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Friday at 4: Under the radar notes on Notre Dame’s opponents

Louisiana Lafayette v Georgia

ATHENS, GA - NOVEMBER 19: Nick Chubb #27 of the Georgia Bulldogs is congratulated by Jacob Eason #10 after scoring a touchdown against the Lousiana-Lafayette Rajin’ Cajuns at Sanford Stadium on November 19, 2016 in Athens, Georgia. (Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images)

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Notre Dame will face Temple in only 71 days. The Irish will begin fall practice in six weeks, give or take a day. College football kicks off in only 63 days. Frankly, the offseason is far closer to being behind us than anything else.

That is underscored by the release of Phil Steele’s 2017 preview. There are other preview publications, and certainly others of great value, but Steele’s stands alone in its numbers-driven approach which leads to an unparalleled thoroughness. That combined with his reputation and marketing acumen (as in, Steele has great timing — everyone is starved for college football conversation toward the end of June) leads to Steele’s preview getting cited the most often in college football writing, and this space will be no different.

At 352 pages, it takes more than a few days to digest all of Steele’s analysis. For now, let’s simply rattle off a smattering of quick thoughts and observations about Notre Dame’s opponents gathered after a first read-through of Steele’s profiles on each. A discussion of Irish thoughts should come down the line, hopefully in much more depth.

Why only quick thoughts and observations? If nothing else, because of a recognition of reality. Trying to summarize Phil Steele’s preview into one column is akin to explaining all of a “The Fast and the Furious” movie with only one quote. You will lose far too much in the way of nuance and insight.

  • Most will remember Temple lost its head coach, Matt Rhule, to Baylor. Few will realize the Owls are also replacing a four-year starter at quarterback.
  • Most will recognize Georgia’s vaunted rushing attack, featuring Steele’s No. 7 and No. 11 running backs in the country in Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, respectively, but few will expect the Bulldogs defense to be its backbone. In head coach Kirby Smart’s second season, Georgia returns 10 defensive starters. That is a recipe for success, and part of the reason Steele rates Georgia as his No. 10 surprise team this season. Sophomore quarterback Jacob Eason undoubtedly has a role in that, as well.
  • Boston College will continue to struggle this year, but its defense should keep the Eagles more competitive than in the last few years, led by Steele’s No. 1 outside linebacker in the country, senior Harold Landry. Outside linebacker may not be the most-accurate description, as Steele also slots Landry in at defensive end on his All-American first-team.
  • Steele largely saw last year’s struggles coming for Michigan State, though even he did not anticipate the 3-9 debacle. With three one-possession losses last year and no such wins, the Spartans were in position to be one of Steele’s “Most-Improved Teams” this season before off-field issues led to the dismissal of five key players. Now, Michigan State’s resurgence could take a bit more time, not that the on-field record is the most important part of that situation.
  • Notre Dame fans generally take more of an interest in Miami (Ohio) than outside observers may expect with former Irish offensive coordinator Chuck Martin leading the Redhawks. There are many indicators of Martin’s gradual success with the downtrodden program. Steele points out two in-depth ones. Last year, Martin’s roster had only 15 upperclassmen. Basic math tells you that means he had 70 underclassmen, and still managed a six-game winning streak to close the regular season.

Secondly, Miami has gradually increased its competitiveness within its conference. In 2013 conference play, the Redhawks were outgained by 195.4 yards per game. In 2014, 70.5 and in 2015, 34.5. Last year, they flipped the script and outgained their opponents by 13.4 yards per game.

  • North Carolina could face an uphill climb this year, having lost its starting quarterback Mitch Trubisky, starting running back Elijah Hood and top receiver and playmaking threat Ryan Switzer.
  • This entry could be as simple as one line: USC is going to be really good. Rather than delve too deeply into its roster (featuring Steele’s No. 1 quarterback, No. 3 running back and No. 2 cornerback) or debating its ceiling, how about a note specific to sophomore quarterback Sam Darnold’s performance last year, with a caveat attached?

USC averaged 34.4 points per game in its 13 games last year, including the bowl game. Darnold, then a freshman, started the final 10 of those, and the Trojans averaged 38.6 points per game. The caveat: Two of those three opening opponents were Alabama and Stanford, who held USC to six and 10 points, respectively.

Steele projects Darnold to win the Heisman Trophy and likely go No. 1 in the 2018 NFL Draft.

  • North Carolina State is trending upward this year following back-to-back 7-6 seasons, and will travel to Notre Dame following a bye week.
  • Most will remember Wake Forest lost its defensive coordinator Mike Elko to a small school in northern Indiana. Few will realize the Demon Deacons also return only five defensive starters.
  • Steele rates Miami as his No. 2 surprise team this year, even without quarterback Brad Kaaya who left some eligibility on the table in order to enter the NFL. The Hurricanes will rely on its defensive front seven, headlined by Steele’s No. 7 linebacker unit in the country. Miami also has the No. 2 special teams grouping.
  • Most will fear Navy’s arrival on the schedule due to its option-rush attack. Few will realize the Midshipmen return eight defensive starters this year and could be an unexpectedly strong team on that side of the ball, as well.
  • Most will remember Stanford lost both defensive tackle Solomon Thomas and running back/playmaker Christian McCaffrey to the NFL Draft. Few will recognize the Cardinal still return eight starters on each side of the ball, a big part of the reason Steele rates Stanford as his No. 3 surprise team and No. 14 team in his power poll, a ranking based on teams’ strengths alone, not factoring in scheduling quirks.

Now then, this scribe is late for a rehearsal dinner, and you’re late for beginning your weekend early. After all, you can count the weekends left before Notre Dame football starts on your two hands. Enjoy these carefree days while they are still around.