Notre Dame

Ranking Notre Dame's schedule: The trap games


Ranking Notre Dame's schedule: The trap games

Yesterday, we looked at the games Notre Dame should have no business not only winning, but winning easily. Unfortunately for the collective blood pressure of Irish fans, there are only two games on that list.

That means there are six games that fall under the “trap” category — games Notre Dame should win on paper, though following through on it may not be an easy endeavor. If Notre Dame wants to contend for a College Football Playoff spot, though, it can’t afford to have a loss to these six teams on its resume.

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

10. Texas (Sept. 5, South Bend, Ind.)
2014 record: 6-7
2014 F/+ rank: 53
Three-year record: 23-16
Three-year average F/+ rank: 36
Key players: QB Tyrone Swoopes (224/384, 2,409 YDS, 13/11 TD/INT; 82 CAR, 467 YDS, 4 TDs), DT Hassan Ridgeway (37 TKL, 9.5 TFL, 6 sacks)

Texas is a sleeping giant and very well could give Notre Dame problems when the teams meet in Austin to open the 2016 season. But Charlie Strong is still in the process of a massive overhaul of his powerhouse program, and it’d be somewhat surprising if the Longhorns came out of the gate strong in a primetime road game.

[MORE: Jerry Tillery shows he's ahead of the game]

On offense, Texas has to replace its leading rusher (Malcolm Brown), its two top receivers (John Harris and Jaxon Shipley) and its most experienced offensive line man (Dominic Espinosa). Gone from the defense are four front-seven stalwarts (Malcom Brown, Cedric Reed, Steve Edmond and Jordan Hicks) as well as two talented members of the secondary (Quandre Diggs, Mykkele Thompson).

What bodes well for Notre Dame is Texas’ run defense should take the biggest hit from those losses, which could allow Malk Zaire to get in a groove early and cruise in his first full game as a starter. Texas can’t survive on name recognition alone — eventually, it’ll have to make some strides as a program. But in Week 1 of Year 2 under Strong? Take the tradition and everything else away, and this is a game Notre Dame should win.

9. Virginia (Sept. 12, Charlottesville, Va.)
2014 record: 5-7
2014 F/+ rank: 39
Three-year record: 11-25
Three-year average F/+ rank: 67
Key players: DE Mike Moore (27 TKL, 8 TFLs, 3 sacks), CB Maurice Canady  (3 INT, 12 PBU)

Mike London’s side was only a few plays away from ending a three-year bowl drought last year, losing one-possession games to UCLA, BYU, Duke, North Carolina and Virginia Tech. But the Hoos did beat a good Louisville team at home in September, so it wouldn’t be unprecedented if they played Notre Dame tough this fall.

[MORE: Brian Kelly dismisses the NFL speculation]

Virginia has an excellent defense that’ll provide a stiff challenge for Zaire in his first true road game as a starter. But London’s offense needs improvement, and Virginia gets the 9th spot in these rankings given a work-in-progress ground/air attak may get off to a slow start. The Cavaliers open the season at UCLA Sept. 5, too, so Notre Dame shouldn’t have any surprises on film facing a team that can’t hold anything back in Week 1.

8. Temple (Oct. 31, Philadelphia, Pa.)
2014 record: 6-6
2014 F/+ rank: 67
Three-year record: 12-23
Three-year average F/+ rank: 89
Key players: QB P.J. Walker (203/381, 2,137 YDS, 13/15 TD/INT; 78 CAR, 451 YDS, 3 TD), LB Tyler Matakevich (102.5 TKL, 10.5 TFL, 1.5 sacks)

Matt Rhule’s Owls shouldn’t be underestimated, and a road game on Halloween isn’t the easiest proposition. The nearly-November timing of this game is why it gets ranked ahead Virginia.

Temple’s arrow is pointing up and it returns almost all the players on a defense that limited opponents to 17.5 points per game and 4.75 yards per play last year. Just look at what the Owls did to Gunner Kiel and Cincinnati: Kiel only managed 174 yards and a lone touchdown while the Bearcats’ rushing attack averaged 2.5 yards per carry.

