A total of 130 teams competed in college football’s highest division this season. Four were selected to compete for a national championship via the College Football Playoff.
The Notre Dame Fighting Irish were one of those four teams.
Having successfully capped off the 2018 regular season with 12 wins and a glistening zero losses — navigating a schedule ranked among the nation’s toughest — the Irish, despite the outrage of pundits and fans, deserved a shot to play for the sport’s ultimate prize.
The result — a 30-3 loss to eventual national champion Clemson in the semifinals at the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic — was not what Notre Dame or its fans wanted. While it did little to dissuade the notion that the Irish didn’t belong, the Tigers’ complete domination of Alabama in Monday’s title game proved Brian Kelly’s group is not as far away as they appeared in Arlington, Texas.
After a tremendous season in South Bend, here are five reasons for optimism that Notre Dame can capitalize on its first appearance in the College Football Playoff and once again find itself among the final four teams standing with a chance at a national championship.
5 Reasons Why Notre Dame Will Return to the College Football Playoff in 2019
1. Staff continuity
After turnover each of the last few seasons, Brian Kelly in all likelihood will keep his coordinators intact. Chip Long returns to direct the offense for a third season while Clark Lea does the same on the defensive side of the ball.
That can only help this Irish roster, which like any other top program will lose upperclassmen to the NFL but will continue developing younger talent. And let’s not forget, Kelly was named the Associated Press Coach of the Year for his efforts. So the head man is no slouch either.
2. Easily identified needs
When All-American cornerback Julian Love went down with an injury in the second quarter, Clemson’s offense took flight. Clemson QB Trevor Lawrence was just 14-for-24 passing for 98 yards (4.1 yards per attempt) and no TDs when Love was in the game, but surged to 13-for-15 for 229 yards (15.3 ypa) and three touchdowns in the second quarter alone without Love. This was a clear indicator that defensive back is a priority to develop in the offseason, with Love declaring for the NFL draft and foregoing his senior season.
The offensive line also is a crucial point of emphasis in the offseason, as captains Alex Bars and Sam Mustipher both exhausted their eligibility. Even without suspended defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence, the Tigers’ defensive front dominated the Irish, so the four returning starters — Liam Eichenberg, Aaron Banks, Tommy Kraemer and Robert Hainsey — should all take giant leaps forward before anchoring the protection next fall.
3. Return of Ian Book
Much was made about Book’s breakout season after senior quarterback Brandon Wimbush started the first three games. With two more seasons of eligibility, Book is one of the most dynamic playmakers on the roster, as his ability to throw with pinpoint precision and create opportunities with his legs kept defenses guessing. So much so that he was among the national leaders in completion percentage into the season’s final weeks.
And if I’m being completely frank, his accuracy reminds me of another quarterback with the same jersey number and last initial. IB12 has a nice ring to it...
4. Talented depth
Despite losing running back Dexter Williams and wide receiver Miles Boykin as the offense’s strongest big-play threats, the Irish return three upperclassmen — Tony Jones Jr., Jafar Armstrong and Avery Davis — as well as two sophomores and add freshman Kyren Williams at running back. Chris Finke returns for a fifth year, as does senior Chase Claypool, to lead a deep and talented wide receiver corps with incredible potential at the junior and sophomore classes.
Losing tackle Jerry Tillery and linebacker Drue Tranquill hurts the middle of the defense, but five defensive ends return for their senior seasons, most notably Khalid Kareem and Julian Okwara. Juniors Kurt Hinish and Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa bolster the interior, and highly touted sophomore Bo Bauer and Shayne Simon should provide much-needed contributions to the linebacking unit with Asmar Bilal the most veteran of the group. Jalen Elliott and Alohi Gilman both were high-impact starters at safety last year, and their consistency will once again be counted on in a big way.
5. Favorable schedule
What appeared on paper to be a grueling 2018 schedule proved significantly easier in reality, as the Irish’s highest-ranked opponent after its Week 8 bye was No. 12 Syracuse. The 2019 campaign features two ranked road tests: Georgia (Sept. 21) and Michigan (Oct. 26). Other than what might be a trip to a ranked Stanford to close the season, the road trek looms difficult but not unbeatable.
The toughest game at home might be USC, and that’s saying something considering the 5-7 Trojans missed the postseason. Other visitors to the House That Rockne Built include New Mexico, Virginia, Bowling Green, Virginia Tech, Navy and Boston College. The schedule is far from a pushover, but the path to 11-1 — if not 12-0 — appears much more doable looking ahead right now than it did at this time last year.
— Written by Juan Jose Rodriguez, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and currently a senior at the University of Notre Dame. Rodriguez was an intern for Athlon during summer 2017 and works for a variety of media outlets on campus, including as the Editor-in-Chief of Scholastic Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @JuanJoseRG02.