How will the Fighting Irish rebound from last year's 4-8 record?
In 2016, Notre Dame finished with a 4-8 record that discouraged fans from the start and revealed weaknesses — often-incomprehensible defensive schemes and questions in the secondary — that previously were masked by the team’s success. The Fighting Irish were under .500 for only the 12th season in its illustrious 111-year history, with the .333 win percentage the lowest since the team went 3-9 (.250) in 2016.
However, the pain left by that season has been — for the moment, at least — deposited into the rearview mirror as the team looks to turn a corner and return to its place among the game’s elite. While there were plenty of shortcomings a season ago, many within and outside the program believe the talent on this roster to be one that can run the table come December and January.
This year’s College Football Playoff semifinals (Rose Bowl Game and Sugar Bowl) once again fall on New Year’s Day after a two-year hiatus during which the games were played on New Year’s Eve. This edition of the College Football Playoff semifinals sits just a day short of the 40-year anniversary of the title-clinching game (Cotton Bowl, Jan. 2, 1978) from Notre Dame’s 1977 championship season.
With that date a potential harbinger for another postseason run, here are five things that must happen for Notre Dame to smell the roses or taste the sweet sugar on its quest for its first national championship since the 1988 campaign.
5 Things That Must Happen for Notre Dame to Make the CFB Playoff
5. The Wide Receivers Continue to Improve
Last year’s crop of wide receivers played well despite the fact that only three wide receivers on the roster — Torii Hunter Jr. (graduated in December), Equanimeous St. Brown (pictured) and C.J. Sanders — had registered a reception entering last season. St. Brown led the way in 2016 with 58 receptions for 961 yards, with Hunter Jr. (38-521) and freshman speedster Kevin Stepherson (25-462) next in line. 2016 was the first time on the field for many of the then-sophomore receivers, who arrive in 2017 with added experience after getting ample playing time during their freshman seasons.
Adding to the talent pool are Cameron Smith and Freddy Canteen — graduate transfers from Arizona State and Michigan, respectively — who will play their final year of eligibility for the Irish. They joins likely starters Chase Claypool (6-4), Miles Boykin (6-4) and St. Brown (6-5) who with a significant height advantage over opposing defenses will be matchup nightmares. They, along with versatile tight end AlizÃ© Mack, will look to use their combination of height and athleticism to create separation and give redshirt sophomore quarterback Brandon Wimbush a plethora of options downfield.
4. Get Back to Winning at Home
Taking care of business at home is a common theme in locker rooms at any sport at every level. But the Irish failed to do so last season, going just 2-4 at Notre Dame Stadium. That broke a streak of eight consecutive years in which the Irish had won more games than it lost at home, including winning an average of 5.25 home games per season from 2012-15.
This season, with the program adding a seventh home game and taking a break from its annual Shamrock Series matchup, Notre Dame will play in front of the blue and gold for the majority of its season. When the schedule is filled with as many tough opponents as Notre Dame’s year after year, it is (and will be again in 2017) imperative to win at Notre Dame Stadium.
3. Defense Improves Mightily from 2016
Simply put, the defense caused headaches for the majority of the season. The Irish allowed nearly 28 points per game over the first five weeks of play, including 50 (in 2OT) to eventual 5-7 Texas in the season opener and 36 two weeks later to Michigan State (who would finish 3-9). Notre Dame fired defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder after just two-plus seasons at the school after a 38-35 loss to Duke on Sept. 24, with defensive analyst Greg Hudson stepping in as the interim coordinator for the remainder of the season. With highly-touted defensive coordinator Mike Elko joining the program after leaving the same position at Wake Forest, Notre Dame will have to improve on defense for any chance at the postseason.
A pair of seniors, linebacker Nyles Morgan (pictured) and rover Drue Tranquill will anchor a defense with many inexperienced — but talented — young players. Sophomore linebacker Daelin Hayes and defensive backs Julian Love, Devin Studstill and Troy Pride will undoubtedly benefit from receiving ample playing time during their freshman seasons. Another key return to watch: junior cornerback Shaun Crawford, who missed his freshman season after tearing his ACL in the preseason and tore his Achilles in Notre Dame’s second game against Nevada. Crawford is a dynamic playmaker who — if he can stay healthy — will be another veteran alongside Tranquill that should be a solid contributor in 2017.
2. Have a Quiet and Peaceful Offseason
Speaking of headaches, Dick Corbett Head Football Coach Brian Kelly has not had a peaceful summer in quite a few years. Most recently, just weeks before the start of the 2016 season, six players — seniors Devin Butler and Max Redfield, sophomores Te’von Coney, Dexter Williams and Ashton White, and Stepherson — were arrested in two separate incidents. Redfield was dismissed from the team with Butler suspended indefinitely, while the other four eventually rejoined the team for the opener in Austin on Sept. 4.
Including those six, 11 Irish players have been arrested in the last six years. Many more have been suspended for various lengths due to issues of academic misconduct and poor grades, so Kelly would love to have his full complement of players by the time Temple arrives at Notre Dame Stadium on Sept. 2.
1. Brandon Wimbush Steps Up to Lead the Offense
With just two games of playing experience but as many seasons on campus under his belt, redshirt sophomore quarterback Brandon Wimbush will be called upon to lead the Irish offense in 2017. Wimbush, who was initially redshirted during his freshman season in 2015, served as the backup to DeShone Kizer after Malik Zaire’s season-ending ankle injury.
The coaching staff redshirted him last season to preserve a year of eligibility, but the lack of on-field experience should not be of much concern. Judging from his high-school film, freshman year action against UMass and Pittsburgh, and this year’s Spring Game, the Irish offense is in good hands with the former four-star dual-threat recruit from St. Peter’s Prep (NJ). (Side note: After wearing number 12 his freshman year, Wimbush is making the switch to his high school jersey number 7 for the upcoming season.) If the offensive line can return to its prior form, when from 2014-16 four linemen were drafted in the top three rounds, Wimbush should have plenty of time in the pocket and make the right read as he gets his teammates involved in the offense.
If Notre Dame is to run the table and have a chance at the College Football Playoff, it will need many aspects of the season to fall its way, but ultimately the success of the Irish in 2017 will reside on the arms and legs of Brandon Wimbush.
Feature and inset photos of Notre Dame QB Brandon Wimbush courtesy of UND.com