Khalid Kareem is expected to play a key part for what could be a stout pass defense
After progressing from 4-8 in 2016 to 10-3 with a Citrus Bowl win in '17, and then advancing to the College Football Playoff last fall, what is the next step for Notre Dame? Is it advancing in the playoff and getting to the championship game? Maybe it’s winning a New Year's Six bowl game, something they haven't done since 1994. Or perhaps it's simply establishing a consistency not seen since the Holtz years.
Beyond determining what the next level may be, the other question is what can the Irish actually accomplish in 2019? The schedule has some tough challenges mixed in with a slew of games in which Notre Dame should be heavy favorites. With wins at Georgia in September, at Michigan in October, and at Stanford in November, the Irish would certainly stake their claim as one of the four best teams in America.
Here are three reasons why that will happen followed by three reasons why it won't.
Three Reasons Why Notre Dame Will Make it to the College Football Playoff in 2019
1. Ian Book and the passing game
The El Dorado Hills, California, product energized the Irish offense when he was inserted into the starting lineup in week four against Wake Forest. An accurate short passer that delivered the ball on time, there should be some improvement in his ability to stretch the field after a year's worth of reps as the starter. Plus, despite the loss of top receiver Miles Boykin, Book will be throwing to a group of talented pass catchers.
Chase Claypool and Chris Finke return after combining for 99 catches and 1,210 yards last fall. Though Claypool can get open downfield, both have to be considered possession receivers that move the chains. The home-run ability should come from among three sophomores: Kevin Austin, Lawrence Keys, and Braden Lenzy. Throw in Michael Young, a junior that shined in the Citrus Bowl as a freshman, and the Irish staff should feel optimistic about what they can produce in the passing game.
2. Pass defense
The quantity and quality at defensive end is the biggest strength for the Irish entering the fall. Julian Okwara tied for the team lead in sacks in 2018 with eight and on the other side, Khalid Kareem battled through ankle issues to record 4.5 sacks. The two combined for 23 tackles for lost yardage, further indicating their ability to get into the opposing backfield.
But they have help. Daelin Hayes was active with 32 tackles and a couple of sacks while Ade Ogundeji showed that he could provide pressure in his time in the lineup. Notre Dame's two-deep at the end position has to be considered one of the nation's best and that doesn't include exciting youngsters like sophomore Justin Ademilola and freshmen Isaiah Foskey and Nana Osafo-Mensah.
On the back end, Notre Dame is stacked as well. All-American corner Julian Love is gone but Troy Pride appears ready to assume the No. 1 corner duties. Houston Griffith and Tariq Bracy are skilled athletes that will battle for time on the other side and all the corners will be aided by one of the nation’s best safety tandems in Alohi Gilman and Jalen Elliott.
With pass rushing talent up front and a formidable corps of defensive backs, the Irish should be difficult to pass against this fall.
The Notre Dame starting unit has a large senior presence. The key members of the passing game and the stars that will be defending the pass are mostly all seniors, as are Tommy Kraemer and Liam Eichenberg along the offensive line and Asmar Bilal at linebacker. These veterans have been through the wars and were part of the core that helped transition the Irish from 4-8 in 2016 to the playoff last fall. They are a proud group and do not want to see the program take a step back.
Even some of the new projected starters have been in the program for a few years. Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa and Kurt Hinish at defensive tackle are juniors that have seen action. Linebackers Jordan Genmark Heath and Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah are also entering their third years in the program as well. Plus, returning junior offensive line holdovers Robert Hainsey and Aaron Banks, like most of the other Irish starters, have played a lot of football.
Three Reasons Why Notre Dame Won't Make the College Football Playoff in 2019
1. Running game
Dexter Williams provided a big-play element to the running last season, but the Irish rushing attack was still hit or miss. For example, Notre Dame ran for 167 yards against Virginia Tech with 97 of those coming on one Williams carry.
Now Williams is gone and it is Jafar Armstrong's turn as the lead back. Armstrong is another new projected starter that has seen his share of playing time. The junior began 2018 as the starter due to Williams' suspension and while he was adequate during that time, he needs to improve going forward. There are other options, like senior Tony Jones, but the highest ceiling for the running game is with Armstrong carrying the ball.
The most important aspect in improving the Irish ground attack is the blocking up front. Four starters return on the offensive line, but this was an inconsistent unit in 2018 and as a result, Notre Dame had inconsistent rushing totals. These were highly recruited players and for ND to establish necessary balance, this group will have to up their game.
2. Run defense
On the whole, Notre Dame did a decent job in this department last year, finishing 36th nationally in rush defense. Wake Forest did go for 259 yards against the Irish early in the season and Travis Etienne had a day in the Cotton Bowl. But the potential issues do not stem from what happened last year, but who is not returning for Notre Dame.
The middle of Notre Dame's defensive front seven will be new this season and the departing Irish defenders were key cogs in last year's success. Up front, Jerry Tillery made himself into a first-round NFL draft pick with a huge senior season and Jonathan Bonner was a valuable role player. On the second level, Te'von Coney and Drue Tranquill were two of the team's top three tacklers and seemed to always be around the ball.
Now, Asmar Bilal will move from Rover to inside linebacker and no one is really sure how that transition will go. That means the Rover position will be filled by a new starter as will the weak-side backer spot. Those are a lot of changes at key defensive positions.
3. Kicking and punting
Justin Yoon was never an All-American placekicker, but he was reliable and left Notre Dame as the school's all-time leading scorer. That is a big gap to fill and the performance of Jonathan Doerer last fall hardly inspired confidence going forward. Mostly used on kickoffs, Doerer struggled in that area to the point where Yoon had to come in and handle the kickoff duties on occasion. Doerer did make a 30-yard field goal, but he also missed one of his six extra point attempts. Freshman walk-on Harrison Leonard my get a shot, but at the start, this will be Doerer's job.
Punting could be just as big of a concern. Tyler Newsome and his 44-yard career average is gone and the leading candidate to replace him is true freshman Jay Bramblett. In the Blue-Gold Game this spring, Bramblett averaged just 34.9 yards on eight punts. In close games, Doerer and Bramblett could be major factors.
Outside of Alabama and Clemson, every team in the nation has major questions. Georgia has to replace virtually all of its receivers and some key components on defense. Oklahoma's defense is still suspect and Jalen Hurts has huge shoes to fill at quarterback. Ohio State is without Urban Meyer, returns just four starters on offense, and is really thin behind new quarterback Justin Fields. Michigan, LSU, Florida, and others have yet to really prove they can reach the highest levels and have concerns in various areas.
So can Notre Dame reach the College Football Playoff? Absolutely. Will they? No. Notre Dame should be a heavy favorite in nine of their games, which leaves the three road tests against Georgia, Michigan, and Stanford. While it's unlikely that ND gets swept in these three contests, it's also hard to imagine the Irish winning all three.
It's impossible to project how the college football landscape plays out, so we don't know if a one-loss Irish team will be able to sneak in the tournament or not. But it's more likely that Notre Dame will lose two or more games than it is that the Irish go unbeaten and for that reason, I can't project the Irish in the final four.
But another double-digit win season and an appearance in a New Year's Six bowl should do nothing to harm the development of the Notre Dame program. Especially if the Irish emerge victorious in the Cotton or Orange Bowl.
Athlon’s Projected Final Ranking: 9
Athlon’s Projected Final Record: 10-2
Bovada Projected Over/Under Odds: 9.5
5 Dimes Projected Over/Under Odds: 9.5
— 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.