Why Notre Dame Could Be Playoff Bound

    With the deepest and most talented group yet in the Brian Kelly era, now Notre Dame really and truly has the type of team that could not only get into the playoff, but do some damage once it arrives.

    August 30, 2015

    The run to the 2012 BCS championship game was filled with a slew of close calls and several overachiever moments. The defense was the real deal, and the offense did its part, but as Alabama showed, there was a harsh reality waiting for the Irish once they got to Miami. 

    It took two years, but with the deepest and most talented group yet in the Brian Kelly era, now Notre Dame really and truly has the type of team that could not only get into the playoff, but do some damage once it arrives. 

    When healthy, last year’s team started to take on the look of the 2012 version, pulling off a minor miracle to beat Stanford on the way to a 6-0 start. Had the offense not been nailed – correctly, by the way – on a pick play late against Florida State, and had the touchdown pass counted, the Irish would’ve been in everyone’s top three and the hype would’ve been off the charts. 

    And then what turned out to be the downfall of the 2014 team now looks like a massive positive for the 2015 version. 

    QB Everett Golson – who would’ve been the midseason Heisman front-runner had he pulled off the win at Florida State – couldn’t stop turning the ball over, several key defensive players started going down with injuries, and all of a sudden, the wheels totally came off in a four game losing streak to close out the regular season. 

    However, Golson’s problems opened the door for Malik Zaire to get a chance to show what he could do in the bowl win over LSU. All of the injuries on defense allowed several untested players to get on the field in expanded roles. Throw in the preseason academic scandal that was quickly contained, but meant the loss of five players who would’ve been key factors, and there was a legitimate reason for the collapse. 

    Now is when the payoff comes. 

    Depending on who you want to count, at least 11 defensive players who were supposed to be big factors last season were missing late in the year, but that also means that ten starters are back on D to go along with a ton of developed depth. On the other side, eight starters return, and that doesn’t count Zaire along with a ton of depth on the line to help fill in the gaps. 

    You’ll have to forgive Irish fans, though, if they’re going to be a little bit leery of high expectations. After all, in his first five years in South Bend, Kelly has only lost fewer than four games once. Take out the 2012 season, and he’s 33-19. 

    This year and this team, though, will give the record a huge boost. 

    What to watch for on offense: Malik Zaire, you’re on. With Everett Golson now a Florida State Seminole, all the eggs are in the left-hander’s basket, because everything else is in place. If the line isn’t the best in the Brian Kelly era, it’s at least the deepest it’s been in several years. The running back situation is a wee bit thin with Greg Bryant being suspended for the year for the dreaded violation of team rules, but Tarean Folston is terrific. While the tight ends need to emerge, the Irish are loaded at wide receiver. That leaves it all up to Zaire. He has to go from being the quarterback everyone was waiting to see, to one who’s good enough to lead the way to a playoff spot. 

    What to watch for on defense: Lots and lots and lots of depth. There’s a reason the defense gave up around 1,300 yards more last season than it did two years ago, and it’s all about the injuries. The Irish never had the same starting 11 two weeks in a row starting 20 players throughout the season. This year, not only do ten starters come back, but star corner KeiVarae Russell and defensive lineman Ishaq Williams are expected to be back after missing last year suspended. As bad as the defense was after the first five games of last year, that’s how good it should be throughout this season. This time around, with so many options, the D might be injury-proof. 

    The team will be far better if … the running game finds its Music City Bowl groove. The receiving corps is fantastic, and the passing game should be solid, but especially early on, the less Malik Zaire has to carry on his shoulders, the better. The O line was able to blast away on an undersized Navy, rolled up on Rice, and like everyone else, did whatever it wanted to against North Carolina. But those were the only three games the Irish ran for more than 170 yards – until LSU. In the bowl win, Zaire ran for 96 yards, but it was the front five that did the job in a physical, tough performance. With Texas up first, the line has to shine. 

    The schedule: As always, the Notre Dame schedule is nasty with several huge games of national significance. It all starts out against Texas in a game the Longhorns need to kickstart the Charlie Strong era. If the Irish lose this, they’ll have to run the table to be in the playoff discussion – that’s a lot to ask. 
    – In the ACC world, the Irish go to Virginia, Clemson and Pitt, host Georgia Tech and Wake Forest, and play Boston College in Fenway Park. There’s no Florida State, but Georgia Tech is good enough to win the Coastal, and playing Clemson in Death Valley stinks. 
    – Three of the first four and five of the first seven games are in South Bend, but four of the last five games are away. 
    – There are several winnable games among the powerhouses. UMass, Temple – even with its great defense – Wake Forest and Navy – even though it’s going to be strong again – should provide a few relative breathers. 
    – WATCH OUT FOR … Boston College. It’s a quirky-weird game considering the Shamrock Series will be played on a baseball field, and it’s just late enough in the season that it might be a grind. With the road date at Stanford to close things out, there can’t be a misfire. 

    Best offensive player: Senior OT Ronnie Stanley. The hope is for Malik Zaire to turn into the superstar who can carry the offense, and there’s no arguing against the idea of WR Will Fuller or C Nick Martin to be considered among the team’s best offensive stars, but Stanley is the best pro prospect on the O and he’ll be the main man of the deep and talented line. He has prototype size, pass protection skills and pounding ability. While he doesn’t have to anchor the line, he’ll be able to. 

    Best defensive player: Junior LB Jaylon Smith. While key defensive parts were falling by the wayside, every day Jay came up with game after game full of big plays and plenty of tackles. He’ll be helped in a big way by the healthy return of Joe Schmidt, who suffered a broken ankle, and an outstanding line up front. No matter what, he’ll once again come up with more than 100 tackles, and he’ll once again be the leader – only this year, he should be used to the guys around him. 

    Key player to a successful season: Freshman PK Justin Yoon. The Irish are experienced and talented everywhere else, but the season might come down to an inexperienced kicker. Considered by some to be the No. 1 kicking prospect, the hype and accolades don’t matter if Yoon can’t come through in the pressure moments in what should be some of the biggest games of the season. Kyle Brindza did a decent job as the punter, and he only hit 14 of his 24 field goal attempts, but he proved himself in 2012 and 2013. Yoon will likely have to hit at least one clutch game-winner. 

    Key game: Oct. 3 at Clemson. The Irish have to take care of home to have any sort of a successful season, and that means there can’t be any losses against Texas, Georgia Tech or USC. Of all the road games, the battle against Clemson will be the toughest by far until the regular season-ender against Stanford. The Irish can go to the playoff at 11-1 with a loss in Death Valley, but a win would take the season to a whole other level. This will be just the third time the two programs have played. Clemson won 16-10 in 1979 in South Bend and Notre Dame won 21-17 in 1977 at Clemson. 

    2014 Fun Stats: 
    – Penalties: Opponents 79 for 696 yards – Notre Dame 58 for 487 yards 
    – Opponents failed on all four of their onside kick attempts. Notre Dame didn’t try any. 
    – Fumbles: Notre Dame 24 (lost 12) – Opponents 13 (lost 7) 


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