As has been the theme the past two weeks, the From the Rumble Seat Countdown to Kickoff has been previewing the opponents for the upcoming season. Today, we dive into the Notre Dame Fighting Irish.
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As has been a theme of the past two weeks, it is once again time to break down one of Tech’s upcoming opponents. Today, we discuss the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. Much as I, resident Chicagoan, was last called upon to grace this space when the topic du jour lay about 60 miles to the west of my fair hometown, today we turn our attention 180 degree and head 70 miles to the east towards South Bend, Indiana.
Last time, we had plenty to break down in order to properly introduce ourselves to the fundamental questions about the Northern Illinois Huskies. What are the expectations for 2021? Will they respond to a rather disappointing season in 2020 by developing their young talent? What happened to their Orange Bowl team everyone heard about a couple of years ago? Quite frankly, one probably could have copy-pasted those same questions into an NIU preview of us, but that’s not the main point. Unlike the previous dalliance with Midwestern football, Tech’s history runs quite deep with the Fighting Irish. Case in point: Rudy was offsides. Thus, we can skip the winding history and get right to the football. We’ll circle back on the history in November, closer to game time.
Notre Dame is coming off what can undoubtably be described as one of the most unique stories in a year of weird and unprecedented football. Independent for their entire existence, uncertainty around the pandemic caused their season to be put into jeopardy. To ensure they played a full season slate, they were able to leverage their ACC membership in every other sport into a temporary appearance as a conference member. They played 10 games against ACC teams, as well as an out of conference feature against the South Florida Bulls.
The Irish flew through the beginning of their season, defeating what would turn out to be a rather unimpressive Duke squad at home, before waxing the Bulls, also in South Bend. After a short break due to COVID concerns, their next two games, also at home, were a comfortable win against Florida State and a much tighter game against Louisville. They then went on the road to throttle Pittsburgh, leaving them unblemished through five games
On Halloween, the Irish paid visit to Georgia Tech. Tech wore black, which was a whole hullaballoo, and Notre Dame easy dispatched the Jackets, 31-13. In their next contest, certainly the regular season ACC game of the year, the Irish were able to hold off the vaunted Clemson Tigers, narrowly edging out their Trevor Lawrence-less visitors 47-40 in overtime. Notre Dame held serve through their last three conference games, leaving them 10-0 with one cancellation on the year and lining them up as the honorary eighth ACC Coastal member and forcing a rematch with the Tigers in the conference championship. Most will remember that Notre Dame got shelled in that game, but was still invited to the College Football Playoffs as the fourth seed, where they were also handled with ease by Alabama. Whether or not these defeats represent a consistent theme of modern Notre Dame, that of an inability to compete in big postseason games, is a topic for a different column. In the meantime, it’s important to first acknowledge that the team was, despite its late season swoon, very talented, and to then consider what their trajectory is coming into 2021.
The first thing that jumps out isn’t terribly important to the on-field results, but it is worth noting that Brian Kelly has the potential to become Notre Dame’s leader in all-time wins as a head coach in 2021. On a list that includes Frank Leahy, Ara Parseghian, Lou Holtz, and Knute Rockne, Brian Kelly’s name is very close to standing alone at the top. However, to his credit, he has led them to four seasons with double digit wins in a row, which is somewhat surprisingly the first time that has happened in Notre Dame football history. With the aberration of a 4-8 season in 2016 thrown into the mix, that makes five double digit win seasons in the last six years, a feat only matched by Lou Holtz from 1988-1993. Where this becomes more relevant to the football field is this key point: Notre Dame has been able to consistently reload and retool for the better part of two full recruiting cycles.
It’s probably smart money to assume this trend continues in 2021. It’s also worth noting who, exactly, has exchanged the tender embrace of Touchdown Jesus and the warm glow of the Golden Dome for greener pastures elsewhere.
