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Leftovers & Links: Speculating on Notre Dame’s 2021 over/under

Notre Dame North Carolina

Notre Dame’s Kyren Williams (23) rushes past North Carolina’s Jeremiah Gemmell (44) for a gain of 11 yards in the fourth quarter on Friday, November 27, 2020 at Kenan Stadium in Chapel Hill, N.C. Williams rushed for 124 yards and two touchdown in Notre Dame’s 31-17 victory.

It feels more and more likely Notre Dame plays its 2021 season as scheduled, certainly more plausible than it did two months ago if not yet a sure thing. Thus, it no longer feels like a potential waste of time to look at that 2021 schedule and speculate how the Irish will fare.

How welcome it is to once again ponder the program viabilities of USC, Stanford and Navy. Never has the triple-option been so endearing. (Let’s skip the bickering over that opinion until the morning of Nov. 6.)

Working through this exercise now may feel premature despite finally sensing a semblance of the end of the coronavirus pandemic, what with spring practice still a couple weeks away, with a portion of transfers to then unfold, with an entire summer to debate these things. But that is the entire point, to establish a baseline of expectations to work from for the next 175 days.

Before beginning, let’s cite two rankings to build from. The first, Phil Steele’s annual AP top-10 prediction. This is not Steele’s top 10, but what he expects the AP to produce in August. An understanding of that voter pool and a thorough grasp of the national landscape has led to Steele’s top-10 prediction being remarkably accurate over the years, and in this rendition, he slots Notre Dame at No. 7, immediately in front of North Carolina and just ahead of No. 10 Cincinnati.

The second, Bill Connelly’s ever-reliable SP+ projections, the preseason version built on returning production, recent recruiting and recent history. SP+ data puts the Irish at No. 25, behind No. 9 Wisconsin, No. 10 North Carolina, No. 15 Cincinnati and No. 17 USC. Do note, SP+ is based entirely on data. In interviews — this space most recently heard him on the “Going for Two” podcast — Connelly readily suggests Notre Dame has established enough of a track record these last four years to be considered better than the No. 25 team in the country, if not so high as Steele’s No. 7 expectation of the AP.

The real takeaway from those two reference points is that the Irish schedule will have its challenges, even if the offseason storyline “Notre Dame will have more talent than every one of its opponents” is already rolling in some corners. Assuming that without getting a look at Wisconsin’s or Cincinnati’s development is a bit presumptuous, particularly if this offseason does take a form close to normal, and overlooking North Carolina is not a mistake this space is about to make.

Only five teams in the country won at least eight games last year while returning both their starting quarterback and their head coach with at least three top-20 recruiting classes on their roster. The Tar Heels are one of those five (along with Georgia, Oklahoma, Miami and Washington).

But the Irish should still be favored in every game in 2021, in no small part because of their top-seven opponents (Connelly’s four followed by Virginia Tech, Purdue and Georgia Tech in some order), only one awaits Notre Dame on the road. The Irish welcome five to South Bend and will meet the Badgers in Chicago, assuming all things proceed as planned. They travel to Blacksburg, but recent years have shown the “Enter Sandman” entrance may be all that is intimidating about that trip anymore.

Which brings us to speculating on the Notre Dame season win total over/under. Being favored in all 12 games does not mean the Irish will go 12-0. They have built this four-year resurgence on beating everyone they are supposed to, though, so that raises the floor of this exercise, as does bringing in a veteran quarterback transfer like Jack Coan from Wisconsin.

Notre Dame has still lost games against stiff competition (Georgia, Miami, Georgia, Michigan). It happens. Let’s not turn this into a tangent on that aside from granting the fact that teams lose in big games is part of what makes college football so entertaining.

