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Notre Dame Football: Why the Fighting Irish Will or Won't Make the College Football Playoff in 2020

Notre Dame Football: Why the Fighting Irish Will or Won't Make the College Football Playoff in 2020

Notre Dame Football: Why the Fighting Irish Will or Won't Make the College Football Playoff in 2020

Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State, and Oklahoma are the four preeminent teams in regards to College Football Playoff appearances. At least two of those four programs have made the final four in all six seasons, with three of those programs participating in each of the last five CFPs.

With 33 victories and a College Football Playoff appearance in the past three seasons, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish have moved closer to the top group. But they're not on that level just yet. Another trip to the playoff would be another nice step and this year's version of the Irish features some reasons for optimism. However, deficiencies that could hamper Notre Dame can also be pointed out. Here are three items for each of those categories.

Three Reasons Why Notre Dame Will Make the College Football Playoff

1. Veteran quarterback

Ian Book was initially the backup to Brandon Wimbush. Even after rescuing the Irish in the 2018 Citrus Bowl, Book still found himself on the bench to start the 2018 season. But in Week Four, after Wimbush had struggled despite leading ND to three victories, Brian Kelly inserted Book as the starter and the offense took off. Book had a rough outing in the national semifinal against Clemson, but his performance throughout the campaign was a large reason for Notre Dame's 2018 success.

Still, many fans clamored for young phenom Phil Jurkovec going into 2019. When Book again solidified his starting spot, Jurkovec moved on to Boston College. This is now Book's team and everyone knows it. A player that was once considered the next Tommy Rees has far surpassed the career of his new offensive coordinator. While he may not be an All-American, Book has shown that he is good enough to lead the Irish to the CFP.

2. Experienced offensive line

All five starters return, and key reserve Josh Lugg is also still around. Plus, there are several young, highly-touted prospects that should be ready to provide depth behind the starters. On paper, this should be one of the best offensive lines in America.

At times last year, they looked the part. At other times, they did not. Injuries, especially one to right guard Tommy Kraemer, hindered their development. Right tackle Robert Hainsey broke his ankle the following week, making matters even worse. And left guard Aaron Banks played through his own physical issues, too. But there were other problems besides ailments. Left tackle Liam Eichenberg's play mirrored the whole line: several mistakes keeping him from being a true force. Plus, center Jarrett Patterson had to learn his trade as an undersized freshman.

If the Irish linemen maintain their health and some mistakes are cleaned up, dramatic improvement should be expected. These are all highly-rated, very talented players that now have tons of experience working together.

3. Faith in defensive coordinator Clark Lea

In the middle of the 2016 nightmare, Kelly replaced then-defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder. The next season, he hired Mike Elko away from Wake Forest, and an Irish defense that finished 61st in scoring defense the year before jumped to No. 31. When Elko left for Texas A&M after just one season, his longtime sidekick Clark Lea took over the defense and the improvement continued.

In 2018, ND gave up just 17.9 points per game to finish 13th and last fall they improved to 12th nationally. The transition from VanGorder to Elko and Lea was one of the pivotal decisions of Kelly's tenure and may have saved the head coach his job.

The Irish lose a lot of talent off last year's unit as stellar defensive ends Khalid Kareem and Julian Okwara depart along with three key members of the secondary. But in defensive end Daelin Hayes, linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, and safety Kyle Hamilton, Notre Dame has elite athletes at each level of the defense. With Lea calling the shots, this should be a formidable group once again.

Three Reasons Why Notre Dame Won't Make the College Football Playoff

1. Lack of experience at the offensive skill positions

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Chase Claypool, Chris Finke, Cole Kmet, and Tony Jones Jr., four pass-catchers who accounted for 65 percent of the team's receptions in 2019, are gone. The leading returning receiver is tight end Tommy Tremble, who had 16 grabs last year. At wide receiver, there is speed and athleticism, but these are talented players loaded with potential rather than prior production. No one has any idea how these wideouts will respond to meaningful minutes.

Running back is an even more concerning situation. The leading returning rusher at running back is Jahmir Smith with 180 yards. Jafar Armstrong is now in his fourth year at ND, but he has battled injuries and has never really shown that he can be a ball carrier after moving from wide receiver. C'Bo Flemister is a sophomore that will battle for time, but the wild card is exciting true freshman Chris Tyree.

Having a veteran quarterback and a solid offensive line will help the offense, but unless big-play capability emerges, the offense will only go so far.

2. Cornerback

Notre Dame lost a ton in the secondary, but in Hamilton, Ohio State transfer Isaiah Pryor, and the highly regarded Houston Griffith, safety is not an issue. But corner is. Shaun Crawford is back for his sixth year, but the reason he can return is that he has spent most of his time in South Bend recovering from one major injury or another. Furthermore, his best role is covering the man out of the slot. TaRiq Bracy was okay as a sophomore, but the Irish are lacking a true number one cover guy and the players on the second row of the depth chart are redshirt freshmen.

This becomes a huge issue considering what's on Notre Dame's schedule. Wake Forest and Sage Surratt. Michael Wilson and Connor Wedington of Stanford. Pittsburgh's Taysir Mack. Louisville's Tutu Atwell. And then there are all the options that both Clemson and USC can throw out wide.

Things can develop over time and a corner option may be much better than many think. But this appears to be the major Achilles heel of the Irish defense.

3. Once again, no possible conference championship

In reality, many in the Notre Dame community doesn't care. They feel that the benefits of being an independent outweigh the potential drawbacks in the playoff discussion. And in reality, they are quite possibly right. To this point, Notre Dame has yet to be truly harmed because they can't win a conference title. Although, perhaps fans will have to hold their breath if conferences continue to cancel non-conference games, like the Big Ten and Pac-12 already have.

But the chance does exist, perhaps even more so this year. Notre Dame will be favored in all of their current games besides Clemson. Over the past three seasons, Kelly's team hasn't been able to knock off the truly elite teams, but they have managed to take care of business against the squads that they should beat. If that holds true again, Notre Dame is looking at just one loss (unknown how Irish will fill open spots on their schedule created by canceled games with Stanford, USC, and Wisconsin). The SEC champ, the Big Ten winner, and Clemson will probably have spots waiting for them at the end of the year. But what of the fourth team?

The Irish would certainly be in the conversation, but would they get the nod over, say, an Oklahoma team that may also finish with just one loss while also grabbing the Big 12 title? No one really knows at this time, especially with schedules in flux, but Notre Dame would probably be on the outside looking in. Again, Notre Dame has not yet been affected by their lack of a conference affiliation and until they are, it's not an issue. But the possibility does exist.

Final Verdict

Notre Dame will once again be a really good team and will contend for high honors deep into the season. But they are not a playoff level squad right now. The questions at the skill positions on offense and at cornerback on defense will crop up and bite them at some point. But for Irish fans, making the playoff shouldn't be the be-all and end-all.

Notre Dame has still not won a major bowl game since Jan. 1, 1994. For all the wonderful things Brian Kelly has done, washing away the stink of the Bob Davie, Ty Willingham, and Charlie Weis eras, along with resetting the table after what was not truly working during his first seven years on the job, this is a major hole on the resume.

At season's end, the Irish won't be in the CFP but a New Year's Six game awaits, and winning that contest would be a positive step forward.

— Written by Jon Kinne, who has been part of the Athlon Contributor Network for three years, covering the ACC and Notre Dame. Follow him on Twitter @JonRKinne.