Critically, the Fighting Irish lose three year starting quarterback Ian Book. Much like Kelly is on the verge of becoming the winningest coach in Notre Dame history, his consistent starter leaves the Irish as their leader in victories. In his place steps Wisconsin transfer Jack Coan, who brings a decent amount of Big Ten experience, having played for a while in 2018, most of 2019, and has since been usurped by Graham Mertz, hence his transfer. While he represents a probably step down from Book, who led the Irish to two CFP appearances in three years, he is a much more proven option than the pair of sophomores that wait in the wings behind him. Plus, it makes for a great storyline for week four, when they face his old team at Soldier Field for the right to be called Chicago’s favorite college football team. I’m sure tickets will be very expensive.
Anyways, in addition to the loss of the signal caller, four significant contributors are gone from the offensive line, flipping a very seasoned line for newer faces in the trenches. They’re expected to play a more inexperienced line up front, and could see significant contributions from freshmen like Rocco Spindler and Blake Fisher.
Meanwhile, the scoring arsenal looks vastly different, with respect to the wide receiver, running back, and tight end positions. With Javon McKinley and Ben Skowronek gone, two major aspects of the passing game, this is definitely something they will need to figure out as the summer and fall progress. If this isn’t nailed down come November, this could spell more hope for Tech fans than a road game in South Bend might usually suggest. Avery Davis will need to step up if the Irish are to maintain their methodical, though not torrid, offensive pace. This characterization of their offense is important - it allows the defense a break, sure, but it also controls the clock. Remembering back to the Tech-Notre Dame game last year, though the margin was much smaller than the Clemson demolition, the firm control Notre Dame held on the pace of the game made the game feel almost the same. This is a fundamental part of their offensive style, and the ground game is equally important in maintaining it.
As for the running game, expect Kyren Williams to again feature heavily. He returns as their reigning leading rusher, as do the second man Chris Tyree and C’Bo Flemister, who you might remember as briefly being a member of Tech’s 2018 signing class when Tech was his only Power 5 offer. To whoever pointed out in the comments that we lose guys like that occasionally when their profile grows - you were right, and I still remember that comment to this day. He was quite effective on the ground last year at Bobby Dodd. Part of this equation that should not be ignored is also the loss of the experience up front on the offensive line.
Meanwhile, on defense, there’s a new face at defensive coordinator, but given that he’s coming off a successful run at Cincinnati, Marcus Freeman is likely going to make for a smooth transition into the new role.
Perhaps the most significant player of last year’s excellent defense, Jeremiah Owusu-Karamoah is gone, and leaving a significant void at the linebacker position. However, they, along with the defensive line, had some of the best depth on the team last year, so there is definitely good potential to backfill talent in his place. They’re deep and talented are probably the main takeaways here. In his place in the star power department, Kyle Hamilton is definitely a name to watch for on defense. This entire side of the ball features a lot of seniors and upperclassmen, so expect a similarly stingy defense to last year, though with a modest amount of turnover.
As for the specialists, the Irish return their kicker, Jonathan Doerer, as well as their punter, Jay Bramblett. Both were steady, if not a little inconsistent, last year. They have plenty of weapons to return kicks, so it remains to be seen how exactly that shakes out.
Overall, there’s reasons to expect Notre Dame to be just as dangerous as the team that made the College Football Playoff last year. The defense is talented, the coaching consistent, and the recruiting very solid. However, the offense loses the winningest quarterback to ever walk Notre Dame Stadium - more than Joe Theismann, John Lujack, Paul Hornung, and Joe Montana - as well as several key weapons. This comes from an offense that already wasn’t particularly efficient in the red zone last year.
In terms of scheduling, they return to independent status, but catch a Cincinnati team that represents one of the most dangerous Group of 5 teams over the past few seasons and is out for revenge against the team that poached its defensive coordinator. They also renew rivalries with their three most-played opponents, Navy, USC, and Purdue, in that order, along with Tech and Stanford, who sit just behind Michigan at 9 and 10. North Carolina represents a tough draw from the five game ACC slate, though the Irish duck Clemson, North Carolina State, and Miami. Thus, it’s a mixed bag. They lose a fair amount on offense, but bring in talent and return a lot of experience. I think, then, expectations should be adjusted accordingly. However, that adjustment shouldn’t be too drastic.
The rest, we leave to time and reassess in the middle of November. Oh, for fall in the Midwest!
30 Days ‘til Kickoff