Last year was, by every conceivable metric, a down year for Notre Dame football. One season removed from a 12-0 regular season and the fetching title of "national runner-up," the Irish slogged to a 9-4 record and had to settle for the lampooned title of "Pinstripe Bowl Champions!"
But a "down year" at Notre Dame is different than a "down year" elsewhere. A lot different. Besides winning nine games—a total that most schools envy—the Irish were the only team to beat Rose Bowl Champion Michigan State and also beat Pac-12 South Champion Arizona State on a neutral field.
Which puts Notre Dame in an odd spot entering 2014. The world is not expected of it (outside of South Bend, Indiana, that is), but anyone would be foolish to cast it aside. The last time the Irish were cast aside in the preseason, they came within 60 minutes of winning the national title. Are we really dense enough to not learn from our mistakes?
Here's the case both for and against Notre Dame making the College Football Playoff.
The Case For
The case for Notre Dame is simple: It's Notre Dame.
Only three other teams have been to a national title game since 2013, and they (Auburn, Alabama and Florida State) are all expected to be ranked in—or very near—the top five of the major preseason polls.
Stretching back a year, the only other team to make a national title game since 2012 is LSU. The Tigers aren't fancied as well as those other three teams heading into 2014, but they were included among the nine teams with the best betting odds to make the CFP, per Jerry Hinnen of CBSSports.com.
Stretching back another year, the only other team to make a national title game since 2011 is Oregon. The Ducks, like Auburn, Alabama and Florida State, are expected to debut around the top five nationally.
Which puts Notre Dame in rarified company. After watching them get blown out by Alabama, a cynical mind would cast the Irish's 2012 season aside as a fluke, calling them "lucky to get where they got." But they still undeniably got there, which is something only the best teams in America can say they've done these past four years.
Notre Dame also has the benefit of balance.
During the past three seasons, its offense and defense have both been consistently solid—and occasionally great.
Despite the relative "down year" in 2013, Notre Dame still finished top-30 in offensive FEI and defensive FEI, according to Football Outsiders. It has accomplished that feat every season since 2011.
Here are the only other teams that can say that:
|Teams With Top-30 Off. and Def. FEI Every Year Since 2011|
|Average Off. FEI Rank||Average Def. FEI Rank|
|Source: Football Outsiders|
Obviously, what Alabama and Oregon have done these past three years is significantly better than what Notre Dame has. That is reflected in the numbers. Still, this is a feat that eludes most college football programs, even blue-bloods such as Florida State and LSU.
Notre Dame is one of only five teams to pull it off.
Which is important. One of the "basics" at Football Outsiders is that "the strongest indicator of how a college football team will perform in the upcoming season is their performance in recent seasons."
Here is how they elaborate on that thought:
It may seem strange because graduation enforces constant player turnover, but college football teams are actually much more consistent from year to year than NFL teams. Thanks in large part to consistency in recruiting, teams can be expected to play within a reasonable range of their baseline program expectations each season. Our Program F/+ ratings, which represent a rolling five-year period of play-by-play and drive efficiency data, have an extremely strong (.76) correlation with the next year’s F/+ rating.
And for good measure—since, as alluded to above, recruiting plays a big part in on-field stability—here are the teams with the best average recruiting classes since 2011, per the 247Sports team rankings:
|CFB Recruiting: Top 10 Programs Since Class of 2011|
|Average "Points"||Average Rank||5-Star Recruits||4-Star Recruits|
|2. Ohio State||289.73||4.25||6||59|
|3. Florida State||283.35||4.75||13||42|
|9. Notre Dame||264.95||10.50||5||50|
Once again, this metric slots Notre Dame among rarified company. Especially with regard to talent depth—where only Alabama, Ohio State and LSU have landed more 4-star recruits since 2011—Notre Dame can compete on a national scale.
It also has those rare blue-chip prospects, a couple of whom are entering Year 2 and have thus far failed to make an impact.
But that doesn't mean they never will.
Safety Max Redfield and running back Greg Bryant were the Nos. 30 and 45 respective players on the 247Sports Composite last cycle, and both are expected to contribute in 2014. Bleacher Report's Keith Arnold listed Redfield as a starter and Bryant as a co-starter on his projected two-deep depth chart from the end of spring practice.
Which brings us—at long last!—to the makeup of the current roster. Despite last year's struggles, which were inexcusable, this team still has the pieces to compete for a spot in the Playoff.
Those pieces can be separated into three strengths:
1. The Offensive Line
According to Football Study Hall, Notre Dame finished No. 2 in the country in adjusted sack rate (pass blocking) and No. 22 in adjusted line yards (run blocking) last season. The only other teams to finish top-25 in both categories were Texas A&M, Northern Illinois, Miami, Arkansas, Toledo and Duke.
Despite the loss of first-round draft pick Zack Martin and three-year starter Chris Watt, the Irish return a lot of talent in the trenches, chiefly center Nick Martin, Zack's younger brother. It also saw enough potential breakouts this spring—hello, Mike McGlinchey!—to feel good about the line as a strength heading into next season.
