The Fighting Irish need quarterback Brandon Wimbush to take the next step in his development as a passer for them to succeed this fall
It’s been an up-and-down three-year run for the Notre Dame football program. While there have been some off-the-field issues, the on-field results have been tumultuous as well.
The 2015 Fiesta Bowl season was followed by the 4-8 nightmare which forced head coach Brian Kelly to revamp the coaching staff, leading to a 10-3 record in '17. But last fall was a bit uneven in its own right. Going into November, the Irish were in the chase for a spot in the College Football Playoff. Four weeks later, even a trip to a New Year’s Six Bowl was not in the cards.
So what does 2018 hold for the Irish? Here are three reasons why Notre Dame will make the College Football Playoff and three reasons why they won’t.
Three Reasons Why Notre Dame Will Make the College Football Playoff in 2018
1. A solid defense
Cornerback Julian Love and linebacker Drue Tranquill headline the list of nine returning starters for a Notre Dame defense that finished 31st nationally in points per game allowed (21.5). While the Irish may not have as many dynamic athletes as some of the top defenses in the nation, they were a fundamentally sound group last fall that didn’t make a lot of mistakes. Last year’s coordinator Mike Elko is now in College Station, but his right hand man -- Clark Lea -- steps up to run the same system that was so effective last year.
2. A veteran offensive line
The Irish lose two top-10 NFL draft picks in guard Quenton Nelson and tackle Mike McGlinchey, but the offensive line is still an experienced position group. Center Sam Mustipher and guard Alex Bars are seniors that have played a lot of football. Sophomores Tommy Kraemer and Robert Hainsey split time at right tackle last year and they will both start this season with Kraemer taking Nelson’s spot at left guard. The key to a memorable run is the development of sophomore Liam Eichenberg -- a former top-100 recruit -- at left tackle.
3. Kicking game
In close games, the punter and placekicker become very important. With the number of quality opponents on Notre Dame’s schedule, there should be a lot of nail-biters this fall. Tyler Newsome has a 43.8-yard punting average in his career and his respect on the team became clear when he was named a captain for the upcoming season. Justin Yoon made all 55 of his extra points last year and converted 14 of 18 field goal attempts while not missing from inside of 44 yards.
Why Notre Dame Won’t Make the College Football Playoff in 2018
1. Inconsistent quarterback play
Brandon Wimbush is an incredible athlete but whether he can become an effective quarterback remains to be seen. He completed less than half of his passes last year and his accuracy regressed as the year went on. He worked with QB guru Taylor Kelly this offseason and though everyone claims that the New Jersey native improved his mechanics and footwork, it has to translate to live action. Ian Book -- who rescued Notre Dame in the Citrus Bowl -- is still around but if he was really the man he would have staked a better claim to the starting job this spring.
2. Inexperience at the other offensive skill positions
The leading returning Irish receiver is Chase Claypool with 29 catches and Notre Dame brings back just 80 total receptions from 2017. There is potential in many of the younger pass catchers but their youth combined with the uncertainty at the quarterback position could lead to problems in the passing game. And running back could be even less seasoned. Josh Adams' 1,430 rushing yards are gone and Deon McIntosh, the second leading rusher among running backs, has been kicked off the team as has former four-star recruit C.J. Holmes. Now there are rumors that Dexter Williams may not be with the team when the season starts. That puts a lot on sophomore Tony Jones, two unheralded freshmen, and a couple of guys switching from other positions.
3. Safety play
The performance of the safeties was the weak link of the most recent Notre Dame defense and it will be a position to watch this fall. While Jalen Elliott, Nick Coleman and Devin Studstill all return, they produced few meaningful moments last year and it is possible that none of them are in the starting lineup against Michigan. Navy transfer Alohi Gilman will probably be a starter at one spot and early-entry freshman Houston Griffith could challenge for the other opening when camp begins.
With the ugly 4-8 season just one year removed, Notre Dame does not have to go to the College Football Playoff to feel good about the result. And that’s good because the Irish won’t be among the four chosen programs at the end of the year. There are too many questions on offense and there are still a couple gaps on what should be another productive defense. Beyond safety, the Irish also need an edge pass rusher to develop though juniors Daelin Hayes, Julian Okwara and Khalid Kareem could make strides in this area. Against this schedule, if the Irish reach the double-digit win total in consecutive years for the first time in 25 years, the season will have to be considered a success.
Athlon’s Projected Final Ranking: 15
Athlon’s Projected Final Record: 9-3
Bovada Projected Over/Under Odds: 9.5
5 Dimes 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.