Notre Dame

Ranking Notre Dame's schedule: The make-or-break games

7-22malikzairedeshaunwatson.png

Ranking Notre Dame's schedule: The make-or-break games

With a team stacked with returning players and improving depth, Notre Dame will enter the 2015 season with legitimate hopes of reaching the College Football Playoff. There's no room for error -- not when Baylor and TCU were left out of the four-team bracket after playing 12, not 13, games last year -- and to play on New Year's Eve in either Miami or Dallas, the Irish may have to win all four of the difficult games on their schedule this fall.

Ranking Notre Dame's schedule: The 'easy' games
Ranking Notre Dame's schedule: The trap games

4. Georgia Tech (Sept. 19, South Bend, Ind.)
2014 record: 11-3
2014 F/+ rank: 8
Three-year record: 25-16
Three-year average F/+ rank: 26
Key players: QB Justin Thomas (18 TD/6 INT, 18 CAR, 1,143 YDS, 8 TDs), LB P.J. Davis (100.5 TKLs, 8.5 TFLs, 4 sacks)

Brian VanGorder’s defense has only faced a triple option offense once, and Navy racked up 336 rushing yards against a defense that lost Joe Schmidt to a season-ending ankle injury. Georgia Tech had a far more lethal option attack than Navy did last year — Paul Johnson’s Yellow Jackets finished the year with a 49-34 win over Mississippi State in the Orange Bowl — but loses an All-American offensive lineman and just about every skill position player from last year’s team.

Quarterback Justin Thomas is back, though, and the hope in Atlanta is the five backs who combined for 456 carries and 2,743 yards are replaceable. That’s often the theory with an option offense, but combined with losing the team’s two top receivers, there’s going to be a ton of turnover in this group. Can Johnson’s system allow a soft landing for all the new faces, or could Georgia Tech’s offense struggle against the first real defensive test it’ll have this fall?

[MORE: SportsTalk Live: Mizzou's Gary Pinkel says ND should join conference]

On the flip side: Can Notre Dame’s defense manage to slow an option offense after facing Texas and Virginia in Weeks 1 and 2?

Georgia Tech only loses a few key contributors on an above-average-at-best defense from last year, though this is an undersized group that Notre Dame’s bruising offensive line should have success against. This is a game that is the first real hurdle for Brian Kelly & Co. to clear — beating Georgia Tech would be a bona fide good win, though it’s an awfully dangerous game for the middle of September.

3. Stanford (Nov. 28, Palo Alto, Calif.)
2014 record: 8-5
2014 F/+ rank: 18
Three-year record: 31-10
Three-year average F/+ rank: 10
Key players: QB Kevin Hogan (232/352, 2,792 YDS, 19/8 TD/INT), LB Blake Martinez (101 TKL, 7 TFL, 4.5 sacks, 3 INT)

After four straight seasons with at least 11 wins, a trio of three-point losses to USC, Notre Dame and Utah helped relegate the Cardinal to a somewhat disappointing 8-5 season. But, as usual, David Shaw’s group had a strong defense (6th in defensive S&P+), which can be reasonably expected to be the case again this fall.

[MORE: Notre Dame sees CB Nick Watkins adding key depth this fall]

Stanford loses big-time playmaker Ty Montgomery and leading rusher Remound Wright from last year’s team and needs guys like receiver Devon Cajuste and running back Christian McCaffery to step up in their place. Kevin Hogan has proven to be a good-not-great quarterback— he combined to complete 30 of 54 passes for 316 yards with one touchdown and four interceptions against Notre Dame in 2013 and 2014 but has fared better against other opponents — who probably needs a good ground game to be efficient.

Notre Dame hasn’t won at Stanford Stadium since 2007 — two years before Stanford started its current run of success under Jim Harbaugh — even though the Cardinal rarely enjoy an intimidating home field advantage for this post-Thanksgiving game. If things go well for the Irish, a playoff appearance or New Year’s Six bowl bid will be riding on this game, and it’ll be an awfully difficult one to win.