2. Quarterback Depth
Man, what an upgrade from last year. Tommy Rees is gone, Everett Golson is back and Malik Zaire is older. No matter who wins the battle between Golson and Zaire—and make no mistake, it's a battle—will give the Irish a far better starting option that they had in 2013.
More than that, whoever loses the battle between Golson and Zaire will give ND a far better backup option than it had in 2013. Remember when Andrew Hendrix came in and stunk up the joint against USC, nearly choking away a rivalry game? The Irish need not worry about such things next season. They have two capable signal-callers. And that's something most teams would kill for.
3. Evenly Distributed Defensive Star Power
Notre Dame's three best defensive players line up at different levels. Sheldon Day is being counted on to play with more consistency and anchor the line, Jaylon Smith looks like the next big thing at outside linebacker and KeiVarae Russell is finally the leader of the secondary and should emerge as one of the nation's top cornerbacks.
That type of distribution is important for any team, especially one that loses so many pieces from last year's defense. That every positional group has a potential superstar is important to the development of younger players, who need someone to emulate and revere.
Of that trio, Day is the biggest question mark. He's a physical freak who flashed massive potential in 2013 but has always been a bit of an enigma. If he puts it all together this season, ND could be scary good.
The Case Against
The case against Notre Dame begins and ends with something the team itself cannot control: the schedule. Man, what a doozy.
The Irish don't have to play Michigan State for the first time since 1996, which appears, on the surface, like a nice bit of serendipity. This might be the best the Spartans have been since 1996! What a fortuitous time to miss out on them…right?!
Not so much.
For even though that may be true in a vacuum, the ACC games Notre Dame added to replace Michigan State are no joke. Syracuse is plucky enough to hang with Notre Dame in MetLife Stadium, North Carolina has been mentioned as a CFP dark horse, Louisville is always tough and Florida State is the defending national champion.
And that comes in addition to Notre Dame's usual slate of difficult games, which again includes Michigan, USC and both of last year's Pac-12 Championship Game participants, Stanford and Arizona State.
Here's a look at how the entire schedule pans out:
|Notre Dame 2014 Schedule Breakdown|
|Date||Opponent||2012-13 Record||2013 F/+ Rank|
|Aug. 30||vs. Rice||17-10||69|
|Sept. 6||vs. Michigan||15-11||37|
|Sept. 13||vs. Purdue*||7-18||114|
|Sept. 27||at Syracuse*||15-11||75|
|Oct. 4||vs. Stanford||23-5||3|
|Oct. 11||vs. North Carolina||15-10||38|
|Oct. 18||at Florida State||26-2||1|
|Nov. 1||vs. Navy*||17-9||58|
|Nov. 8||at Arizona State||18-9||13|
|Nov. 15||vs. Northwestern||15-10||59|
|Nov. 22||vs. Louisville||23-3||12|
|Nov. 29||at USC||17-10||11|
|Source: ESPN.com / Football Outsiders|
If you chalk up the road game at Florida State as a probable loss, Notre Dame would, in all likelihood, have to go 10-1 against the rest of that schedule to have a chance of making the CFP. No matter whom the losses come against, a 9-3 team will not be included among the top four teams in America. Doing so would be unprecedented.
Is there another loss or two on Notre Dame's schedule? Definitely. Other than Purdue—which oddly always plays Notre Dame well—no other team on the Irish's schedule has even close to a losing record the past two seasons. Pac-12 powers Stanford, USC and Arizona State will be just as tough as usual, and Michigan and Northwestern should be much improved from the Big Ten. (Especially the latter.)
Are we sure Notre Dame has the weapons to contend with such an onslaught of quality opponents? A wagering man would say no.
The skill positions are depleted, and even though emerging players such as Bryant and tight end Ben Koyack have potential, it is hard to count on either (or anyone else) until they prove it on a Saturday.
The defense, meanwhile, has holes to fill. The part about distribution in the "Case For" section was a charming way to omit the reality: that the defense returns three total sacks from last season; that former walk-on Joe Schmidt is slated to start at middle linebacker; that the secondary has little depth and is one injury away from disaster.
It's no wonder coach Kelly is starting to get desperate. He is not mincing words with the status of Jarrett Grace, a potential starter at linebacker who is recovering from a broken fibula.
"We're going to be very, very aggressive with him over the next two to three weeks," Kelly said on Tuesday, according to JJ Stankevitz of CSN Chicago. "We're going full go for him to be ready for Rice."
New defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder presents yet another wild card. He coached up some great Georgia defenses in the early 2000s, but he also coached down a pretty godawful Auburn defense in 2012.
Was that a fluke, or has the evolution of the college game in the intervening years befuddled him?
Can he really be trusted with such a high-ceiling, low-basement unit?
Is ND out of its mind to think it can make the College Football Playoff after losing both coordinators and half of its defense from a team that played (and didn't look great) in the Pinstripe Bowl?
When you put it like that…well, kind of.
Follow Brian Leigh on Twitter: @BLeighDAT