[MORE: C.J. Prosise exits spring as Notre Dame's biggest rising star]

Temple lost that game, 14-6, but Cincinnati averaged 34 points per game while Kiel averaged 250 yards per game and threw 31 touchdowns in 2014. The biggest question for Temple this fall will be if they can score enough points, but their defense is absolutely good enough to compete for an AAC title. 

Still, the optics of a close win over or loss to a non-Power Five opponent wouldn't be good. Notre Dame will come off a bye week to play Temple and could get burned if it overlooks this game.

7. Boston College (Nov. 21, Boston, Ma.)
2014 record: 7-6
2014 F/+ rank: 36
Three-year record: 16-22
Three-year average F/+ rank: 63
Key players: RB Jon Hillman (211 CAR, 860 YDS, 13 TD), DE Kevin Kavalec (35.5 TKL, 10.5 TFL, 3.5 sacks)

In 2014, Boston College impressively beat USC, hung with Florida State and Clemson and narrowly lost to Penn State in the Pinstripe Bowl. That team had Florida transfer QB Tyler Murphy (1,332 rushing yards, 11 TDs) and an experience offensive line. Steve Addazio’s 2015 group doesn’t have that.

[MORE: Notre Dame eyes bigger impact for Jaylon Smith]

Boston College has to replace its starting center, left guard, right tackle and left tackle as well as its quarterback/leading rusher and leading receiver (Josh Bordner, 346 yards on 27 catches). The Eagles’ front seven is largely intact but a shaky secondary lost a few regulars.

Given this is a November night game, and it’ll be played in Boston College’s backyard at Fenway Park, there’s always the possibility something odd happening. But with so many key players to replace on offense, Addazio’s Eagles shouldn't be as strong as they were last year.

6. Navy (Oct. 10, South Bend, Ind.)
2014 record: 8-5
2014 F/+ rank: 44
Three-year record: 25-14
Three-year average F/+ rank: 65
Key players: QB Keenan Reynolds (231 CAR, 1,311 YDS, 23 TD), FB Chris Swaim (103 CAR, 693 YDS, 4 TD)

After getting blown out by 40 points in his first crack at Notre Dame, Keenan Reynolds has terrorized Irish defenders and put back-to-back scares into Brian Kelly’s side. It took Jaylon Smith’s fourth-down stop for Notre Dame to avoid a home loss to Navy in 2013, and the Irish needed Everett Golson’s fourth quarter touchdown run to secure a 10-point win in 2014.

[MORE: Notre Dame, Navy officially to play in Jacksonville in 2016]

In Reynolds’ three seasons as a regular starter, Navy is 11 games over .500 and made three straight bowl games. While bruising fullback Noah Copeland isn’t back, Reynolds is still here and could cement a pretty strong legacy in Annapolis with a win over Notre Dame. As usual, this one won’t be easy for the Irish.

5. Pitt (Nov. 7, Pittsburgh, Pa.)
2014 record: 6-7
2014 F/+ rank: 43
Three-year record: 19-20
Three-year average F/+ rank: 48
Key players: RB James Conner (298 CAR, 1,765 YDS, 26 TD), DT Rori Blair (14 TKL, 5.5 TFLs, 5 sacks)

There isn’t much separation between the difficulty level of these six games. So why is Pitt at No. 5? It’s a November night game, Pitt has played Notre Dame tough the last three times they’ve played — including a Panters win at Heinz Field in 2013 — and first-year coach and former Michigan State defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi very well could have his defense rolling by the time these two teams meet.

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

Running back James Conner is one of the best in the country, and wide receiver Tyler Boyd — who was arrested in June for DUI — is a go-to target for quarterback Chad Voytik. There are good offensive pieces in place, and with Narduzzi being a defensive guy it’s reasonable to expect the Panthers to be a tough challenge for Zaire & Co.

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.