Notre Dame has declined each of the last two years following their perfect regular season and run to the BCS National Championship Game in 2012. This past season the Fighting Irish finished up 8-5 after an impressive 6-0 start that had them ranked No. 5 in the country.
While Notre Dame managed to go just 1-5 in their last 6 games of the regular season, which including home losses to both Northwestern (40-43 OT) and Louisville (28-31), they were able to pull off a 31-28 upset win (8-point underdogs) against No. 22 LSU in the Music City Bowl.
Heading into 2015, the Fighting Irish have lofty expectations for head coach Brian Kelly’s 6th year on the job. Notre Dame will be one of the most experienced teams in the country with 17 starters back (only 14 lettermen loss) and a number of players who were either injured or suspended last year.
|11/21||Boston College (Fenway)|
Estimated Wins: 8.63
One of the big question marks surrounding Notre Dame going into the 2014 season, was whether or not starting quarterback Everett Golson would be the same dynamic player that led them to the title game in 2012 after sitting out all of 2013. Golson impressed early with 16-4 touchdown to interception ratio in the Fighting Irish’s 6-0 start, but turnovers haunted him the rest of the way.
It got so bad for Golson, that he was pulled in the 2nd half against USC and didn’t start the bowl game against LSU. Golson ended up transferring to Florida State in the offseason, opening up the door for sophomore Malik Zaire to take over. Zaire may have very well won the job anyway. He completed 60% of his attempts with 1 touchdown an no interceptions against two pretty good defenses in USC and LSU, while also rushing for 114 yards and 2 scores.
Look for Notre Dame to run a lot more read-option this year with Zaire under center, which will not only keep defenses honest, but should create some more big play opportunities for the talented running back duo of junior Tarean Folston (889 yards, 6 TDs) and sophomore Greg Bryant (289 yards, 3 TDs). Both Folston (5.1 ypc) and Bryant (5.4 ypc) averaged over 5 yards per carry in 2014.
The passing numbers might take a slight hit, but I still expect to see plenty of shots taken in the air. Notre Dame returns their top 4 pass catchers from last year, including talented junior Will Fuller, who led the way with 75 receptions for 1,094 yards and 15 touchdowns.
One of things that gets overlooked from last year is the decision to change things up on the offensive line following their third game against Purdue. The only starter that remained in his original spot was star left tackle Ronnie Stanley, who turned a shot at the NFL to return for his senior season. Stanley will anchor what looks to be a talented offensive line, that returns 3 starters and two potential stars in sophomore right tackle Mike McGlinchey and red-shirt freshman left guard Quenton Nelson.
While it didn’t help that the offense was turning the ball over, the defense deserves plenty of the blame for last year’s disappointing finish. After allowing just 19.1 ppg in their first 7 contests, the Fighting Irish surrendered 40.8 ppg in the last 6. They ended the year giving up 29.2 ppg and 404 ypg, both of which are easily the worst marks during Kelly’s tenure in South Bend.
There’s a lot of signs pointing to a major resurgence on the defensive side of the ball in 2015, as Notre Dame gets back 10 starters, with the only loss being corner Cody Riggs. However, they get back junior corner KeiVarae Russell, who was suspended last year after starting all 26 games the previous two years (1st Freshman All-American in ’12).
The key to getting the defense turned around and back to the level of 2012 (12.8 ppg), is getting better play up front on the defensive line. Last year Notre Dame allowed 171 ypg and 4.2 ypc against the run. Improving shouldn’t be a problem if they can stay healthy, as they get back all 4 starters in the trenches. That includes a dynamic duo in the middle at defensive tackle with senior Sheldon Day and junior Jarron Jones, as well as one of the top defensive ends in the country in junior Isaac Rochell.
Last season the Fighting Irish had to replace all 3 starters at linebacker. The unit was impressive early behind the duo of 2nd-Team All-American outside linebacker Jaylon Smith and savy middle linebacker Joe Schmidt. Keep in mind that Schmidt was lost to a season-ending injury right around the same time that Notre Dame’s defense took a turn for the worse. The Fighting Irish also get back junior outside linebacker James Onwualu and have talented sophomore Nyles Morgan (Freshman All-American) ready to step in if needed.
There’s a lot to like about the front 7, which in turn should play a big role in Notre Dame having one of the more improved secondaries in the country. Getting back Russell, who is one of the top corners in college football, certainly helps, but they also have two big time talents at safety in senior Elijah Shumate and junior Max Redfield. You also can’t sleep on junior corner Cole Luke (4 INTs), plus they add in Cal transfer Avery Sebastian.
Regular Season Win Total
National Championship Odds
Odds Courtesy of 5Dimes
Losing Golson to Florida State and last year’s poor finish has certainly lowered expectations going into 2015, but this is not a team that I recommend sleeping on. If Notre Dame can stay healthy and Zaire delivers at quarterback, this will easily be one of the most improved teams in the country.
The schedule will provide a challenge, as it always does, but there’s not a game on the schedule that Notre Dame can’t win. Their biggest challenges come in a couple of road games at Clemson and Stanford, as well as a home game against USC (underdog in all 3).
I’m going to call for the Fighting Irish to pull off an upset in 1 of those 3 games, while running the table in their other 9 games to finish up at 10-2 and over their win total of 9. Worst case scenario would be 9-3 and a push, but I’m confident in their ability to reach double-digits if the injuries don’t start to pile up.
Win Total Prediction
OVER 9 Wins – The Fighting Irish saw a lot of their NFL ready talent return to school meaning they’ll be locked and loaded this season. They have stellar and experienced players all over both lines, and that will win you a lot of games. Also, ACC Football is nothing to write home about and their schedule is loaded with ACC opponents. Yes, QB Everett Golson is gone, but his tendency to turn the ball over with high frequency made him quite suspect. Malik Zaire is in experienced, but could make up for that with his talent; and the solid supporting cast around him. They’re not 2012 level good, but they’re certainly 10 win potential. Take the over.