers’ seven-year tenure.
12) The Green Bay Packers will beat the Minnesota Vikings to open their season, though by less than a touchdown, on their way to winning the NFC North for a fourth straight year.
13) North Carolina spreads its offense out with a vintage Air Raid attack, and Notre Dame will struggle to find a way to contain receiver Josh Downs in that moment. Given how often the Tar Heels turn to him, that will become noticeable. Downs will have the most catches in a game against the Irish this season, though not the most yards.
Highest returning target share in the nation. Downs accounted for ~43% of UNC's targets in 2021. https://t.co/skn0NNIfjs
— parker (@statsowar) August 27, 2022
14) Notre Dame may approach Downs as it did USC’s Drake London last year. London made 15 catches for 171 yards, but he never found the end zone. The Irish considered him contained.
With wide-ranging linebackers like seniors Jack Kiser and Marist Liufau, Notre Dame will have options for that kind of soft defense, one that needs capable linebackers to funnel the receiver where wanted. Those two may seem the default choices for the Irish nickel package this season, but fifth-year linebacker Bo Bauer has been quite an effective piece of Notre Dame’s third-down defense for the last two seasons.
Add in a few safeties with experience at cornerback and Vyper/Rover hybrid piece Jordan Botelho and it becomes clear the Irish default defense will be one with “multiple” looks, if that is not too contradictory a concept.
15) Back to North Carolina for a moment, the most infamous recent targeting penalty against Notre Dame was at Chapel Hill when Kyle Hamilton missed more than a half in 2020. Even if there were a few debatable targeting calls on Thursday night, let’s all remember there were .2 targeting calls per game in the FBS last season, per the Associated Press’ Ralph Russo. That is one targeting call for every five games.
There just happen to be 25-35 games each weekend, so the half-dozen calls are enough to be noticed.
Anyway, the math says at least one Irish player will be ejected for targeting in 2022.
16) Notre Dame will beat BYU in Las Vegas, and coming off a top-25 win, this space will miss at least one day of publishing the following week. Who can say why.
17) Freeman will be asked about recruiting far more often than Kelly ever was. Already, this is true, as he was asked two separate recruiting questions on Thursday alone.
“I’m really focused on making sure this team goes out and competes its tail off and does whatever it takes to make sure we’re performing to the potential we have,” Freeman said. “That’s my focus. It’s not the recruits.”
Nonetheless, heading to Las Vegas will be another excuse to ask about the recruiting perks of such games, especially after Freeman, junior tight end Michael Mayer and senior defensive end Isaiah Foskey flexed their acting muscles in Vegas this summer.
Some guys CAN handle Vegas
Feel It. October 8 pic.twitter.com/HdzdAOaCDs
— Notre Dame Football (@NDFootball) July 27, 2022
18) Speaking of Mayer, he will break at least two of his three Notre Dame records set last year: most receptions by a tight end with 71, most receiving yards by a tight end with 840 and most receiving touchdowns by a tight end with seven. But he will not break any of the broader receiving records in school history: 100 receptions by Michael Floyd in 2011, 1,496 yards by Golden Tate in 2009 and 15 touchdowns by Will Fuller in 2015.
19) And speaking of Foskey, he will break the Irish sack records held by Justin Tuck since 2004. He will notch not only the 9.5 needed to set the career record, but he will also exceed the 13.5 season record. And Tuck just might see him do it.
“I want him to break the all-time record and the single-season record,” Tuck said to Irish Illustrated this summer. “Hopefully I’ll be in the stadium when he does it.”
2 turnovers this weekend.
Foskey gets 15 sacks
— Mark Herman (@MaximumHam) September 2, 2022
20) Neither of those record-setting moments will come on Oct. 8 in Las Vegas, but that evening will still be the most worrisome moment of Notre Dame’s 39 straight wins when favored at kickoff, dating back to falling to Stanford to close the 2017 regular season, a turnover-riddled loss.
The Irish remain 17-point underdogs this weekend, as of early Friday afternoon, but they should be favored in their next seven games, with the closest spread being against the Cougars. Then they should be favored in at least two more.
Win those nine and that streak reaches 48, at which point everyone can wonder who will be favored in the regular-season finale at USC.
21) Led by Foskey’s 14+ sacks, Notre Dame will top last year’s 41 sacks, which was a Kelly Era high. The Ademilola twins, junior defensive end Rylie Mills and at least one linebacker will each make at least three sacks. And this stat will go underappreciated. These are NFL figures, but the premise certainly holds in college football:
Was looking at some stuff for future use from TruMedia and pulled up just how much suffering a sack impacts a possession.
We inherently know sacks are bad, but it was way worse than I assumed. Only 8% of all drives the past 5 years with a sack end up as TD drives. pic.twitter.com/GJf0QXbXDY
— Rich Hribar (@LordReebs) March 2, 2022
22) The Minnesota Timberwolves home opener will not interfere with this space’s publishing schedule; the motivation to enjoy that party will be so strong as to actually incur working ahead.