If you remember from years past, this thought process attaches a decimal value to each game, a rough win probability, and only a few games can earn a true 1.0. Use this old rule of thumb, if they played the game 10 times, how many would the Irish win? Working chronologically …

at Florida State: 0.7, in part because the Seminoles are gradually improving upon their nadir of the last couple years, in part because the season-opener should be granted a grain of salt, particularly when Notre Dame is replacing four offensive linemen.

vs. Toledo: 1.0, need we say more?
vs. Purdue: 0.9, this may be a transitional year for the Boilermakers, frustrating for them after a truncated 2020.vs. Wisconsin at Soldier Field: 0.5, more exact win probabilities will put this somewhere between 0.4 and 0.6, so let’s just call it the coin flip it may be.

vs. Cincinnati: 0.7, a number that would drop to 0.5 if it was on the road.
at Virginia Tech: 0.8, see above.vs. USC: 0.8, the last time the Irish beat the Trojans in four straight? 1983-1993.vs. North Carolina: 0.5, see above. Really, the Tar Heels are going to be good, even with some turnover in their offensive skill positions.

vs. Navy: 1.0, unless the triple-option somehow proves to be Marcus Freeman’s kryptonite.
at Virginia: 0.8, no true road game should have a 1.0 rating, particularly since Notre Dame would never play a Toledo on the road.vs. Georgia Tech: 0.9, knocked down only because the Yellow Jackets may be on the verge of breaking through into competence.

at Stanford: 0.9, not a 1.0 only because of the Virginia disclaimer.

That equals 9.5 expected wins.

When sportsbooks start doling out season win total over/unders, a 9.5 will be reasonable for the Irish, even when replacing the winningest quarterback in school history, four offensive linemen, their top receiver, their best defender and half the defensive line. A win total over/under of 9.5 is both a reflection of the credibility Notre Dame has earned and of its coming schedule.

If the Irish were not as consistent as they have been of late, the Wisconsin-Cincinnati-North Carolina trifecta begins to look like a hopefully one win out of the three scenario, instead of a probably wins at least two of them scenario. If Notre Dame was not respected, then the other nine games would include at least one loss instead of at most one loss.

Given the Irish have won — hold on, let’s find that note, it’s in this running legal pad somewhere — 32 straight games against unranked opponents, the only concern of those other nine games should be USC. Kedon Slovis aside, anyone expecting Notre Dame to go 9-0 in those games should target the over when win totals come out and simply trust Freeman and Kelly to beat their most-recent employer.

Divisional Round - Tampa Bay Buccaneers v New Orleans Saints

NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA - JANUARY 17: Drew Brees #9 of the New Orleans Saints warms up prior to the NFC Divisional Playoff game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Mercedes Benz Superdome on January 17, 2021 in New Orleans, Louisiana. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

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The long-known, expected, anticipated retirement of Drew Brees also means the long-known, expected, anticipated announcement of the former New Orleans Saints quarterback joining the “ND on NBC” booth. This inevitability leaked some time ago but became official with Brees’ Sunday retirement and Monday morning appearance on the TODAY Show.

“I’m part of the (NBC Sports) team now, a new team,” Brees said. “I’m excited about that journey. I’m excited to stay very closely connected with the game of football. It’s been such an important part of my life. I can continue to talk about it and show a passion for it.”

Those platitudes aside, Brees should bring plenty of applicable insight to the broadcast, given how increasingly college football and the NFL steal concepts from each other, not to mention his extensive experience at Notre Dame Stadium. Okay, maybe not extensive, but there are only so many excuses to mention Gary Godsey.

RELATED READING: 30 Years of Notre Dame on NBC: Godsey heroics provide Davie hope

This space did not devote a full article to Notre Dame’s announcement of a 2023 date with Central Michigan for two reasons:

1) It is a 2023 date with Central Michigan. Sept, 16, to be exact, at Notre Dame Stadium.2) Taking some mid-week, mid-day time out of pocket seems advisable as we stretch into the 53rd week of the pandemic, and so a noon release on a Thursday went unread for a few hours.

Anyway, Brain Kelly’s reunion with the Chippewas will come a week before Ohio State visits South Bend. One of those will certainly be broadcast in primetime on NBC, who can say which.

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