For many Notre Dame fans mid-August is an exciting time, as months of anticipation for football season reaches its tipping point as the first game’s kickoff nears. The news of an academic scandal at the University of Notre Dame is unexpected and deflating, and rightfully so. But the season draws nearer even if the enthusiasm for it has taken a crushing detour. While we await further details, UHND will present a three-part series predicting the course of Notre Dame’s season.
The time for hypotheticals and, for the football obsessed, watching classic college games on the likes of ESPN are nearing an end – though the SEC Network debuted this week for those who need another fix – as kickoff is now officially less than two weeks away. Last year I posted a season prediction article shortly before kickoff and forecasted a 10-2 regular season for the Fighting Irish on the premise Notre Dame’s rushing attack could offset the loss of Everett Golson (it didn’t). What does 2014 have in store?
Over the course of the next two weeks I will examine and forecast each game on Notre Dame’s schedule, starting with the August and September opponents.
Notre Dame vs. Rice
Summary: It has long drawn the ire of Irish fans that Notre Dame opens its seasons against tough competition while the rest of the nation schedules lesser opponents to help shake off a year’s worth of rust. While no longer opening against the likes of Georgia Tech, Notre Dame hasn’t exactly taken a light approach either, as the Fighting Irish open the 2014 season against the defending Conference USA Champions, the Rice Owls.
The Texas-based Rice program posted a 10-win season in 2013 under head coach David Bailiff for only the third time in program history, led by a stingy defense that finished 30th nationally, one spot higher than Notre Dame’s 2013 defensive unit. The Owl defense was complemented by a potent rushing attack that averaged over 227 yards per game and was featured by running back Charles Ross, a 230-pound bruiser who averaged over six yards per carry on the season.
The talent that carried Rice to a conference championship has experienced some depletion heading into 2014. Leading rusher Charles Ross has moved on, as has leading tackler, linebacker Michael Kutzler. Rice’s secondary will also have holes with the departure of safety Paul Porras and star cornerback Phillip Gaines.
Prediction: Rice’s strong rushing attack will be a perfect test for Notre Dame’s new defensive line sans stars Stephon Tuitt and Louis Nix. However, with an undersized defensive line and holes in the secondary, Notre Dame’s offense should score enough points to jar Rice out of its rushing strategy and force the Owls to throw, which is the weakness of Rice’s starting quarterback, Driphus Jackson, a career 51% passer.
Notre Dame has the perfect opponent to shake off rust and test its limitations against stopping the run.
- Tickets: Notre Dame vs Rice 8/30/14
- Result: Notre Dame 38, Rice 17
- Notre Dame’s Offensive MVP: Everett Golson
- Notre Dame’s Defensive MVP: Cody Riggs
Notre Dame vs. Michigan
Summary: Despite the assurances of Michigan Athletic Director David Brandon, the University of Michigan’s football program is very much at a crossroads. Wolverines head coach Brady Hoke has posted a 15-11 record the past two seasons and a similar result in 2014, coupled with continued reports that Michigan alumnus and San Francisco 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh is experiencing differences of opinion with San Francisco’s front office, could result in things getting interesting in Ann Arbor. One look at Michigan’s record against Notre Dame the past several years, however, and an outside observer would never know Hoke’s job status is on shaky footing.
Brian Kelly is 1-3 against Michigan since being the head man at Notre Dame and has routinely suffered his worst outings at their hands. Notre Dame’s defense, which ranked 27th nationally in scoring defense after allowing only 22-points per game, was massacred by Michigan’s offense in 2013, surrendering 41-points as Michigan’s offense seemingly moved at will. Will things be difference in 2014?
Michigan brought in a new offensive coordinator in Doug Nussmeier to rejuvenate a largely lackluster offensive effort in 2013, and Nussmeier made a living punishing opponents with his physical rushing focus (Notre Dame fans are all too familiar with Nussmeier’s work as the offensive coordinator at Alabama). The new play caller will have his work cut out for him as Michigan boasted one of the worst rushing attacks in the nation in 2013, ranking 102nd. To make matters even more difficult, the talent Michigan did have along its offensive line – starting tackles Taylor Lewan and Michael Schofield – has since moved on.
While Michigan’s offense will continue to face an uphill battle, the Wolverines’ defense should improve in 2014 thanks to a healthy Jake Ryan, now fully recovered from an ACL tear suffered last season. Michigan will also have a deeper and more talented defensive line at their disposal, though holes still exist within the secondary, as anyone who watched Kansas State wide receiver Tyler Lockett effortlessly abuse Michigan cornerback Blake Countess for three first half touchdowns in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl can attest.