2. USC
2014 record: 9-4
2014 F/+ rank: 16
Three-year rank: 26-14
Three-year average F/+ rank: 18
Key players: QB Cody Kessler (315/452, 3,826 YDS, 39/5 TD/INT), LB Su’a Cravens (49 TKL, 17 TFL, 5 sacks, 3 INT)

USC embarrassed Notre Dame in Los Angeles, 49-14, last year with quarterback Cody Kessler surgically completing 32 of 40 passes for 372 yards and six touchdowns. Perhaps there will be some motivation to avenge one of the worst losses of the Kelly era, but having a healthy Irish defense will go a long way toward making this game competitive again.

Kessler is back and is one of better quarterbacks at the college level, though he’ll have to find a new favorite target to replace Nelson Agholor. The good news for USC: They aren’t lacking in super-talented options, like former Irish recruiting target JuJu Smith and three-way player Adoree’ Jackson.

[MORE: Notre Dame's defense needs to fit the profile more in 2015]

The Trojans defense has to replace star defensive tackle Leonard Williams — the No. 6 pick in the 2015 NFL Draft — but returns safety-turned-linebacker Su’a Cravens, who racked up 17 tackles for a loss last year. Still, the questions here are on this side of the ball, and for the first time since 2009, we may see a high-scoring Notre Dame-USC game.

1. Clemson (Oct. 3, Clemson, S.C.)
2014 record: 10-3
2014 F/+ rank: 14
Three-year rank: 32-7
Three-year average F/+ rank: 19
Key players: QB DeShaun Watson (93/137, 1,466 YDS, 14/2 TD/INT), DE Shaq Lawson (24.5 TKL, 11.5 TFL, 3.5 sacks)

Notre Dame can stamp itself as an early entrant into the College Football Playoff discussion with a win in Death Valley. Barring a September loss, those will be the stakes for Notre Dame heading into what’s sure to be an amped-up, primetime atmosphere.

Recent history — albeit, in a small sample size — could give Notre Dame some hope for this game. Kelly’s teams have executed their gameplans to near-perfection in their last two massive October road games — a 2012 win over Oklahoma and 2014’s gutting loss to Florida State — while Clemson was throttled in a top-five matchup against the ‘Noles two years ago and lost to Georgia, Florida State and Georgia Tech in 2014. And Dabo Swinney’s Tigers lost the 2012 Orange Bowl, 70-33, to West Virginia (though two years later, they did beat Ohio State in the Orange Bowl).

[MORE: With knowledge and reinforcements, ‘sky’s the limit’ for Notre Dame defense]

Quarterback DeShaun Watson is the X-factor here. He’s arguably the best quarterback in the country and could drive Clemson into the four-team playoff in his next two or three years, provided he’s not as injury-prone as his freshman season suggests. With leading receivers Mike Williams (57 catches, 1,030 yards) and Artavis Scott (76 catches, 965 yards) back plus a ton of young, talented pass-catchers, Watson won’t lack for targets.

Clemson does have to replace four starters on its offensive line, and its running game wasn’t very good last year. Twelve-sack defensive end Vic Beasley is gone, too, as well as the team’s leading tacklers from its defensive line, linebacking and secondary units. So there are some question marks here.

But the discussion with Clemson starts and ends with Watson. If he’s rolling on Oct. 3, Notre Dame won’t have any margin for error in its biggest game of the season.

Is Brian Kelly out at Notre Dame if new QB Brandon Wimbush’s rocket arm doesn’t deliver for Irish in 2017?

Is Brian Kelly out at Notre Dame if new QB Brandon Wimbush’s rocket arm doesn’t deliver for Irish in 2017?

A 4-8 season in 2016 has put Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly firmly on the hot seat as he heads into his eighth season with the Fighting Irish.

