The championship appearance of 2012 seems so long ago, and while the season was full of memories, the final result was less than memorable. Regardless, Irish fans (and players and coaches) are ready find their football program back in the mix, and land one of the four coveted playoff spots, and hopefully a shot at winning it all. Earning one of those four spots is a huge accomplishment by itself, but winning it all takes a talent, depth, good coaching, and a bit of luck. The quest for that title begins on August 7th, as the Irish make the trip to Culver Academy, to kick off fall camp. On the surface the Irish look to possess all the elements of a team that could make a serious run at the playoffs, but need things to fall into place, in order to do so. Here are three reasons why Notre Dame could secure one of the four playoff spots, and three reasons why they may not.
3 Reasons Notre Dame Could Make the Playoffs in 2015
I don’t think you will find many people who would claim the Irish play a soft schedule in 2015, but it helps when you face three of the five toughest opponents in Notre Dame Stadium. The Irish truly only have two difficult road games; mid-season at Clemson, and they end the year at Stanford. Going into Death Valley and leaving with a win is no easy task, and early Vegas lines agree, with the Irish 3.5 point underdogs. The Stanford game to end the season worries me less than the Clemson game, but is still a concern. Other than Clemson and Stanford on the road, the Irish get to play Texas, USC, and Georgia Tech all at home, which should help in their trek towards a playoff spot.
Without talent and cohesiveness on the offensive line, it is hard to move the ball consistently in college football. That’s a fact. Thankfully for the Irish, they’re returning an offensive line that is widely considered to be one of the best, if not the best, in all of college football. With Ronnie Stanley passing on the NFL, and coming back to anchor a line that Brian Kelly feels could be the best he has ever had, the Irish should be able to open up the playbook for young QB, Malik Zaire. The Offensive line is big, averaging over 313 pounds, but still athletic enough to cause problems for most defensive fronts. With Stanley and Mike McGlinchey bookending the line at tackle, and Quenton Nelson, Nick Martin, and Steve Elmer covering inside at center and guard respectively, Brian Kelly has few worries here, assuming they stay healthy.
Defensive Depth and Health
Don’t look now, but the Irish are relatively healthy heading into fall camp on the defensive side of the ball. Couple that with the fact that they are strong and deep at almost every position and there is a chance this defense could be as good (or better) than the 2012 squad. With the return of KeiVarae Russell to the secondary and the combination of Cole Luke, Elijah Shumate, and Max Redfield, the Irish secondary is looking very strong. Why are fans and coaches excited? A lot of experience, leadership, talent, and the ability to cover the pass, and help defend the run game. In regards to the front seven, well it’s just as positive, if not better. When you include names like Jaylon Smith, Sheldon Day, Joe Schmidt, Isaac Rochell, Nyles Morgan, and many more, opposing offenses could be in a lot of trouble. So much talent, so much depth, and all healthy – for now.
3 Reasons Notre Dame Might Miss the Playoffs in 2015
As with any season not only are there reasons to be excited, but no matter how strong your team is, there are always areas of concern.
Inexperience at Quarterback.
Don’t get me wrong, there are many teams that would love to put out a depth chart at QB that includes Malik Zaire, DeShone Kizer, and Brandon Wimbush, and luckily, the Irish get to do just that. So why the concern? Experience, or lack thereof. How many starts do all three have combined? That would be a total of one. No one with knowledge of the sport would argue that Zaire isn’t talented, but when your starting quarterback has a total of 21 completions, 296 yards though the air, and a single throwing touchdown, there better be some concern. Thankfully for Zaire (and Irish fans) he has a great offensive line, a talented backfield, and a strong wide receiving corps to help circumvent the lack of experience. Unfortunately for Zaire, he will be thrown right into the fire as the Irish open up with Texas at home, travel to Virginia, and then come back home to face Georgia Tech.
Let’s be honest, there has been nothing special about Notre Dame’s special teams play in quite some time. The last time the Irish returned a kick for a touchdown was in 2011, and have been ranked 100th or lower as a unit, three out of the last five years. Whether it be on punts, kickoffs, returns, or coverage, there has been very few bright spots during the Brian Kelly regime. With Tyler Newsome and Justin Yoon taking over at punter and kicker, there is reason for guarded optimism, but keep in mind these two have never seen any action at the collegiate level, and surely there will be growing pains. The Irish will likely defer back to Amir Carlisle and Greg Bryant (following his suspension) as their return specialist, and although both very capable, still have some question marks overall. And don’t count out incoming freshman CJ Sanders as a potential returnman. Consistently winning the field position is such an important part of any successful college football season, and having a great special teams unit surely helps that. There are a lot of question marks for the Irish here, and how those questions are answered could go a long way in determining if they are able to secure a spot in the playoffs.
Not having a chance at a conference championship, and 13th game will never be seen as an advantage under the current playoff system. Whether you like that the Irish are still a pseudo-independent, or not, doesn’t matter. The fact is having a conference affiliation and an extra game will almost always give other teams an advantage over Notre Dame. Yes, there are other factors that come into play here that can help the Irish, but if the Irish were to go 12-1, with an ACC championship, as opposed to 11-1, with a “hey, nice season” championship, the conference championship will always win out. For the record, I am a fan of Notre Dame being independent, but I also recognize the benefits of belonging to a conference, and based off last year, so does the committee.
If I had to go on record right now as to whether the Irish will make the playoffs in 2015, my answer would be yes. With that said, there are legitimate concerns and worries as they enter the season, which is no different than most power five programs. As a whole there are a lot more reasons to be excited in 2015, then there are to be concerned about. As we learned last year though, things can change instantly. Regardless, the upcoming season has the potential to be an incredible ride, and one that should be enjoyed on a week-by-week basis by all Irish fans. This roster has the most talent and depth that Brian Kelly has had yet since coming to Notre dame, but seeing it on paper, and seeing the results on the field don’t always match up.