UHND begins the second installment of its three-part series predicting Notre Dame’s season. Last week Notre Dame’s first four games were previewed, with the Fighting Irish exiting the month of September with a 3-1 record after victories over Texas, Virginia and Massachusetts, as well as a difficult defeat at the hands of Georgia Tech.
How will Notre Dame fare with the meat of its schedule in October?
Notre Dame at Clemson
Notre Dame’s trip to Death Valley has been one of the most hyped matchups since the announcement of the affiliation with the Atlantic Coast Conference. The Fighting Irish and Clemson Tigers have only met twice, and Notre Dame’s sole trip to Clemson took place nearly 40 years ago. The trek will be a tough reunion, as head coach Dabo Swinney has led the Tigers to four straight 10-win seasons
Quarterback Deshaun Watson’s injury-plagued 2014 campaign – a season where he missed five games due to a broken finger before eventually tearing his ACL – is in the rearview mirror and all indicators point to stardom this season. When Watson was able to play last fall he was a difference maker, and his cast of skill players has returned. Running back Wayne Gallman will be looking to top 1,000 yards rushing this season, and wide receivers Mike Williams and Artavis Scott combined for 133 receptions and 1,995 yards – as well as 14 touchdowns – in 2014.
The Clemson offense won’t be without significant losses, however. Offensive coordinator Chad Morris has moved on to be the head coach at SMU, and some have regarded Morris as the true genius behind Clemson’s success. Morris was the offensive coordinator of the Tulsa squad that stunned Notre Dame in 2010, and Swinney had never cracked a 10-win season prior to Morris’ arrival. Clemson will also be forced to start a true freshman at left tackle and replace both guard positions, creating high turnover along the offensive line.
Defensively, Clemson fielded one of the nation’s best defenses in 2014, surrendering a paltry 16 points per contest, which was No. 3 in the nation. Unfortunately for Clemson fans, nearly all of that immense talent departed this offseason – including two linebackers taken in the first round of the NFL Draft in Vic Beasley and Stephone Anthony – although the Tigers return nearly all members from last season’s top five secondary.
Clemson is 19-1 at home over the past three seasons and their last loss was at the hands of South Carolina in 2012. Clemson, however, is the most vulnerable it has been in many years with the departure of Chad Morris, the loss of an extreme amount of defensive talent and the replacement of three starters on the offensive line.
Something has to give, and this game has the makings of a season-defining moment for Notre Dame. Despite Clemson’s increased vulnerability, can Notre Dame quarterback Malik Zaire lead the Irish to be only the second team in three years to knock off Clemson at Death Valley? It would take a special player in order to do so, and all indications are that Malik Zaire is exactly that.
Notre Dame stuns the Tigers at home and advances to 4-1 on the year.
Result: Notre Dame 30, Clemson 27
Notre Dame vs. Navy
Notre Dame fans miss the days of 43 consecutive victories over the Naval Academy, a tradition that was upended when Paul Johnson – now the head coach at Georgia Tech – snapped the streak in 2007. Since then Notre Dame has lost three times to Navy, although the Irish have quietly strung together four wins in a row against Ken Niumatalolo’s squad.
Offensively Navy is very similar to the team that hung 39 points and 336 rushing yards on the Irish defense and took Notre Dame to the wire last fall (Notre Dame fans forget Navy was actually leading heading into the fourth quarter). Senior quarterback Keenan Reynolds is back and is ready to end his career as the best quarterback in Annapolis since Roger Stauback, already holding the NCAA’s record for most career rushing touchdowns with 64. The Midshipmen, however, did lose running back Noah Copeland – who gashed Notre Dame for 138 yards at nearly nine yards per carry last season – to graduation. But the Irish will still have to deal with 250-pound battering ram Chris Swain in the backfield.
Navy was not particularly great on the defensive side in 2014, a problem that will likely get worse given the departure of talent from last year’s team. The Midshipmen lost three of their four starting linebackers as well as playmaking safety Parrish Gaines, a team captain that was brought into the Tennessee Titans’ camp alongside former Notre Dame cornerback, Cody Riggs.
The idea of Notre Dame playing two triple-option teams in the same year likely caused most Irish fans to groan, but this development will actually be a positive for a Notre Dame defense that already experienced the offensive scheme at its best against Georgia Tech. Coming off Notre Dame’s victory over Clemson, the Irish play with confidence against Navy and capture a comfortable victory.
Result: Notre Dame 40, Navy 27
Notre Dame vs. USC
While there may be questions as to whether Steve Sarkisian was the right hire to be the head man at USC – particularly with recent news that he apparently had one too many at a recent USC gathering – there was no denying his effectiveness against Notre Dame in 2014. The Fighting Irish were blasted out of the Coliseum by the Trojans, and the game was essentially over by the close of the first quarter as quarterback Cody Kessler completed 80-percent of his passes for nearly 400 yards and 6 touchdowns en route to a 49-14 USC victory.
The Trojans retain most of the offensive firepower that allowed them to average nearly 40 points per game. Kessler is back behind center, and USC’s deep wide receiver corps returns two-way standout Adoree Jackson. Nelson Agholor, who torched Notre Dame to the tune of 12 catches for 120 yards last year, has moved on to the NFL but is replaced by Freshman All-American JuJu Smith. And USC’s skill players are protected by one of the most talented offensive line units in the country.
The Trojan defense had its ups and downs in 2014. Although USC held Notre Dame to 14 points, overall Sarkisian’s squad struggled against spread attacks, surrendering 42 points to Nebraska and giving up 38 points to both Arizona State and UCLA. USC’s defense will also have to overcome the loss of arguably the best defensive end in the country, Leonard Williams, who went No. 6 overall in the NFL Draft.
USC’s offense will likely be even more dangerous than it was last year, which should make every Notre Dame fan concerned. While it’s true Notre Dame had a number of its best players out with injury the last time both teams met, the reality is the Irish defense was systemically dismantled by USC’s up-tempo attack. And despite defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder boasting one of the better secondaries in the nation this go around, Notre Dame’s inability to generate a pass rush – particularly against USC’s stout offensive line – will allow Kessler far too much time to find his talented wide receivers.
Brian Kelly leans on Malik Zaire and the rushing game and manages to keep things close, but USC’s offense is simply too talented.
Result: USC 35, Notre Dame 31
Notre Dame at Temple
Temple head coach Matt Rhule is hoping for big things in his third year in Philadelphia. Rhule led the Owls to a 6-6 season last fall – a significant improvement from his 2-10 debut season – including a victory over a ranked East Carolina program. Adding to the hype is the fact Rhule returns 17 starters.
There isn’t really a polite way to phrase it – Temple was abysmal on offense in 2014. The Owls finished No. 117 in total offense with barely 300 yards per game. The rushing attack was nowhere to be found, and although Temple started a true freshman quarterback in P.J. Walker, Walker actually regressed as the season wore on, tossing 11 interceptions to 4 touchdowns in the final seven games.
What carried Rhule’s squad was the defense. Temple had one of the best defenses in the nation last year, finishing No. 4 in points allowed. And the Owls return 10 defensive starters, including star linebacker Tyler Matakevich who will play on Sundays.
Temple’s defense will be stingy but Notre Dame will be looking to blow off steam after falling to USC.
Result: Notre Dame 30, Temple 10
Notre Dame gets through the meat of its schedule with a 6-2 record. The Irish’s next four opponents – Pittsburgh, Wake Forest, Boston College and Stanford – will be previewed next week in the final segment 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 [email protected], or follow him on Twitter.