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College Football Analytics Assessment: Notre Dame and the ACC

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Reasons for optimism about the team so far

NCAA Football: Notre Dame at Duke James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports

As the Notre Dame Fighting Irish get adjusted to conference life, we decided to put Notre Dame’s 2020 performance in the context of the ACC. For all charts except the Point Differential view we only looked at 1st, 2nd, and 3rd down and excluded garbage time in games against FBS competition (sorry Clemson Tigers, you don’t get to use The Citadel to fluff up your numbers). The Irish have not played up to their potential yet, but it is not time to sound the alarm. As we will show, the defense has played very well and if Ian Book reverts to his normal self, as we expect him to, this team will be in good position come November 7th.

For all of these charts, the top right quadrant is good and the bottom left quadrant is bad.

OFFENSE

The North Carolina Tar Heels and Clemson are where most people expected them to be, and the Miami-Florida Hurricanes have joined the discussion with the addition of D’Eriq King at quarterback. It’s too early to tell for the Virginia Cavaliers and Virginia Tech Hokies as both have only played one game so far. The Pittsburgh Panthers have questions on offense that need to be answered prior to being considered a threat in the ACC.

For all the doom and gloom surrounding the program, Notre Dame has performed well. The Irish field the third best defense in the conference and fourth best offense in terms of EPA per play, although the team does have plenty of room for improvement in the passing game. With Book gaining chemistry with his receivers, Tommy Rees settling in as a play caller, and Kevin Austin returning from injury, the passing attack should find its footing in short order.

DEFENSE

Never doubt Clark Lea. Even though he’s replacing five defensive starters he has fielded another very good unit, defending the pass just as well as the run while missing his best player (no disrespect to Mr. Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, a close second) for six of eight quarters.

Pitt has won so far on the back of their defense, averaging 22 points and winning by an average margin of 7 points in their two ACC contests. It will be interesting to see if the Panthers will be able to keep this up all season. The 2012 Irish team won in similar fashion many times, but they did showcase the ability to put up a lot of points, especially against inferior competition which is something Pitt has yet to do.

POINT DIFFERENTIAL

This chart shows expected point differential vs. actual point differential. Expected point differential is a team’s total offensive EPA minus their total defensive EPA per play. As you can see, it correlates very well with a team’s actual point differential, and we can use this to identify teams that have been overachieving or underachieving and may see some regression (actual numbers re-aligning with expected numbers, both positively and negatively) come their way in the future.

In expected points, Notre Dame has been one of the best teams in the ACC, with only Miami putting up a better differential (and doing so in one more game). While the offense has had some struggles, the Irish have played very well and once they right the ship this team will be fun to watch.

Clemson and Pitt’s results have been just as good as Notre Dame and Miami, but they are the best candidates for potential regression. We definitely are not going to doubt Clemson and Trevor Lawrence, but Pitt might not continue to get the same results as they have so far. They have overachieved by a lot, posting a differential of +69 points but an expected point differential of only +30. Given their heavy reliance on their defense, they could struggle in games against high powered offenses where they are forced to put up a lot of points.

Currently, the only candidate for some positive regression would be Louisville. Their EPA numbers suggest they should have a point differential of about +10 but it is currently -2.

FINAL THOUGHTS

Notre Dame hasn’t been the consistent dominant force many fans expected with an exciting new offensive coordinator and third year starting quarterback. But given that, Notre Dame has looked like a dominant team, as it should against two overmatched opponents. This team has performed really well somewhat despite its quarterback play, and as long as improvements on offense are made, Ian Book settles back in as a quality college quarterback, and Clark Lea continues to work his magic this team is in good position to compete for the ACC and the CFP.