We are four days into the off-season, and I am already looking ahead to the 2020 season for the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. Despite the losses of Chase Claypool, Alohi Gilman, Khalid Kareem, Julian Okwara, and several others to the NFL draft, the Irish are positioned to make a strong push for the College Football Playoff thanks to the return of Ian Book for his senior season. In a scheduling quirk, the Irish will play more neutral site games (4) than road games (2) during the upcoming season. While we all know games against the Clemson Tigers and Wisconsin Badgers will define the season, I wanted to look at three potential landmines to worry about for next year.
1. October 17th at Pittsburgh
There are several reasons to worry about this game. The Irish will take on the Panthers after physical contests against Wisconsin and Stanford. Miraculously, Notre Dame always seems to come out of the yearly Stanford contest unscathed. However, facing power-oriented football teams in back to back weeks does increase the risk of Notre Dame suffering a key injury or two. Furthermore, Notre Dame should be at an emotional peak against the Badgers. Teams typically suffer a letdown the following week, though with Stanford coming to town on October 10th, the proverbial letdown could be pushed back an additional week. Notre Dame did go 5-1 against the Panthers over the last decade, though the average margin of victory was a mere 6 points. Traditionally, Pittsburgh has played one of its better games of the year when they face off against Notre Dame. Pat Narduzzi returns as the head coach for Pittsburgh after going 8-5 this season. Dating back to his time as a defensive coordinator at Michigan State, Narduzzi has held the Irish to an average of 23 points per game. Though a new offensive coordinator could make an impact against Narduzzi, history shows that it doesn’t seem to matter who is calling plays for the Irish. The Panthers will return senior signal caller Kenny Pickett. Pickett threw for 3,098 yards, 13 TDs, 9 Ints, and had a 61.6% completion percentage during the 2019 campaign. A.J. Davis returns for his senior season after totaling 799 total yards from scrimmage and adding 4 touchdowns. Although not the production we are accustomed to from a Panther back, Davis was a 4 star back, per 247Sports Composite Rankings, coming out of high school. A positive for the Irish is the Pickett led offense only totaled 21.2 points per contest last season, which ranked 114th in the country. With Clark Lea continuing as defensive coordinator, one has to expect that the Panthers will struggle to score in this contest. Another thing to keep an eye on is whether or not the ACC gives Pittsburgh a bye week prior to this contest, which they had a habit of doing last season for ACC teams playing the Irish.
2. November 21st versus Louisville
This is an extremely sneaky game on the schedule. Notre Dame will face Georgia Tech the week prior to this game. Scott Satterfield enters his second season as the Cardinals’ head coach, after debuting with an 8-5 record during the 2019 season. Louisville signed 24 players during the early signing period and expect to add 3-4 more players to this year’s 2020 recruiting class. In addition, Ja’Darien Boykin, a 2019 recruit who failed to qualify academically in the fall, will be eligible for the 2020 season. Boykin was the 19th best weak side defensive in the 2019 class and had a 4 star 247Sports Composite Ranking. This infusion of talent will boost a roster that underwent significant changes on both sides of the ball. The offense switched from a pro-style scheme to a run heavy offense that emphasized play action passing. The defense made the transition from a pro 4-3 defense to an attacking 3-4 scheme. Teams often realize their potential in Year 2 of a new scheme. With this game being played at the end of November, expect both sides of the ball to be clicking when they roll into South Bend. Based on Louisville’s schedule, they could be 8-2 or even 9-1 entering this contest. Though no one remains on the roster from the 2014 game Louisville did defeat the Irish in their only trip to Notre Dame Stadium. The key to the 2020 campaign may be quarterback Micale Cunningham. Cunningham did not play against the Irish in the 2019 season opener due to injury. He started 11 games, though he only left 4 games early due to injury or illness. He finished the year with 2,061 yards passing, 22 TDs, 5 Ints, and a 62.4% completion percentage. Louisville will return its top two running backs (Javian Hawkins and Hassan Hall), top tight end (Marshon Ford), and top two wide receivers (Chatarius Atwell and Dez Fitzpatrick). The coaching staff made it known at the end of the year that the playbook during 2019 was extremely vanilla due to injuries, inexperience, and depth issues at several positions. The Irish should ready themselves for a potential track meet in this contest.
3. August 29th against Navy (Dublin, Ireland)
Season openers are a crap shoot, especially those that take place on a different continent. People fret about this game each and every year. Despite the constant worrying, Notre Dame managed an 8-2 record against the Midshipmen over the past decade. In 6 of those 8 games, the Irish won by double digits. Heck, this year the game was over by the end of the first quarter. However, Navy did win 11 games this season and remains a threat based solely on their style of play. One off day from the offense could result in disaster due to the limited possessions. With that being said, Clark Lea has handcuffed Navy’s offense with his game plans each of the past two seasons. Furthermore, the Irish have the added benefit of being able to spend as much time as they want during fall camp focusing on stopping the vaunted triple option. On the other hand, that also provides Ken Niumatalolo plenty of time to come up with a few new wrinkles to throw at Notre Dame. Navy will need to replace their stalwart quarterback, Malcom Perry, as he concluded his four year career this during the 2019 season. Perry Olsen, a freshman, appears to be next in line to take the reins at quarterback. Olsen saw spot duty in 7 games, rushing for 80 yards and passing for 45 yards. Not exactly a large sample size to go on. Navy demonstrated their commitment to the fundamentals by finishing the year only allowing 22.8 points per game. They also ended the season as the nation’s top rushing offense, averaging 360.5 yards per contest. Both of these statistics demonstrate what we all know, Navy is going to play fundamentally sound football and not beat themselves. However, with this being the first game of the season the Irish should be able to easily handle Navy for a 4th consecutive season.
The Irish still need to hire an offensive coordinator and the public is still awaiting word from junior tight end Cole Kmet on whether he will return for his senior season. If Brian Kelly can nail the hire for a new coordinator, with or without Kmet I believe next year’s team has the chance to make a run to the College Football Playoff. Let me know your thoughts on if you think other games could pose a bigger threat to Notre Dame.