Ralph D. Russo of the Associated Press issued his preseason bowl projections Tuesday, and though he’s one of the best in the biz of covering college football, this isn’t particularly newsworthy in and of itself. Dozens of writers and outlets put out similar predictions this time of year — though, one item jumped off the page. Russo has Notre Dame playing Auburn in the semifinal of the College Football Playoff.
From one of the ugliest, late-season collapses of recent memory to national championship contention in a little over 13 months would be quite the turnaround, especially given that the biggest change to come from this offseason is the transfer of a two-year starting quarterback.
Everett Golson’s slide from Heisman Trophy candidate to Malik Zaire’s reserve coincided directly with Notre Dame’s four-game losing streak to end the regular season. The Irish actually lost five of their last six before the postseason, though a final-minute defeat at Golson’s new home, Florida State, cannot be pinned on the quarterback.
With 313 yards passing and three touchdowns, Golson performed admirably in Tallahassee. No, the real problem in Notre Dame’s late-season collapse is the same question mark that renders the quarterback moot: Can the Irish defense perform at a championship level?
To call Notre Dame’s defense bad last season would be kind. The Irish gave up 31, 39, 43, 49 and 55 points in their final five regular-season games. Notre Dame often fell into a vicious cycle with the defense giving up points and Golson turning the ball while trying to do too much. It doesn’t matter if Golson or Zaire is behind center for the Golden Domers, no team with a defense surrendering 43.4 points per game isn’t going to win much, and especially not enough to qualify for the College Football Playoff.
The Fighting Irish salvaged their 2014 season with a Music City Bowl defeat of LSU, in which the Tigers scored 28 points. That’s certainly an improvement over the debacles at Arizona State (55 points), USC (49 points) and Northwestern (43 points), but still above LSU’s season-long average of 27.6 points. Moreover, giving up 28 points to an offense without a quarterback isn’t exactly the stuff of championships.
Nevertheless, Notre Dame’s bowl win serves as a reminder of just how much impact the postseason can have on preseason perception. Had the Irish not escaped Nashville with a victory, head coach Brian Kelly could have very well entered the coming campaign on the hot seat. Even as it is, the site CoachesHotSeat.com has Kelly ranked No. 30.
We aren’t exactly looking at a make-or-break season in South Bend, but Kelly’s lost some of the wiggle room that comes with an undefeated regular season and BCS Championship Game appearance.
That’s not all Kelly’s lost from the 2012 season. Last offseason, he was forced to replace defensive coordinator Bob Diaco, now the head coach at Connecticut. Cracks started to show in Diaco’s scheme in 2013. As Ian Boyd breaks down for SB Nation, teams that attacked a periphery like Oklahoma worked the Irish defense over.
Replacement Brian VanGorder’s solution was to introduction more aggressive blitz packages with his extensive NFL background evident in the use of Tampa 2. The adjustments didn’t yield results, in the understatement of the decade. In fact, Notre Dame struggled more with teams that relied on speed and attacks along the sidelines.
Some love of Notre Dame heading into 2015 is based on the amount of holdover talent from 2014. With 10 returning starters back on defense, the Irish are among the most experienced rosters in college football.
Of course, in an unrelated topic, Arizona head coach Rich Rodriguez once quipped that returning a bevy of players didn’t mean much if those returners couldn’t perform. Notre Dame’s success is predicated on that experience translating to improvement — vast improvement.
A second year in VanGorder’s system should help, as should the addition of one player who isn’t a holdover from the 2014 team: defensive end/linebacker Ishaq Williams.
Williams missed 2014 due to academic transgression, but re-enrolled at Notre Dame this month. Kelly said via BlueAndGold.com Williams has work to do to return to the roster, but the groundwork is at least laid.
Williams’ ceiling is sky-high, and if met, he would give the Irish more pressure on opposing quarterbacks. Last season, Notre Dame ranked just 70th in the FBS with 26 total sacks.
There’s no guarantee Williams returns to the lineup — nor any guarantee that if he does, he’ll finally meet this 5-star recruit billing. Likewise, there’s no guarantee all the returning experience on the Notre Dame translates to improvement.
Expectations should be tempered accordingly, though he won’t have to wait until November to see if Notre Dame is a legitimate Playoff contender like last season. The Irish face Georgia Tech’s triple-option offense on Sept. 19, then travel to Death Valley to face Clemson two weeks later.