Notre Dame was very close to making the College Football Playoff in 2015. Three more points in both the Clemson and Stanford games would have put the Fighting Irish at 12-0 and squarely in the final four.
But victory eluded Notre Dame in both of those contests and in reality the Irish were not worthy of an invite to the Playoff. The loss to Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl was further proof that head coach Brian Kelly's team was not quite at the top level of the college football hierarchy last fall.
Can Notre Dame reach that standard in 2016? Here are three reasons why the Fighting Irish will... and three reasons why they won’t.
Three Reasons Why Notre Dame Will Make the College Football Playoff
1. Quarterback Play
The story is well-known to college football fans. The 2015 Irish were Malik Zaire’s team but when the lefty signal-caller broke his ankle in the season’s second game at Virginia, redshirt freshman DeShone Kizer came in and led the team to a 10-win season and a spot in a New Year’s Six bowl. Kizer is not assured of a starting spot despite his impressive debut. However, if Zaire is good enough to beat out Kizer, he will be good enough to lead the Irish to a Playoff appearance.
2. Running Game
Left tackle Mike McGlinchey and left guard Quenton Nelson lead what should be a very good Notre Dame offensive line. That group will be opening holes for a talented trio of backs. Josh Adams flashed his abilities as a freshman last fall, Dexter Williams has the potential to do the same as a sophomore, and Tarean Folston is poised to return to his pre-injury form. Zaire, whether he starts or plays as a reserve, also will be a factor in the running game. Kelly likes to throw the ball and that will not go away, especially if Kizer is under center. But the Irish have the tools for another balanced offensive attack.
3. Special Teams
Really? Notre Dame with elite special teams? It could be. Tyler Newsome averaged 44.5 yards per punt last year, which placed him 15th in the nation. In his first season kicking on the collegiate level, Justin Yoon was 15 of 17 on field goals and converted his last 12 attempts. In close games a strong kicking game could decide whether Notre Dame makes the Playoff or not. Also, C.J. Sanders gave the return game a jolt of energy last season and if he can return from a hip injury, he can again make an impact this fall.
Three Reasons Why Notre Dame Will Not Make the College Football Playoff
1. Inexperience on Defense
The past two years have been filled with questions about the merits of defensive coordinator Brian Van Gorder and his system. There is a belief that his methodology is too complex given the limited amount of practice time allowed on the collegiate level. This season, the Irish will be without veterans like Jaylon Smith, Joe Schmidt, KeiVarae Russell and Romeo Okwara. If the game plans were too complicated for those seasoned defenders, how will the newcomers fare? There is talent on the Notre Dame defense and athleticism should not be a problem. But whether or not the players can grasp the system is a concern.
2. Lack of a Pass Rush
Romeo Okwara led the team with eight sacks in 2015 and Sheldon Day was more disruptive in the pass game than his four sacks showed. Notre Dame only registered 25 sacks in 2015 and players responsible for 64 percent of those sacks are gone. Linebacker James Onwualu is the leading returning sacker with three and he is not expected to be the primary pass rusher in 2016. Andrew Trumbetti and Jay Hayes are juniors that will be counted on to provide pressure and early enrollee freshman Daelin Hayes may get a shot in certain situations.
3. Replacing Receivers
Notre Dame has recruited well at the wide receiver position and there are players at the position with ability. But the team’s top three receivers have moved on, including the great Will Fuller and his 62 catches, 1,258 yards and 14 touchdowns. Torii Hunter is expected to make a leap forward and position mates like Equanimeous St. Brown, Miles Boykin, Corey Holmes, and a hopefully healthy C.J. Sanders, need to see their potential lead to production. Freshmen Kevin Stepherson and Javon McKinley also will get an opportunity and increased output from the tight end position would help as well.
There are many positives heading into Notre Dame’s 2016 season. Brian Kelly and the Fighting Irish believe that despite the personnel losses that there is enough talent to maintain the winning culture. The players lacking in field action have the talent to perform at an elite level. Offensively, Notre Dame should have no problem scoring points. The schedule also is set up nicely with as many as nine opponents breaking in new quarterbacks this fall. Plus, at some point the Irish will have to get luckier on the injury front. But this team has holes, most notably on the defensive side of the ball. Defensive coordinator Brian Van Gorder’s system is a question mark and a lack of a pass rush could make life easier for the quarterbacks Notre Dame will face. The Fighting Irish will be good this fall and should make a return trip to a major bowl game. But they will not be part of the College Football Playoff picture.
Athlon’s Projected Final Ranking: 8
Athlon’s Projected Final Record: 10-2
Bovada Projected 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.