The landscape of college football is changing rapidly. Probably no one is more attuned to that reality than Marcus Freeman. The first-time head coach had a rude awakening to open his debut season, with losses to Ohio State and Marshall in the first two weeks of the 2022 season. He then bounced back to finish the season 9-4, an admirable triage job on a season that could have gone off the deep end at multiple points.
Then Freeman lost his offensive coordinator to the premier program of the last decade-and-a-half, and replaced that coordinator with an internal promotion of tight ends coach Gerad Parker. I myself have been critical of that hire, and plenty of Notre Dame fans were less than thrilled with it following the embarrassing Andy Ludwig saga. But with the benefit of time to take a macroscopic view, I can see the delicate needle that Freeman is trying to thread in what may very well be the best chance he has to win a national championship at Notre Dame.
The 2023 Notre Dame roster doesn’t scream “championship contender,” especially in light of the product Georgia, Alabama and Ohio State have put on the field the last several years. But with a changing of the guard at quarterback for all three of those schools, there’s an argument to be made that Notre Dame has a better starting signal caller than all of them. And having a top-10 quarterback in the country should make the irish a College Football Playoff contender so long as they put a competent defense on the field (sorry, Drake Maye).
Combine that with two first-round-NFL-Draft caliber offensive tackles, rangy wide receivers, talented running backs, a versatile defensive line, experienced linebackers, and a deep cornerback rotation. Any moderately optimistic Notre Dame fans could look at those ingredients and talk themselves into a half-decent chance of shocking the world.
To be sure, there are weaknesses on this team, some of them glaring. The wide receivers are still pretty sparse and inexperienced, the running backs are one injury away from becoming a liability, the defensive line lacks top-end talent and the linebackers are athletically limited. Freeman also failed to keep Tyler Buchner in the fold, which puts the quarterback position in precarious position with injuries (but to be fair, the odds were probably slim anyway that Buchner could lead ND to the Playoff following an injury to Hartman). Plus, tight end is down by Notre Dame standards, and don’t even get me started on the safety position.
But even with all of the question marks, I maintain that this season is Freeman’s best chance to win a championship because of a combination of currently known commodities and the fact that this season is the swan song for the four-team CFP. When the Playoff expands to 12 teams in 2024 and independent Notre Dame is ineligible for a first-round bye, the Irish will have to win four consecutive games to become national champions. The variance of a two-game tournament is more in favor of a Playoff underdog (as Notre Dame is bound to be) than a four-game gauntlet.
So, to get back to the Gerad Parker promotion, I have an inkling of Freeman’s thought process. Bringing in an outside hire could disrupt an offense seemingly primed for a breakout with Sam Hartman, Audric Estime, Joe Alt and Blake Fisher driving it. There’s also hope that a pretty good defense can get better with some continuity at defensive coordinator after Al Golden became the third DC in a three-year span last season. And the 2023 schedule has three marquee games that should give Notre Dame a decent chance to make the CFP even if they record a loss along the way.
Do I still feel a bit unsure about Freeman’s apparently endless loyalty to people he knows? Yes, especially considering the way he vetoed Tommy Rees and expedited Parker’s original hiring as tights end coach (with a DUI on Parker’s record, no less). Will I also lose my mind if just one more time I hear the terms “consistent messaging “ and “force multiplier” used to justify this borderline nepotistic coaching staff? There is a distinct possibility, but I’ll admit that there’s some value in having people you know intimately and trust on your staff.
But with my personal hang-ups on the table, I can still see the logic. It’s a longshot that requires Freeman’s (presumably) calculated risks to succeed, but it sure would be something to see him pull off this high-wire trapeze act.