Notre Dame goes into the 2016 season without seven players who were among the first 103 taken in the most recent NFL Draft. Among that group is a pair of first-round selections in left tackle Ronnie Stanley (sixth overall) and wide receiver Will Fuller (21st), as well as standout linebacker Jaylon Smith and defensive tackle Sheldon Day.
But the cupboard is far from bare for head coach Brian Kelly, as the Fighting Irish check in at No. 8 on Athlon Sports’ Top 25 entering the season. With plenty of talent still on the roster and a schedule packed with marquee matchups, a berth in the College Football Playoff is not beyond the realm of possibility.
So can Notre Dame win enough games to be in the Playoff conversation by season’s end? Here is how some Athlon Sports writer and contributors see the Fighting Irish’s campaign playing out.
Notre Dame Football Game-by-Game Predictions for 2016
Jon Kinne (@JonRKinne)
Notre Dame starts off the season on the on the road at Texas and though the Longhorns will be improved, the Irish’s experience should win out. The two toughest games before the off week in October are against Michigan State and Stanford. Both are at home and both are against teams that will rely on the running game. Notre Dame should be stout against the run and I expect the Irish to score just enough points to emerge victorious.
But the last few years, key injuries and inconsistent play have hurt the Irish late in the season. Last year, Notre Dame was sluggish against Wake Forest and Boston College before losing to Stanford. In 2014, November was a complete nightmare. Unfortunately for ND, history repeats itself. I think the Irish have a slow start against Miami’s balanced attack and the Hurricanes hold for the upset win. The Irish struggle in surviving Virginia Tech, but fall the following week against USC to finish at 10-2.
Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
Notre Dame will be an interesting team to watch in 2016. The Fighting Irish have a favorable schedule, as there’s not a game where you can pencil in a for-sure loss. However, there are enough toss-ups on the slate to project at least one defeat in 2016. Head coach Brian Kelly has recruited well, so the next wave of players on the offensive line, in the receiver corps and on defense should prevent a huge drop off. Additionally, Notre Dame also has two proven quarterbacks and a talented set of running backs to lead the way on offense. If the defense takes a step forward this fall, 11-1 or 12-0 isn’t out of the question for the Fighting Irish.
Bryan Fischer (BryanDFischer)
With all that Brian Kelly has coming back in 2016, contending for a spot in the College Football Playoff is not out of the question. There are two very good options at QB in Malik Zaire and DeShone Kizer and a quality tailback tandem in Tarean Folston and Josh Adams. There are certainly question marks at receiver but the team has recruited well there and somebody should emerge as a playmaker. The defense should be improved against the run and that should help against a schedule that sets up well. Expectations are high in South Bend for 2016 and you can see why.
Kevin McGuire (KevinOnCFB)
We still do not know who it will be running the offense, whether it is Malik Zaire or DeShone Kizer (it will be both against Texas in the opener apparently), but whichever option Brian Kelly decides to roll with should be in position to get off to a good start with some noteworthy wins. Home wins against defending conference champions Michigan State (Big Ten) and Stanford (Pac-12) begin to put together a Playoff-worthy profile for the Irish, but there are still enough question marks about the Irish roster to consider Notre Dame might not be quite ready to claim a spot in the final four.
Kelly has certainly made an effort to improve the athleticism of the Irish since taking over, especially since being crushed by Alabama in the BCS Championship Game, to end the 2012 campaign, and there are some terrific pieces in place like Torii Hunter Jr. and Tarean Folston to go with either Zaire or Kizer. The defensive line is undergoing significant turnover but should find its footing. So Notre Dame will be a good team, but great? Playoff great? Those hopes will come crashing down in one of my upsets of the year, on the road at NC State. USC also scores an upset of the Irish in Los Angeles at the end of the year.
J.P. Scott (@TheJPScott)
Brian Kelly's Irish are probably a year away from being serious contenders for a national title, but they are going to be in the conversation for most of 2016. Few teams have two quarterbacks the caliber of DeShone Kizer and Malik Zaire on their roster. They'll have the luxury of throwing to a group of receivers collectively as talented as any in the country. When healthy, Tarean Folston has what it takes to be an elite running back. Kelly and his staff have recruited well enough on the offensive line over the last few seasons, and the Irish offense is going to be a handful.
Defensively, this is one of the youngest and most inexperienced teams Kelly has ever coached. Their talent is going to be good enough to allow the offense to win most games, but you'll likely see the defense become a serious liability against the better teams on the schedule.