Early Expectations for Notre Dame Football in 2021

After another trip to the College Football Playoffs, Head Coach Brian Kelly will look to reload with a roster full of turnover. As many players depart for the NFL, Tommy Rees will have his first quarterback battle as offensive coordinator in South Bend. If Notre Dame wants to remain one of the country’s top programs, they cannot let the past deter them from making it back to the College Football Playoffs.

Replacing Ian Book

Should the Irish go with experience or potential? Jack Coan is the clear frontrunner to start at quarterback in 2021. During his time at Wisconsin, Coan went 297 for 437 (68%) with 3,278 yards, 23 passing touchdowns, and 8 interceptions. On the ground, Coan had 76 attempts for -11 yards. The transfer quarterback relies more on his pro-style abilities than the dual-threat that Ian Book presented.

The Irish offense was used to the dual-threat capabilities under Ian Book, but with Jack Coan and the speed returning on offense, Notre Dame will hopefully be able to take more deep shots down the field.

Will Tyler Buchner be the next great Irish quarterback? The 6’ 2” mobile quarterback out of California was the #3 dual-threat quarterback in the country and #66 overall player in the 2021 recruiting class, according to 247 Sports. Coach Kelly has always valued experience, particularly at the quarterback position.

As mentioned earlier, the Notre Dame program is in the hunt for the playoffs every season, and that is why I believe Buchner will not be starting right away. Jack Coan, Drew Pyne, and Brendon Clark likely give the Irish the best chance to win this year.

Tommy Rees must develop a vertical passing threat

The Fighting Irish are stacked at the skill positions. Brian Kelly may return the most talented group of skill players during his time in South Bend. Kyren Williams is on his way to becoming one of the top running backs in the country, and Chris Tyree had 73 carries for 496 yards (6.8 yards per carry) as a true freshman.

The Fighting Irish do not return much production at the receiver position, but they do bring back loads of talent and hopefully higher potential.

Passing attack must complement the running game. A year ago, the Notre Dame Offense was concentrated on the ground attack, and the Irish featured one of the best offensive lines in the country. Heading into the 2021 campaign, Brian Kelly will be replacing four starters from a year ago. The program has recruited strongly upfront, but the line will be a question mark heading into the fall.

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The most significant disparity between Notre Dame and the other playoff teams was the passing attack. Brian Kelly must utilize the speed and talent that the roster brings back next season. Indeed, the Irish have had success with the physicality of a rushing attack, but those drives often take 10-15 plays to score, as compared to the Alabama Offense scoring a touchdown in two minutes.

New Defensive Coordinator Marcus Freeman

The Irish Defense has held its own in the playoffs. With all things considered, the Notre Dame Defense has played admirably in the playoffs. In 2018, the Clemson Tigers put up 31 points in the Cotton Bowl while Clark Lea’s defense was on the field practically the entire game. A few weeks later, the Tigers scored 44 points against the Alabama Crimson Tide in the national championship game.

In the Rose Bowl, the Irish held the Alabama Offense to 31 points, an offense that was averaging 50 points per game, and ended up putting up 52 points against Ohio State in the title game. Brian Kelly played “keep away” most of the game, but the Irish held the Crimson Tide to their lowest output in two years.

DC Marcus Freeman can take recruiting to the next level. The Irish Defensive Coordinator has already got elite defensive end Tyson Ford to commit and is on the hunt for more capable players throughout the country.

The fact that Marcus Freeman chose to become the defensive coordinator at Notre Dame over the 2019 national champion LSU Tigers says a lot about the state of the program. If Coach Freeman selected Notre Dame, he must have seen the potential for the program as well as a great way to advance his career. It is uncertain how much the Irish offered him, but it shows that Brian Kelly and Jack Swarbrick mean business and it is about time.

College Football Playoffs

The expectations for 2021 should not change. Everyone knows the narrative of Notre Dame losing in the postseason, but honestly, who cares what the media thinks? Fans should be accustomed to it. Notre Dame was clearly the 4th best team in the country, and they were one of just a few programs to make it that far, while most teams across the nation have never sniffed the playoffs.

New Year’s Six Bowl Game Narrative. Skeptics say the Irish have not won a major bowl game since 1993. That is true, but they have also faced the national champion in 2012, 2018, and 2020. Let us not forget Iowa State (9-3) defeated Oregon (4-2) in the Fiesta Bowl (New Year’s Six Bowl), and the Irish destroyed the Cyclones by 24 points a year ago.

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Does anyone think the Irish would not have done the same to Iowa State again this year? So, the narrative is a little distorted.

Final Thoughts

Irish will have to navigate an intriguing schedule. Notre Dame will be favored in almost every game this fall, and Clemson is not on the calendar, but that does not mean it is a clear path to an undefeated season. Brian Kelly has a schedule full of teams from many conferences, several traditional rivals, many ranked opponents, and the Irish will be circled on every calendar.

An undefeated Notre Dame Football team will undoubtedly make the playoffs again, and a one-loss Irish squad would have a good chance.

Brian Kelly has Notre Dame in a great position. Yes, the Irish lost their two biggest games of the year, and it was disappointing, but they are consistently in the college football playoff picture. Being relevant does not mean Notre Dame will win its first national title since 1988. But the program is in a tremendous spot with recruiting, the coaching staff, and leadership to make another run.

The best thing Brian Kelly can do is continue to win and look for innovative ways to bolster the program so that one day Notre Dame will win the national championship.

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