There’s been a narrative forming over the last couple of weeks that Notre Dame is a candidate to start the season in the top 10 and finish the season unranked. Even some Notre Dame sites have given the notion some thought. Well, I am here today to say that the idea of Notre Dame finishing this season unranked is a bunch of clickbait nonsense. Barring catastrophic injuries, it ain’t happening to this team.
The main reason people are giving this credence is that it has happened to Notre Dame recently. Just three year ago Notre Dame was a top 10 at the start Labor Day weekend. Then the wheels came flying off and the 2016 season went careening out of control.
The only problem with the “but it just happened three years ago so why is it crazy” school of thought is that the only real similarities between that team and the 2019 Fighting Irish is are: 1) they are starting the season in the top 10 and 2) Brian Kelly is still the coach. And, even the latter could be argued that the 2016 version of Brian Kelly is not the same head coach who will lead Notre Dame into Louisville a week from today.
There are so many ways that this team is different; I figured I would just list them.
1. Continuity at Quarterback
One of, if not the, most significant reason for the 2016 debacle was the poorly managed quarterback competition. After the season Deshone Kizer had in 2015, everyone knew he was the better quarterback for the Irish, but Brian Kelly promised Malik Zaire he wouldn’t lose his job just because he fractured his ankle and missed 11 games in 2015. Admirable, but in hindsight, the competition was the first crack in the foundation.
The quarterback battle divided the locker room allegedly. Sides were taken. And then Kelly made it worse by not selecting a starter and instead claiming both would play because they both were too good not to. If you have two quarterbacks, you don’t have a quarterback as the age-old saying goes.
I could do an entire post on how badly that situation was managed, but for the sake of this article, that is NOT the case this year. Ian Book is the clear QB1 at Notre Dame. He’s spent the entire off-season as QB1 – a luxury no other quarterback has really had in the Kelly era. There’s almost always been some kind of competition.
Not only is there continuity at the position, but Book is also one of seven captains on the team.
2. NO Brian Vangorder
It is not hyperbole to say that the Brian Vangorder hire was hands down the worst assistant coaching hire of Brian Kelly’s tenure at Notre Dame. Maybe of his entire career. BVG was an unmitigated disaster at Notre Dame. The 2016 season was his 3rd in command of the Notre Dame defense yet the Irish defenders looked seemingly more lost in 2016 than they had at any point in the previous two years.
Vangorder did not have Jaylon Smith on the field to bail everyone else out anymore in 2016, and the defense fell completely apart. He didn’t make it to October and was unceremoniously fired after the Duke disaster.
Since Vangorder left Notre Dame, the Irish defense has improved each year and helped fuel a Playoff run in 2018.
3. Other Coaching Staff Upgrades
Vangorder wasn’t the only dead weight on the 2016 Notre Dame coaching staff. Brian Kelly almost wholly turned over his coaching staff from 2016 and the only position where it can be argued that Notre Dame isn’t better off is the offensive line. Losing Harry Hiestand after the 2017 hurt, but Jeff Quinn has the offensive line looking strong in 2019 (more on that in a second).
Clark Lea, Lance Taylor, Terry Joseph, Brian Polian, Chip Long, Tommy Rees, and Del Vaughn Alexander are all new additions since that disastrous season. Not all are apparent upgrades from their predecessors, but it would be hard to argue any of them are downgrades either.
4. A Veteran Offensive Line
Speaking of the offensive line, the 2016 unit was not as experienced as the one taking the field in 2019. Notre Dame replaced three starters from its 2015 unit, and while the 2016 line was littered with future NFL lineman, the group as a whole lacked experience.
In 2019, Notre Dame is replacing just one starter along the line making center Jarrett Patterson the only first time starter for the Irish this fall. Further, Tommy Kraemer and Robert Hainsey enter their third years as starters. We might not see this line reach the 2017 Joe Moore Award winning levels because there isn’t a Quenton Nelson on it, but this year’s offensive line should be very, very good.
5. And a Veteran Secondary
Notre Dame threw a lot of freshmen into the fire in 2016, and some of those freshmen are now the veterans of the backend of the defense. Troy Pride and Donte Vaughn both played a lot of snaps as true freshmen in 2016 as Notre Dame tried a lot of different alignments. That is not the case this year with Pride back for a second season as a starter and perhaps the best safety combo in the country in Alohi Gilman and Jalen Elliott.
Notre Dame also lost Shaun Crawford early in the 2016 season which threw a big wrench into secondary. Avery Sebastian, Devin Studstill, Nick Watkins, and Nick Coleman all saw extended time in 2016 along with Pride, Vaughn, and Julian Love. Crawford was lost in week two, and Max Redfield and Devin Butler were kicked off the team in the summer following their arrests.
In 2019 the Irish have Pride, Gilman, and Elliott as veterans – the latter two of which are captains. Crawford is back and seemingly healthy after his third significant injury. Freshman freak Kyle Hamilton is forcing his way onto the field. The back end of the Irish defense is more than secure in 2019.
6. A Ridiculous Defensive Line
Perhaps the biggest change defensively is the defensive line. Notre Dame is fielding it’s best defensive line in 30 years in 2019. Like the offensive line, there were some talented players on the 2016 Notre Dame defensive line, but it was not anywhere close to as deep as the 2019 defensive line.
Daelin Hayes is a backup in 2019 but would be a front line player on that 2016 defensive line. Even Ade Ogundeji would likely start over the 2016 version of Andrew Trumbetti at defensive end. As good as Isaac Rochell was, he did not have the same kind of impact on a game as Julian Okwara and Khalid Kareem will this year.
People also forget that it took Notre Dame until September 24th of that fall to record their first sack of the season. It will be shocking if Notre Dame doesn’t have a sack, or two, at least, by halftime next Monday night.
Add all of this up, and the situations of 2016 vs. 2019 are night and day for Notre Dame. While I’m sure it’s fun for those outside of the Notre Dame fanbase to point to Notre Dame’s top 10 start in 2016 as proof that they could end 2019 unranked as well, those comparisons are just ridiculous. Notre Dame is stronger from top to bottom and deeper at almost every position this fall.