Just before midnight on Oct. 18, 2014, for a fleeting moment, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish had made their mark. For one of the few times during the past 20 years, Notre Dame had stamped itself as a true national championship contender. Quarterback Everett Golson hit Corey Robinson for a touchdown and the then-No. 5-ranked Irish were about to take down top-ranked and defending national champion Florida State.
Then the flag flew. And the wheels came off the bus.
Brian Kelly’s team stumbled down the stretch, losing its last four games. But a strong showing against LSU in the Music City Bowl, a victory with a quarterback that now takes the reins as the new starting signal-caller, has given the Irish faithful hope. And with 17 starters back and a star defender returning from suspension, perhaps there is reason for optimism.
Here are three reasons why Notre Dame will make the College Football Playoff this season and three reasons why the Irish will be left out when the selections are announced.
Three Reasons Why Notre Dame Will Make the College Football Playoff
1. Skill Position Talent
Notre Dame entered 2014 looking for a No. 1 wide receiver and found Will Fuller. The Philadelphia native had 76 catches for 1,094 yards and 15 touchdowns as a sophomore last fall. He’s a threat to score every time he touches the ball and is supported by Chris Brown, Corey Robinson, Amir Carlisle and a number of young, talented wideouts looking to emerge. Running back Tarean Folston had 889 yards rushing last year, C.J. Prosise is a big-play threat as a runner and receiver, and once Greg Bryant returns from his four-game suspension, he will provide considerable depth.
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2. Offensive Line
Ronnie Stanley would have been chosen in the first round of the 2015 NFL Draft. But he decided to come back to Notre Dame and he will lead a very talented unit. Stanley’s presence will ease the learning curve for the new left guard, whether it is Quenton Nelson or Alex Bars, two highly regarded sophomores. Nick Martin is healthy again and is expected to return to his 2013 form at center. Steve Elmer is solid at right guard and right tackle Mike McGlinchey had a very good showing in the bowl game against LSU. This is a big, physical group that is well suited for the offense that is expected to be run this fall.
3. Impact Players On Each Level of the Defense
In defensive lineman Sheldon Day, linebacker Jaylon Smith and cornerback KeiVarae Russell, Notre Dame has a player that could garner All-American consideration at each level of the defense. When Day is healthy (and staying on the field has been his biggest weakness), he is a disruptive force whether he lines up inside or outside. Athlon Sports had Russell as a preseason fourth team All-American last year before he was suspended prior to the start of the season for an academic issue. The most talented of all the Irish defenders is Smith, a freakish athlete that led Notre Dame in tackles and is a preseason Athlon second team All-American.
Notre Dame’s 2015 Schedule
Athlon Projected Rank for 2015
vs. Boston College*
*Neutral-site game at Fenway Park in Boston
Why Notre Dame Will Not Make the College Football Playoff in 2015
1. Quarterback Inexperience
When Golson departed for Florida State, the expected quarterback controversy went with him. It is Malik Zaire’s time to step up to the plate and the Music City Bowl MVP enters the year with a lot of weight on his shoulders. The fact is, no one really knows what Zaire will do. He can run, he has a big arm, and has shown the leadership skills of an upperclassman. At the same time, he has not taken that many live snaps and his throwing accuracy has been a concern. At the end of the Music City Bowl, after Zaire lost his helmet on the final drive, Golson came in and stayed in until the Irish were deep into field goal range. There will be no such option for Kelly this season.
2. Defending Up-Tempo Teams
Injuries decimated the Notre Dame defense late last season. But there was a cause for concern prior to middle linebacker Joe Schmidt, Day, and several others going down. The week before Florida State, Notre Dame had difficulty containing North Carolina, who was the first team with an effective, fast-paced offense that the Irish had seen. It exposed a weakness that opponents exploited the rest of the season. Defensive coordinator Brian Van Gorder has had all offseason to correct this flaw and he better, because teams like Clemson, Georgia Tech, USC, and the new-look Texas offense will be moving as fast as they can against the Irish.
3. Notre Dame Independence
In no way should this be construed as a referendum for Notre Dame to join a conference. However, in the current Playoff system, Notre Dame is at a disadvantage. Ohio State made it into the Playoff over Baylor and TCU for reasons that can be debated. But winning a 13th game and being the sole champion of the Big Ten did not hurt. Notre Dame will not be playing an extra game and will not be a conference champion. That puts the Irish in a situation where they have to be a clear choice to make the Playoff because it is not likely that they will be given the benefit of the doubt from the selection committee.
This is the most talented and deepest roster that Kelly has had since he’s been at Notre Dame. They also have a schedule that has some showcase opportunities (Texas, Georgia Tech, Clemson, USC) and some soft spots at good times that can help right some wrongs (UMass, Temple, Wake Forest). But to assure a spot in the final four, the Irish may have to go undefeated. There will be a time or two that Zaire will have to win a game by standing in the pocket and throwing the football. We haven’t seen him do that yet. To go 12-0 (or even 11-1) the defense will have to take a large leap forward, especially against teams that like to snap the ball quickly, and I’m not sure how big of a jump Van Gorder’s group can make. I think this is an Irish team that will be slightly better than the current projections and should be playing in a major bowl. But they will not be in Miami or at Jerry’s World on New Year’s Eve.
Athlon’s Projected Final Ranking: 12
Athlon’s Projected Final Record: 9-3
Bovada Projected Over/Under Odds: 9
CG Technology Over/Under Odds: 9
5 Dimes Projected Over/Under Odds: 9
— Written by Jon Kinne, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a college football fanatic. Kinne has been writing about recruiting for the Irish Sports Daily for 10 years. Follow him on Twitter @JonRKinne.