Notre Dame

No. 6 Notre Dame will need help for College Football Playoff


No. 6 Notre Dame will need help for College Football Playoff

The latest College Football Playoff rankings aren’t necessarily a death knell for Notre Dame’s hopes of being tabbed for the four-team bracket Dec. 5. But, in all likelihood, the now-No. 6 Irish will not only need to beat No. 9 Stanford, but they’ll also need to get some help.

After two weeks of being described by selection committee chairman Jeff Long as “solidly” No. 4, Notre Dame slipped two spots while Oklahoma rocketed up four spots to No. 3. With the Sooners traveling to Stillwater to face No. 11 Oklahoma State on Saturday, if Notre Dame and Oklahoma both win this weekend, Oklahoma likely will get in no matter how good or bad either team looks in their respective game.

As it turns out, Oklahoma’s loss to Texas — a team Notre Dame beat by five touchdowns in its season opener — wasn’t a deterrent to ranking the Sooners ahead of the Irish.

“I think it's more a function of how Oklahoma has performed since that loss,” Long said. “They have performed at a high level since then, so they've overcome that loss with their play on the field and the success they've had and the wins they've accumulated, with now six wins over teams with .500 or better records. So it's more a function of how they've played and performed that has moved them past that loss to Texas.”

[MORE: Notre Dame needs DeShone Kizer to learn from ‘humbling’ BC game]

And here’s another problem for Notre Dame: If Oklahoma beats Oklahoma State to win the Big 12 on Saturday, the committee would have to view the Irish as a significantly better team to put them ahead of the Sooners.

“It's clearly different,” Long said when asked about ranking an independent and a conference champion when all things are equal. “They're clearly ahead or they're clearly better than the team they're up against.”

If your question is why Oklahoma was able to significantly jump Notre Dame when it only beat TCU by one over the weekend (it needed a last-minute stop on a two-point conversion to hang on), Long said the way the Sooners played before quarterback Baker Mayfield and running backs Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine (Perine returned, Mixon didn’t) left the game with a suspected head injury carried more weight than how Oklahoma played after that point.

“I think when the quarterback went out, and I think later the running back went out, as well, they were solidly in control of that game in the committee's view,” Long said. “And yes, they held on to win that game against a ranked opponent, but certainly we evaluate that game based on the quarterback being out in the second half, and we believe that had an impact.”

[SHOP: Gear up, Notre Dame fans!]

So that’s the committee’s line of thinking on Oklahoma. Notre Dame isn’t changing it, no matter how well coach Brian Kelly campaigns for his team’s strength of schedule or how angry fans get. Maybe the committee changes its mind after this weekend — it’s not like that didn’t happen last year, when Ohio State went from No. 6 to No. 4 in the final rankings — but most likely, the upshot of Tuesday’s rankings is that Notre Dame needs some help.

The first chance of that would be with some Big 12 chaos. An Oklahoma State win over Oklahoma would solve plenty of problems, as would TCU knocking Baylor out on Friday. Notre Dame almost certainly would be in the playoff over an 11-1 Oklahoma State side, even if the Cowboys are conference champions. Baylor would be trickier, given its Dec. 5 game against Texas and status as conference champion if it wins out and Oklahoma loses.

Another plausible scenario involved some chaos in the Big Ten. If Michigan State loses to Penn State, the winner of the Ohio State-Michigan game will go to the Big Ten Championship. If it’s Ohio State, the winner of the Big Ten title game still gets in; if it’s Michigan and the two-loss Wolverines beat Iowa, the Big Ten probably would be shut out of the playoff.

Less likely is Alabama losing to Auburn this weekend — the game is at Auburn, but Gus Malzahn’s Tigers haven’t shown anything that would indicate they’ll put up a legitimate fight on Saturday. If Alabama does succumb to a massive upset, and Ole Miss beats Mississippi State, the two-loss Rebels would play Florida (which has a tough game against Florida State this weekend) in the SEC Championship. It’s unlikely the SEC will be shut out of the playoff, though if it has a two-loss champion it’d create an interesting conundrum that could benefit Notre Dame.

[MORE: Notre Dame OC Mike Sanford tuning out coaching rumors]

And then there’s the chance North Carolina upsets Clemson in the ACC Championship Dec. 5. It’s unclear what the committee would do if its undefeated No. 1 team lost in the season’s final week, but there’s the possibility Notre Dame gets in over Clemson even despite its Oct. 3 loss in Death Valley.

All of these scenarios, of course, only matter in South Bend if Notre Dame beats Stanford on Saturday. But for that win to count in the College Football Playoff race, Notre Dame will need some help in Fort Worth, Stillwater, East Lansing, and Ann Arbor.

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.