23) The Irish have won 25 straight regular-season games against ACC opponents. Running that streak to 27 …
24) Will put Notre Dame in the top 10 of the initial College Football Playoff rankings, released on Nov. 1.
25) The Irish streak of 16 straight wins in November, however, will not grow.
26) Which is to say, Clemson’s defense will swallow Notre Dame’s rushing game, as Georgia’s did in 2017 and 2019, not to mention Clemson in 2018.
27) Clemson will make the College Football Playoff.
28) The Irish are 30-1 in their last 31 home games, tracing back to that early 2017 loss to Georgia. The one loss in those 31 was to Cincinnati last season. At the end of this year, Notre Dame will have won 35 of its last 37 home games, and its last three home losses will all have been to Playoff teams.
One day until #NotreDame's season starts … What's your bold prediction for the Irish or a particular player in 2022?
— Douglas Farmer (@D_Farmer) September 2, 2022
29) Boston College receiver Zay Flowers has 13 catches for at least 40 yards since 2020, and he will add at least one more against the Irish on Senior Day.
30) More notably on Senior Day, former Notre Dame tight end George Takacs will catch a touchdown. Former Irish tight ends coach and now Boston College offensive coordinator John McNulty will make sure of it.
31) Most notably on Senior Day, former Notre Dame quarterback Phil Jurkovec will have a perfectly adequate day in his return to South Bend, not dramatic enough in any regard to confirm or deny anyone’s expectations for him that day, allowing all narratives to continue with neither strong founding nor significant conflicting evidence.
32) It may not be that day, but a freshman defensive back will intercept a pass this season, becoming just the second freshman to do so during this six-year Irish resurgence. This is not to compare Jaden Mickey or Benjamin Morrison to Kyle Hamilton, but Hamilton is the only freshman defender to pick off a pass since 2016.
33) And then comes Notre Dame’s trip to Los Angeles, maybe its last trip to Los Angeles on the weekend after Thanksgiving. Who knows how schedules will look when USC joins the Big Ten in 2024. Now the bold prediction: The spread when the Irish visit the Trojans will be more than a field goal but less than a touchdown. That is not predicting who will be favored.
34) USC will not make the College Football Playoff.
35) Sophomore receiver Lorenzo Styles will appear in 2024 mock drafts at some point between early November and the national championship game.
36) Arkansas State transfer kicker Blake Grupe will make at least 80 percent of his field goal attempts. He is 74.4 percent on his career, including two seasons of more than 20 attempts each that were 86.4 percent and 80 percent exactly.
37) Notre Dame has not averaged fewer than 31.4 points per game (2018) in the last five seasons. It peaked at 36.8 points per game in 2019. This year’s offense will take on a 2017 verve, relying on a physical offensive line to spring big plays from the running backs, but it will not match 2017’s 34.2 points per game, not even with Harry Hiestand back coaching the offensive line.
That is because Rees knows he needs to protect his shallow depth. Fewer plays run will benefit both the receivers and the running backs remaining healthy. That slowed pace may not be immediately discernable on a given Saturday afternoon, but it will show itself via the stats over time. Notre Dame will be closer to 2018’s scoring than 2017’s, which is to say it will not score more than 32.8 points per game.
There is, however, one quirk that could skew this thought:
3 blocked punts this season, and defense/ST outscores at least one opponent this year. I think a lot of young talent, an emphasis on aggressiveness on punt coverage, and some not great teams on the schedule give a lot of opportunities for blocks.
— Pete Elliott (@pe11iott) September 2, 2022
38) The Irish are 54-10 over the last five seasons, reaching at least 10 wins each year. They will make that six straight seasons of double-digit wins.
39) But even if Notre Dame is 10-2 at the end of the season, this is the one year of each three-year cycle in which the only New Year’s Six options available to the Irish are the Cotton Bowl against a Group of Five team or the Orange Bowl against an ACC team.
So if Ohio State makes the Playoff, Notre Dame will need to finish higher than the No. 3 team in the Big Ten in the final CFP rankings as well as the No. 3 or 4 team in the SEC (depending if two SEC teams make the Playoff, looking at you Georgia) to make the Orange Bowl.
At 10-2, perhaps that is possible, and if the ACC opponent is, let’s say, Miami, then suddenly that Orange Bowl would be intriguing, even if the Irish would be heading right into Miami for a reminder of what happened at Hard Rock Stadium in 2017.
More likely, Notre Dame is simply squeezed out of a New Year’s Six bowl due to its lack of defining wins after USC loses in the Pac-12 title game to Utah. The Irish will then head to one of a handful of bowls all considered the same tier by the ACC: Gator; Holiday; Cheez-It — formerly known as the Camping World Bowl in Orlando; ReliaQuest — formerly known as the Outback Bowl in Tampa.
That’s a lot to sort through, especially before the season starts. So here’s the prediction: Notre Dame will play in Florida before New Year’s.
The Orange Bowl is Dec. 30, the Gator Bowl against an SEC foe is also on Dec. 30, and the Cheez-It Bowl against a Big 12 opponent is on Dec. 29.
40) LaSalle Kitchen & Tavern will pour me a drink before I even sit down next Friday evening.