I was called a “negative nelly” last week by one of our readers and it was glorious. I’m usually the guy who is too positive. I like to look at the bright side, especially in the offseason. It’s much more pleasant to look at things under the assumption they will improve. As my recent pieces on Brian Kelly have shown, those are assumptions I’m not willing to make. Not after 4-8. So it was nice to be portrayed as being the opposite of what I’ve been accused of my entire life. At least once.
One of the conclusions I’ve reached throughout spring ball and into the summer is how unpredictable the 2017 season really is. 2016 was shocking and in many ways it was fatally flawed before it even began.
There was the ill-fated quarterback competition between Malik Zaire and DeShone Kizer. Brian VanGorder was installing a defense that lacked in fundamentals and was scrapped following week 4 after VanGorder was dismissed. The strength program took a major hit that left the team ill-prepared for the grind of four quarter games, let alone a full season of football.
These are things that can, and did, sink a season. But, they are variables that have since been removed. There is a clear pecking order at quarterback. VanGorder is gone and his replacement has worked meticulously on improving the fundamental aspects of the defense. The strength program underwent a complete overhaul.
We know Notre Dame only won four games last year. But, were they really a four win roster? The numbers suggest no. I spent some time perusing the site footballoutsiders.com to get a better idea of what kind of team Notre Dame was on the whole in 2016. I wanted to know if the team, and specific units, were better than conventional wisdom would suggest. I found some interesting answers.
Notre Dame Underachieved By Three Games In 2016
Football outsiders uses a formula called 2nd Order Wins, which looks at the advanced stats of a particular game, takes those stats and creates a single-game win expectancy, and compares it to the actual results of the game. Essentially, they want to know if a team is either lucky or unlucky.
Notre Dame in 2016 came out with a 2nd order win projection of 7.2, which is just over a three win differential from their actual results. It was the largest differential in all of college football, both positive and negative. Some of it can be attributed to bad luck, like having to play a football game in a literal hurricane, but also to Notre Dame simply falling apart in the 4th quarters of games.
I point this out because a lot of season projections revolve around Notre Dame being a four win team last year. It seems foolish to expect a double digit win season from a four win team the year before. But, from a seven win team? Is that so foolish or outlandish? It changes the thinking and the conversation a little bit. Our expectations could actually be a little low.
The Offensive Line Was Better Than We Think
Conventional wisdom regarding the Notre Dame offensive line in 2016 is they underachieved, especially in the run game. Again, this is all relative to expectations. But, when you take a look at the numbers provided by Football Outsiders, you’ll see they performed, on the whole, a little better than one would think.
Notre Dame’s offensive line was a top 20 unit in adjusted line yards (18th) , pass down line yards (8th), and power success rate (16th). They were also a respectable 30th in stuff rate, which is the percentage of times a running back is stopped at or behind the line of scrimmage. When you have a line that is 16th in power success rate–the percentage of times on 3rd or 4th down when a team has two or less yards and a first down is achieved–and 30th in stuff rate, you’d think that’s a recipe for running success.
Interestingly, the Irish line struggled the most on standard downs, both running (102nd in adjusted line yards) and throwing (120th in adjusted sack rate).
This strikes me as a play-calling issue, although it’s hard to identify exactly where that failure occurs without closer examination. The line blocks fine when the defense knows they have to pass, and they block fine when they know they have to run.
That leads me to believe they were too varied in their play calling, not sticking with what is working and trying to play match ups a little too often. If this is the case, it’s no wonder Kelly wanted to make a change in this area, replacing Mike Denbrock with Chip Long.
The point is, there is a quality line in there, given the right situation.
The Defensive Line Was…Good?
Well, against the run anyway.
This was easily the most heartening look back at the Notre Dame team to project what is possible for the upcoming season.
The defensive line came in at an incredible 7th in adjusted line yards, 30th in standard down line yards, and 9th in passing down line yards. They were admittedly pretty middling in the rest of the categories against the run, with a low rating of 54th in stuff rating.
And just to make clear you can’t simply manipulate numbers to make something that is really bad suddenly really good, their sack rate numbers are abysmal and atrocious.
The good news is this was a formidable run defense, and especially so when you consider they played two option teams, NC State in a hurricane, and Stanford. You can’t hide in the numbers against teams that constantly want to run the ball.
The other good news is their new defensive coordinator is very good at the thing Notre Dame was very bad at. Last year Wake Forest was 16th in adjusted sack rate, 12th in standard downs sack rate, and 14th in pass down sack rate. If Notre Dame can hold steady as they were against the run, and add a little spice to the pass rush, well, they just might have a little something there.
Special Teams Killed Notre Dame
For me, special teams is pretty simple. Either you want to be good at it, or you don’t. In 2016, Notre Dame didn’t, and if there was any single reason why a seven win team turned into a four win team, it’s because of special teams.
We don’t need to relive the horrors of what happened, we all saw the calamity, but it bears out in the numbers as well. They were ranked 81st in total special teams by FEI, which was boosted by the fact that Justin Yoon was pretty good at kicking field goals (58th in field goal efficiency) and CJ Sanders was very good at returning kickoffs (9th in kick return efficiency).
Everything else was a dumpster fire.
They were 98th in kickoff efficiency, 120th in punt return efficiency, and 121st in punting efficiency.
The good news, again, is it seems Notre Dame cares to be better at special teams this year. They hired a full time special teams coordinator, Brian Polian, who isn’t splitting time as a position coach. Frankly, it’d be hard for them to be worse in 2017, and if they did without the unintentional touching of punts and fumbling the ball into the end zone for opponent touchdowns, that may just be the difference in one or two victories.