Notre Dame is No. 16 in the preseason top 25 rankings. What are the five things that matter about the 2016 Fighting Irish?
Worse team, better results?
There’s no Ronnie Stanley. There’s no Will Fuller, Jaylon Smith, or Sheldon Day. This year’s Notre Dame team doesn’t have the high-end talent last year’s squad boasted, but it’s a solid team that might have the right formula to potentially do even more.
The schedule isn’t awful, there are options to come up with decent depth in several spots, and the playmakers should quickly emerge on both sides of the ball.
Can this be another Brian Kelly team that figures out how to win the close, key games? With only three true road dates – Texas, NC State and USC – and three neutral site games that aren’t that bad – Syracuse, Navy and Army, even though the date with the Orange in East Rutherford is supposedly a road game – the Irish could find their way right in the thick of things if they can just hold serve at home.
Can anyone play wide receiver?
The much ballyhooed quarterback situation will be fine – both DeShone Kizer and Malik Zaire are terrific. The running back rotation will be strong behind a good-enough line to carry the offense when needed. However, with Fuller, Chris Brown and Amir Carlisle all gone, the passing game needs weapons. It should be okay, but an okay passing game won’t get ND to the CFP.
The defense wasn’t that great, and it’s not going to be better
The defense fell apart against Stanford and Ohio State to close the season, but part of that, obviously, had something to do with those two being among the year’s best teams. The linebacking corps should be solid, not sensational, while the secondary needs safety depth to emerge. This isn’t going to be a brick wall of a defense that keeps good offenses under wraps, but it needs to be steady – especially against the run.
Become Kansas State
Control the ball, milk the clock, keep the defense rested and off the field, and win the turnover battle. It sounds simple, but that’s what Notre Dame has to do without a proven game breaking receiver like Fuller. The defense didn’t take the ball away as much as it needed to with just 14 forced turnovers, and even worse, the team was a -6 overall on the year in turnover margin. A -3 margin against Clemson, -1 against Stanford and -1 against Ohio State can’t happen in the biggest of games this time around.
What’s going to happen?
Cue up 2015 again. The Irish will get to 10-2 thanks to the relatively favorable home slate, but they’ll blow a shot at the College Football Playoff with a loss at USC to close out the year. They could certainly lose to a Miami, Michigan State and/or Stanford at home, but don’t be shocked if they don’t. The spotlight won’t be on like it was last year, but all of a sudden it could be November and Notre Dame might be a big-time player in the chase.