The time has finally come. With the 2015 season set to kick off in several short weeks, UHND is ready to roll out its annual breakdown of the Notre Dame football schedule with the first of three segments. While momentum fluctuates and injuries occur, UHND will look deep into its crystal ball to project Notre Dame’s future record given the evidence currently at hand.
The Fighting Irish are ready to field their most talented team since 1993, an era when legendary coach Lou Holtz roamed the sidelines and the program was at its zenith. Can current head coach Brian Kelly take the talent he has brought in and return Notre Dame to the top of the college football world?
Notre Dame vs. Texas
Notre Dame starts its season with a bang, hosting one of college football’s most historic programs, the Texas Longhorns, after a nearly twenty year hiatus. Texas head coach Charlie Strong is entering his second season in Austin after a 6-7 campaign. It took Strong two full seasons in Louisville to get the Cardinals to an elite level. Can he do the same for the Longhorns?
Texas will bring a questionable offense with it to South Bend. The Longhorns’ top two wide receivers from last year have graduated, making their most experienced wide receiver Marcus Johnson, a senior that mustered only 27 receptions last fall. The running back position isn’t in much better shape. Although Texas boasts former five-star Jonathan Gray in the backfield, Gray suffered a devastating Achilles injury in 2013 and has yet to prove he’s recovered from its aftermath, accumulating only 9 yards on 17 carries in Texas’ last two games. Making matters worse, the quarterback position is unsettled, and Strong intends to deploy a two quarterback system in Tyrone Swoopes and Jerrod Heard.
The Longhorns’ defense finished second in the Big 12 last season, although statistics can be misleading. Five different power five programs scored 30 or more points on the Longhorns last year, including Iowa State, who managed to pile on over 40 points. Making matters worse, Texas loses six defensive starters from last year’s squad, including standout defensive lineman, Malcom Brown.
By the end of 2015 Charlie Strong will have Texas turning the corner toward a brighter future. That will not be the case to start the season, however. The Longhorns have too many questions on offense, and defensively will have no answer for Notre Dame’s dominant offensive line.
Notre Dame pulls away in the second half after initially stumbling when Texas deploys an up-tempo offensive attack, something defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder struggled with last season.
Result: Notre Dame 31, Texas 21
Notre Dame at Virginia
Notre Dame kicks off its ACC schedule with a trip to Charlottesville to play Virginia, a program not faced on the gridiron since 1989. Mike London is entering his sixth season as the Cavaliers’ head coach and is speculated to be on the hot seat, having posted only one winning season and dropping five of the last six games to conclude 2014.
Virginia had a similar offseason to Notre Dame, beginning with a quarterback battle that prematurely ended when last season’s starter, Greyson Lambert, transferred out, making room for up-and-comer Matt Johns. Johns is a pro-style passer that complements Virginia’s rushing attack, which finished No. 97 in the country last fall. The Cavaliers’ ground game should see a significant boost this fall now that former five-star running back Taquan Mizzell, nicknamed “Smoke” due to his elusiveness and speed, is the starter.
Virginia’s stingy defense carried them last year, helping them to not only beat Louisville – a team which defeated Notre Dame – but limit their potent offense to 21 points. Unfortunately for Virginia, defensive stalwarts Eli Harold and Max Valles departed early for the NFL.
This game may very well have the makeup of a business trip Fighting Irish fans just want to end. With Georgia Tech looming on the schedule – and Virginia’s poor record over the past several seasons – Notre Dame could get caught sleepwalking through this contest, a dangerous proposition given the blue-chip talent interspersed throughout Virginia’s depth chart.
Look for Brian Kelly to lean on his rushing attack to work through the malaise as Notre Dame takes advantage of Virginia starting three new linebackers on defense.
Result: Notre Dame 28, Virginia 21
Notre Dame vs. Georgia Tech
Much of the football world scoffed when Georgia Tech hired Paul Johnson, Navy’s former head coach who brought his triple-option offense with him to Atlanta, but who’s laughing now? Entering his eighth season in the Peach State, Johnson boasts a .690 winning percentage and is coming off an 11-win campaign after handily defeating a top-ten ranked Mississippi State program in the Orange Bowl.
Georgia Tech quarterback Justin Thomas became a bona fide star last year and is tailor-made for Johnson’s offense. Thomas rushed for over 1,000 yards at a nearly six yards per carry average , but what makes him dangerous is his efficiency in the passing game, tossing 18 touchdown passes to only 6 interceptions. A triple-option offensive attack with a legitimate passing threat is a nearly unstoppable combination, which played a key role in Tech unexpectedly tearing through the ACC last season.
As good as Georgia Tech was on offense, they were equally poor on defense. Johnson’s defensive unit surrendered over 400 yards per game, and the graduation of All-ACC linebacker Quayshawn Nealy will pose a significant challenge for a squad in need of improvement.
There will be two explosive offenses on the field when Notre Dame and Georgia Tech clash, making the tipping point which defense will make the most big plays. There has been a long-running debate amongst the Irish faithful as to whether Notre Dame’s defensive collapse late last season was due to scores of injuries suffered at a nearly unprecedented rate, or legitimate cracks in the defensive foundation.
What many Irish fans fail to recall is Notre Dame surrendering 336 yards to Navy and trailing the Midshipmen in the third quarter prior to star linebacker Joe Schmidt’s season-ending injury. There were legitimate questions as to Brian VanGorder’s ability to handle the triple-option prior to the Navy game, and he did nothing during to quell those concerns. If VanGorder struggled to stop the triple-option scheme against Navy, how does he intend to stop that same scheme when run by power five-caliber athletes, particularly after the loss of nose guard Jarron Jones to injury for the season?
Result: Georgia Tech 41, Notre Dame 31
Notre Dame vs. Massachusetts
The Minutemen’s visit to Notre Dame Stadium will mark the first time the programs meet. Head coach Mark Whipple posted a 3-9 record last season, although there is strong reason to believe UMass is trending upward. The Minutemen return 18 starters from a squad that lost five games by a margin of seven points or less.
Quarterback Blake Frohnapfel completely transformed the Minutemen’s offense upon his transfer from Marshall last season. Massachusetts went from a basement dweller to the No. 1 passing offense in the Mid-American Conference in just one season, and those numbers should only increase with the return of senior wide receiver Tajae Sharpe, who managed to secure 85 passes for 1,281 yards.
The Achilles heel for Whipple’s team is on the defensive side. The Minutemen were incapable of producing any pass rush whatsoever, ranking 112th nationally. The secondary was also leaky, surrendering big plays and finishing 99th in passing yards allowed. And a quarterback with plenty of time against a questionable secondary spells bad things for any team.
A contest against Massachusetts will be perfectly timed for an Irish squad looking to rebound after a tough loss to Georgia Tech. Notre Dame will be able to do whatever it pleases offensively, forcing Massachusetts into a one-dimensional offensive look it can ill afford.
Result: Notre Dame 45, Massachusetts 20
Notre Dame exists the month of September with a 3-1 record. The Irish’s next four opponents – Clemson, Navy, USC and Temple – will be previewed next week in Part II of UHND’s Season Prediction series.
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 wife and those around him. Scott can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow him on Twitter.