Notre Dame

Schedule watch: Like Notre Dame, Stanford hitting its low point of 2016

Schedule watch: Like Notre Dame, Stanford hitting its low point of 2016

Notre Dame is 2-4 and, to become bowl eligible, needs to win four of its final six games: Stanford, Miami, Navy, Army, Virginia Tech and USC. 

The good news is only one of those games is a true road game (USC to end the season). The better news is Stanford lost back-to-back games to Washington and Washington State by incredible margins that harken back to the dark days of the program.

The bad news is what those teams did this weekend, which continued to cement the fact that an Irish team with four bad losses and two weak-opponent wins have an awfully treacherous path to six wins the rest of the way. 

Your weekly Irish opponent power ranking:

1. Miami (4-1)
2. Virginia Tech (4-1)
3. Navy (4-1)
4. USC (3-3)
5. N.C. State (4-1)
6. Stanford (3-2)
7. Texas (2-3)
8. Duke (3-3)
9. Michigan State (2-3)
10. Army (3-2)
11. Syracuse (2-3)
12. Nevada (3-3)

Notre Dame would probably rank 10th or 11th in these. On to Week 6:

Texas: Lost, 45-40, to Oklahoma

The Charlie Strong era is on thin ice. Guess Texas wasn’t back after all after beating Notre Dame. 

Nevada: Won, 27-22, vs. Fresno State

The Wolf Pack held off a weak Fresno State side in Reno and could get to six wins only because the Mountain West doesn’t have much depth this year. 

Michigan State: Lost, 31-14, vs. BYU

A 17-point home defeat to BYU is the latest head-scratching result for Mark Dantonio’s side that mercifully enters a bye week on a three-game losing streak. It looks like that streak of three consecutive double digit-win seasons will come to an end in 2016. 

Duke: Won, 13-6, vs. Army

After beating Notre Dame this year, Texas, Michigan State and Duke are 2-7, with this win accounting for half that total (Texas’ win over UTEP is the other). 

Syracuse: Lost, 28-9, at Wake Forest

A week after carving up Notre Dame for 33 points, Eric Dungey only threw for 156 yards with an interception and struggled to find Amba Etta-Tawo (four receptions, 36 yards). Give Wake Forest coach Dave Clawson plenty of credit for getting the Demon Deacons to 5-1, but maybe Notre Dame should give Wake Forest defensive coordinator Mike Elko a look given how solid his short-on-talent defense (without a single former four-star recruit) has been this year. 

Stanford: Lost, 42-16, vs. Washington State

After clipping a long at a Stanford-esque pace with wins over K-State, UCLA and USC, Stanford has lost its last two games by a combined score of 86-22 to a very good Washington team and a Wazzu side that opened the season with a loss to FCS side Eastern Washington. To make matters worse, Christian McCaffrey rushed eight times for 35 yards and was “banged up” in the second half. This is the worst Stanford has looked since the early days of the Jim Harbaugh era. But will that matter for Notre Dame on Saturday?

Miami: Lost, 20-19, vs. Florida State

A blocked PAT ruined Miami’s undefeated season, and Florida State clamped down on the ‘Canes ground game — Joseph Yearby and Mark Walton combined for only 68 yards on 24 carries. The worry here is this was Miami’s first difficult test of the season, and Mark Richt’s ‘Canes will need to rebound with games against North Carolina and at Virginia Tech in the span of five days before heading to South Bend to face Notre Dame at the end of the month. There’s still a ton of top-end talent here, but depth remains a concern. 

Navy: Won, 46-40. vs. Houston

The Mids played their best game of the year by far, racking up 306 rushing yards — and getting Will Worth to throw two touchdowns — while intercepting Greg Ward Jr. twice in a major upset in Annapolis. Navy had struggled a bit up until this game, barely squeaking by UConn (by four) and Tulane (by seven) before losing at Air Force Oct. 1. Full credit to coach Ken Niumatalolo for getting this effort out of his players, which effectively eliminated the Group of Five from College Football Playoff contention. 

Army: Lost, 13-6, to Duke

This game was played a few miles up the road from Raleigh in Durham, and the weather conditions weren’t much better than they were for Notre Dame’s slop-fest against N.C. State. Army turned the ball over three times and now has lost two games in a row after that energetic 3-0 start. Up next for the Black Knights are home games against Louisiana-Lafayette and North Texas that could make or break their bowl chances this year. 

Virginia Tech: Won, 34-3, at North Carolina

A little further west from Raleigh-Durham, a Virginia Tech team with a budding star at quarterback (Jerod Evans) and an All-American candidate receiver (Isaiah Ford, though he was injured Saturday) rushed 66 times. The Hokies won by 31 while Tarheels quarterback Mitch Trubisky went 13/33 for 58 yards with two interceptions. Committing to the run worked for Virginia Tech, which now has won its last three games by 49, 37 and 31 points. 

USC: Won, 21-17,  vs. Colorado

The Trojans spoiled Colorado’s first week in the AP top 25 since 2005, with Sam Darnold’s seven-yard touchdown toss to Tyler Petite serving as the game-winner midway through the fourth quarter. Darnold was fantastic again, going 25/37 for 358 yards with three touchdowns and an interception. Clay Helton isn’t off the hot seat just yet, but winnable games at Arizona, vs. Cal and vs. Oregon could get USC to bowl safety by early November. 

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.