Last week Jerry Palm of CBS Sports predicted that Notre Dame would be one of the four playoff teams this season. Outside of the Irish fan base, this prediction may seem a little out there to most because the Irish lost quite a few key parts to last years 10-3 squad. But is this prediction really that bold? Is it really that out there? If you really think about it, it’s really not. You’re probably sitting there thinking, “this is just some super ND biased way of thinking.” Just hear me out.
Reloading, not replacing
Yes, the Irish lost an awful lot from last season with Jaylon Smith, Will Fuller, C.J. Prosise, Sheldon Day, KeiVarae Russell, Ronnie Stanley and Nick Martin but they reload at each of those positions.
Smith was an absolute freak and it’s almost impossible to replace him, but they have three very capable and promising players there to replace him in Greer Martini, Tevon Coney and Asmar Bilal.
Fuller might be even harder than Smith to replace because Fuller made such a big impact on the offensive side of the ball. He gave Notre Dame a big play threat that’ll be hard to replace. Nonetheless though, the Irish have a few talented candidates to fill that void in Torii Hunter Jr, Equanimeous St. Brown, Miles Boykin and Chase Claypool.
We all know that they’re loaded at running back, so the loss of Prosise shouldn’t hurt too much.
Day brought leadership as well as great skills, but Isaac Rochell is back to take over that role and some younger players are emerging in fall camp such as Jay Hayes and Daelin Hayes.
Shaun Crawford is back to step into Russell’s spot and the early returns on him have been great. Nick Coleman has also looked great in fall camp as well.
Mike McGlinchey has moved over to left tackle and reports from camp have been that he’s been absolutely mauling guys in practice.
The point here is really when good programs lose good players, they replace them with more good players and Notre Dame is doing just that. Notre Dame is well beyond the years when say Brady Quinn’s class left, they had nothing there to replace them with. The talent level is well up across the board.
Commitment to the run game
For the first time since perhaps the Lou Holtz era, the Irish averaged over 200 yards on the ground last season. Five of the first eight playoff teams averaged 200 yards rushing. Last year’s Alabama squad averaged 199 yards on the ground, so if you wanted to round up they would make it six.
The strength of Notre Dame’s offense this season should be the running game. They have three capable backs in Josh Adams, Tarean Folston and Dexter Williams. Whoever is the quarterback, either DeShone Kizer or Malik Zaire, will also offer a running threat as well.
Notre Dame has been able to produce some great offensive lines the past 3-4 seasons and this season shouldn’t be any different with guys like McGlinchey, Quenton Nelson and newcomers like Alex Bars.
Assuming Brian Kelly remains committed to the running game, and he should, the Irish will rush for 200+ yards and will push hard for playoff spot.
Scheduling setting up in the Irish favor
The other point is that this isn’t the toughest schedule Notre Dame has ever faced. Yes, there are some big name programs like Texas, Michigan State, Stanford, Miami, Virginia Tech and USC, but almost every single one those opponents are in some type of transition period.
Charlie Strong is still trying to rebuild Texas back into one of the premier powers.
Michigan State has to find a way to replace their quarterback after the graduation of Connor Cook. They also have to replace some of their other key contributors in Aaron Burbridge, Jack Allen, Jack Conklin and Shilique Calhoun.
Stanford brings back Heisman favorite Christian McCaffrey, but also has to find a way to replace quarterback Kevin Hogan as well as a few offensive lineman.
Miami is going into their first year with head coach Mark Richt.
Virginia Tech also has a first year head coach in Justin Fuente and on top of that the VT program has been down the past few seasons.
USC has to replace the third most prolific passer in school history in Cody Kessler, S’ua Cravens and a few offensive lineman.
Notre Dame also gets three of these opponents at home (MSU, Stanford and Miami). The Irish have defended home turf really well since Kelly has been at Notre Dame. They have just lost eight times in that span, with five of those losses coming in the first two years.
Don’t get me wrong these are formidable opponents and they shouldn’t be taken lightly, but one can definitely see Notre Dame winning all of these games. There just isn’t a team like a Florida State or a Clemson on the schedule this season.
The rest of the teams on Notre Dame’s schedule (Nevada, Duke, Syracuse, NC State, Navy and Army) are all very winnable games.
The Notre Dame naysayers may call you crazy or just flat out stupid, but 11-12 wins and a playoff spot should be a realistic expectation this season. If there was ever to make a run and grab a playoff spot, 2016 would be it. They have the talent and the schedule sets up in their favor.