At 6-1, Notre Dame re-convenes after its bye week with a legitimate chance of earning a College Football Playoff berth come December. To make that a successful push, the Irish not only will need to beat Temple, Pittsburgh, Wake Forest, Boston College and Stanford, but also be the benefactors of some November chaos on other campuses around the country.
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Through seven games, we have a pretty good idea of what kind of team Notre Dame has. These are five stats that go a long way toward explaining Notre Dame's 2015 season, and will be critical in determining whether or not the Irish leave California in a month with an 11-1 record:
Notre Dame has an even turnover margin this year, which is more the product of an offense that doesn’t lose the ball much coupling with a defense that doesn’t take the ball away frequently. The Irish have lost and gained nine turnovers, with a third of those losses coming on fumbles in the brutal weather conditions at Clemson Oct. 3. As long as DeShone Kizer continues to be a one-mistake player — someone who doesn’t let one turnover snowball into three or four — Notre Dame should be fine progressing with an even turnover margin into November.
Notre Dame is averaging 7.3 yards per play this year while holding opponents to 5.6, giving a yards per play differential of 1.7. Bill Connelly’s research shows teams that have a yards per play margin of one and a half to two yards win 89 percent of the time, which fits with Notre Dame’s 6-1 record (a .857 winning percentage). If Notre Dame continues to be in one and a half to two range, over a 12-game season it can expect to win 10.68 games. So that’s basically 10 wins, plus a toss-up, which sounds about right if that toss-up game is Stanford.
Another one of Bill Connelly's stats, called highlight yards, does a good job separating a running back’s individual success from his offensive line. The stat calculates how well a running back does when his offensive line does its job, so essentially when it opens up a lane for the running back to get to the second level or open field. C.J. Prosise is averaging seven additional yards every time the Irish offensive line does its job, which is right in line with LSU’s Leonard Fournette (7.6) and Ohio State’s Ezekiel Elliott (7.4). His success has been the combination of a strong offensive line and an explosive ability that remains one of the biggest storylines of the 2015 season for Notre Dame.
Brian VanGorder’s exotic blitz packages have only resulted in 11 sacks, an average of 1.57 per game that’s down from last year’s per-game sack average of two. The Irish are generating decent pressure — 36 quarterback hurries — but aren’t doing enough to drop opposing quarterbacks. From a successful pressure perspective, the 2015 Irish look a lot like the final year of Bob Diaco’s bend-don’t-break scheme (21 sacks in 13 games in 2013).
Opponents are only converting 28.1 percent of their third down tries against Notre Dame, the 10th-lowest rate among FBS teams. That’s encouraging and shows VanGorder’s group can lock down when it needs to. The problems are with big plays — Notre Dame has allowed opponents to gain 40 or more yards on a play 10 times this year and is one of three FBS teams (Texas Tech and Wake Forest are the others) to allow multiple plays of 80 or more yards. The optimistic view would be that if Notre Dame can figure out how to eradicate the eye violations and blown assignments that’ve plagued its defense this year, it already has a strong defensive base on which to rely. The pessimistic view is that the third down success doesn’t matter so long as opponents continue to gouge this group for big-chunk plays.