In response to a tumultuous season, Kelly made major changes to his staff this past offseason by hiring new coordinators on both sides of the ball.

Mike Elko, who previously led Wake Forest to an FBS Top-40 total defense ranking, was hired by Kelly to be Notre Dame's defensive coordinator, and Chip Long — former offensive coordinator at Memphis — will now be in charge of the Fighting Irish offense.

However, the biggest change and arguably the No. 1 factor in Kelly's long-term future in South Bend, will be the person under center in 2017.

Barring an unforeseen circumstance, junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush — a former Rivals four-star recruit — will lead Notre Dame out of the tunnel in Week 1 vs. Temple.

Wimbush has only thrown five passes during his time at Notre Dame, but showed what kind of talent he has with a 58-yard rushing touchdown as a freshman in 2015.

Wimbush was one of the focal points of a recent Rivals story regarding quarterbacks who will be facing pressure in 2017

Earlier this week, Rivals Recruiting Director Mike Farrell gave his scouting report on the Notre Dame quarterback.


I’m a big fan of Wimbush but that hasn’t always been the case. It’s not that I didn’t like him when I first scouted him before his high school career took off, but what I saw way back when was a kid who had a rocket arm and zero touch. But throughout his high school career he improved every time I saw him, showed much more than just a strong arm and flashed impressive poise for his age.

I’ve seen very limited action when it comes to Wimbush in college as he hasn’t played often and his spring game performance had ups and downs, but I believe in this kid’s ability. He can extend the play, has that great arm and just needs to get comfortable in the Notre Dame offense and make sure he doesn’t try to use that cannon to fit the ball into tight spots. I can see him having some growing pains this season, but as he gets more comfortable and learns to take what the defense gives him while keeping defenses off balance with his athletic ability, I think he’ll finish strong.

Will Wimbush's rocket arm be enough to save Kelly from the hot seat?

That's still to be determined.

Two views of Notre Dame's 2017 signing day class

Two views of Notre Dame's 2017 signing day class

After a handful of late additions sent in their national letters of intent to the Guglielmino Athletics Complex, Notre Dame on Wednesday announced its 21-player recruiting class of 2017. There are a couple of ways to view the end of what was a volatile recruiting period for the Irish:

The glass-half-full take:

Two and a half months after wrapping up an embarrassing 4-8 season, Notre Dame's 2017 recruiting class ranks 11th by 247 Sports, 13th by Rivals, 13th by Scout and 16th by ESPN. In fact, Notre Dame actually ranks higher this year in 247 Sports' composite rankings (11th) than it did in 2016 (15th), when the Irish were coming off a 10-win season and a Fiesta Bowl berth. 

Nearly scraping together a top-10 class after going 4-8 and losing four assistant coaches in Mike Sanford, Mike Denbrock, Scott Booker and Keith Gilmore is an impressive feat (Greg Hudson was only an interim defensive coordinator, and Brian VanGorder was far from a reliable recruiter). Plenty of kudos should be extended the way of recruiting coordinator/defensive line coach Mike Elston for heading up the program's efforts to keep what began as a pretty strong class from disintegrating. 

Additionally, coach Brian Kelly pointed to the work of the 15 verbally-committed players who stuck with their pledges even as Notre Dame sustained a string of confounding losses and significant coaching turnover. 

"We couldn't be where we are today unless we had 15 student-athletes that were committed to Notre Dame from the start to the finish," Kelly said. "Really during a very difficult season, this group of 15 really had to endure the things that would occur out there in recruiting during a very difficult season. Other schools reminding them about a very difficult season that we had. Then there was them sticking together because of why they wanted to come to Notre Dame."

Five of those players enrolled early — tight end Brock Wright, offensive linemen Robert Gainsay and Aaron Banks, running back C.J. Holmes and safety Isaiah Robertson, all of whom 247 sports rated as four-star recruits — and guys like tight end Cole Kmet, quarterback Avery Davis and offensive linemen Joshua Lugg never wavered, too. 