Prediction: Notre Dame should finally have a difference maker at quarterback against the Wolverines, something that has been missing every season since Brian Kelly’s arrival. New Notre Dame defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder’s aggressive approach should also play better against Michigan than Bob Diaco’s bend-but-don’t-break philosophy, though Notre Dame’s losses at defensive line can be considered a wash against Michigan’s inexperienced and porous offensive line.
Logic seems to go out the window whenever Michigan and Notre Dame meet, but the one pattern that has emerged in recent years is that Notre Dame always seems to play its worst game against its rival to the north. While Notre Dame’s coaching stability is in a much better place than Michigan’s, until the results are seen on the field, precedent should rule the day.
- Tickets: Notre Dame vs Michigan 9/6/14
- Result: Michigan 28, Notre Dame 24
- Notre Dame’s Offensive MVP: Everett Golson
- Notre Dame’s Defensive MVP: Sheldon Day.
Notre Dame vs. Purdue (Indianapolis)
Summary: A little less than two years ago Kent State head coach Darrell Hazell was one of the hottest young coaching commodities after morphing the Golden Flashes from Mid-American Conference doormat to title contender in a span of two short seasons. After one go-round in West Lafayette, one has to wonder whether Hazell has suffered irreparable harm to his reputation.
Purdue suffered the worst season in its history under the leadership of Darell Hazell in 2013, posting a 1-11 record, with the lone victory being a close contest against Indiana State. One of the only bright spots for the Boilermakers is consistency at the quarterback position with the return of talented sophomore Danny Etling. The rest are all negatives. Purdue’s offensive line won’t be improving anytime this season, meaning another year of Etling scurrying to avoid pressure, and Purdue’s defensive prospects are in even worse condition. After finishing 2013 as the 104th ranked defense in the nation, Purdue’s lone star, cornerback Ricardo Allen, has moved on to the NFL, indicating things will likely get worse for the Boilermaker defense before it gets better.
If Notre Dame fans enjoy hearing of Purdue’s woes, a reminder of last season’s contest should provide a nice dosage of humility, as Notre Dame struggled against Hazell’s historically poor squad and actually trailed heading into the 4th quarter.
Prediction: Notre Dame came out flat against Purdue in 2013 and needed a 21-point 4th quarter to come-from-behind and squeak out a victory. That should not be the case in 2014. Notre Dame bounces back from its close defeat at the hands of the Wolverines and takes its frustration out on the Boilermakers.
- Tickets: Notre Dame vs Purdue 9/13/14
- Result: Notre Dame 45, Purdue 14
- Notre Dame Offensive MVP: Tarean Folston
- Notre Dame Defensive MVP: Jaylon Smith.
Notre Dame at Syracuse
Summary: Notre Dame will begin its ACC slate against Syracuse in what should be an intriguing matchup. The Syracuse Orange posted an 8-5 record in 2012 under head coach Doug Marrone, who ultimately left to be the head coach of the Buffalo Bills. Defensive coordinator Scott Shafer was promoted internally to replace the departed Marrone and recorded a 7-6 record in 2013 with a young and inexperienced squad, which begs the question: is Syracuse on the rise now that their youthful roster has endured a season of experience, or are they on the descent after Marrone’s departure?
The verdict appears to be open to interpretation. Last season the Orange looked impressive against the weaker portions of their schedule while also managing to get blown off the field against ACC competition, losing to Florida State 59-3 and Georgia Tech 56-0. Which Syracuse team shows up to host Notre Dame is anyone’s guess.
Prediction: Notre Dame’s first ACC match could be a game of caution if Notre Dame comes out flat and allows Syracuse to gain confidence early. However, Syracuse struggled mightily against wide open offensive attacks, and Notre Dame is well equipped to match the 48 points and nearly 400 yards of passing offense that Northwestern hung on the Orange in 2013.
- Tickets: Notre Dame vs Syracuse 9/27/14
- Result: Notre Dame 34, Syracuse 20
- Notre Dame Offensive MVP: Chris Brown
- Notre Dame Defensive MVP: Max Redfield.
Notre Dame exits the month of September with a 3-1 record. The Fighting Irish’s next four opponents – Stanford, North Carolina, Florida State and Navy – will be previewed during part two of the season prediction series posted next week.
Scott Janssen is a blogger for the Huffington Post and has authored several nationally-featured articles, including an appearance on MSNBC as a sports contributor. He talks football 24 hours a day, much to the chagrin of his fiancée. Scott can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org