That those players stuck together helped Notre Dame maintain a good base after the NCAA-mandated dead period lifted after the College Football Playoff title game last month, and new coaches Brian Polian, Mike Elko, Clark Lea, Chip Long and DelVaughn Alexander were able to bring in six late additions to the class: safety Jordan Genmark Heath, wide receiver Jafar Armstrong, kicker Jonathan Doerer, defensive lineman Myron Tagovailoa, linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah and defensive lineman Kofi Wardlow. 

Armstrong, Tagovailoa and Wardlow all filled red-line positions of need, while adding more players to increase the pool of talent available to Elko is hardly a bad thing. 

But the optimistic viewpoint here is the deck was stacked against Notre Dame in recruiting, and they actually turned out a pretty good hand thanks to a complete effort from everyone in the athletic department. 

"Every weekend, Jack Swarbrick, our athletic director, met with our recruits," Kelly said. "That's unusual. I don't think that happens everywhere that your athletic director makes himself able to meet with recruits.

"In a lot of instances he had to be there to support our football program and talk to recruits about where this program is and where it's going. There are questions when a family comes on campus. He reminded them about the investment we were making in staff and what we were doing for the present and for the future. So having Jack's involvement in this was absolutely crucial to get to where we are."

Now, for the glass-half-empty take:

Notre Dame had six players decommit, five of whom were at positions of need (defensive line, cornerback, wide receiver). Only four-star defensive end Robert Beal jumped ship before Notre Dame's fall tailspin was underway, and four of those six decommitting players were four-star recruits. 

Notre Dame wound up replacing them with six late commitments, but five of those late-deciding players were three-star recruits and one (Doerner) was a two-star player. That's a good recipe for slipping from having a top-10 class to one on the outside looking in. 

A common lament among fans is that Notre Dame has struggled to sign five-star recruits lately, and while it's true the Irish haven't done that since 2013 — Jaylon Smith and Max Redfield, as rated by 247 Sports — that's not as big an issue as it may seem. Just look at the disparity in college success between Smith and Redfield as a front-and-center example of how a five-star rating doesn't guarantee success in college. Signing more four/five-star recruits than two/three-star ones is far more important (more on that in a bit). 

But the bigger issue with Notre Dame's 2017 class perhaps has more to do with its 2016 class. Notre Dame lost ace recruiters Tony Alford and Kerry Cooks after the 2014 season and re-worked its entire recruiting operation in response, which led to little oomph in a 2016 class that, based on the prior season, should've been much better than it was. 

Last year's group could ultimately build a legacy as a less-heralded crop of recruits that went on to success — the strong debuts of 247 Sports three-stars in cornerback Julian Love and wide receiver Kevin Stepherson were good starts — but there's a long way to go there. 

If 2016 was supposed to be a more transitional recruiting class, though, then 2017 represents a massive missed opportunity. Going 4-8 with all the right recruiting machinations in place is a glaring shortcoming for the future of the program — even a nine-win season could've allowed Notre Dame to hang on to some of those four-star players it lost and earn a top-10 class ranking. 

More importantly than a top-10 class, though, is pulling in more four- and five-star recruits than two and-three star ones. Notre Dame didn't do that in 2017 (10 four-star recruits out of 21) or 2016 (10 four-star recruits out of 23) after hitting that benchmark each of the last three recruiting cycles. That's a worrying trend given the correlation between signing a majority of four- and five-star recruits and winning a championship

The last two recruiting cycles have been, in that context, significant disappointment. While strong classes in 2014 and 2015 could prop up a playoff run as soon as this fall, the future of the program may not be on solid footing even if the Irish engineer a major turnaround in 2017. Next year's class likely will be critical to the long-term success of the program under Kelly, presuming he's still around to usher in the next group of recruits in February of 2018.