Five burning questions for the Fighting Irish

Say this about Notre Dame. It’s always an interesting ride on the Golden Dome rollercoaster.

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In 2016, when the Irish went 4-8, some restless alumni and fans bristled for change, and never mind the long contract extension Brian Kelly had received.

Last fall, despite losing QB DeShone Kizer to the NFL, Notre Dame got out of the gate quickly. After losing an early 20-19 heartbreaker to Georgia, the Irish went to Miami on Nov. 11 with an 8-1 record and a real chance for compelling playoff resume.

They endured a 41-8 meltdown there, though, and got beat 38-20 at Stanford to end their regular season with a sour taste.

A 21-17 Citrus Bowl win over LSU then gave ND a 10-3 record, its second in double digits in three years.

Now what?

Here are Five Burning Questions for the 2018 Fighting Irish.

1, CAN NOTRE DAME GET OFF ON THE RIGHT FOOT?

The Irish could build a lot of momentum by beating Michigan in their opener. The atmosphere in South Bend will be rockin’, just as it was when Georgia came to town last fall.

All things considererd, even a loss won’t take any goals off the table. It will just reduce the margin for error. But the Michigan game will set the tone for the season.[membership level="0"] The rest of this article is available to subscribers only - to become a subscriber click here.[/membership] [membership]

2, IS TALENTED QB BRANDON WIMBUSH READY TO TAKE THE NEXT STEP AND MAKE BETTER DECISIONS?

If Wimbush has made significant progress in reading defenses, he has the skills to take ND far.

It’s natural to assume that he will. If that wasn’t Priority One under the Golden Dome this off-season, it was in the discussion. And ND has the means to help Wimbush make big strides.

But you haven’t done it until you’ve done it.

The Irish will need to rely on him more, especially early, after losing a pair of OL anchors and having questions to answer at running back. Among them: The status of Dexter Williams, who faces disciplinary action that could include an early multi-game suspension.

3, IS THE NEW DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR UP TO THE CHALLENGE?

All indications are that Clark Lea, 36, who has moved up from linebackers coach, will be a fine defensive coordinator. Lea succeeds his mentor, Mike Elko, who who left to become DC with Jimbo Fisher at Texas A&M, which reportedly is paying Elko a tidy $1.8 million a year.

(Note to self: When eager youths ask for advice about becoming sportswriters, steer them into something more stable. Like coaching football.)

Having nine starters back should help Lea a lot. And Lea, who deserves a lot of credit for the defensive turnaround the Irish enjoyed last year, ought to be fine.

But as with Wimbush, you haven’t done it until you’ve done it. Then again, that’s an oft-repeated phrase just about everywhere in college football.

4, CAN THE IRISH WEATHER ANOTHER CHALLENGING SECOND-HALF SCHEDULE?

Give Miami and Stanford all the credit they deserve for making Notre Dame's November miserable. But ND likes to traipse around the country. It likes to have high academic standards. It likes to play high-profile opponents. It likes a lot of things that can take a toll on a team in November.

This year promises to be no different.

If the Irish can handle Michigan—and that’s a huge if—the next stretch looks manageable. Ball State and Vanderbilt at home, Wake Forest on the road before Stanford comes to South Bend.

Then there’s a trip to Virginia Tech, followed by a home date with Pitt.

That’s when life gets interesting. ND plays Navy in San Diego this year, then makes the short trip to Northwestern before facing Florida State at home, From there, it has chosen to move its home game against Syracuse to Yankee Stadium before finishing up with the traditional trip to USC.

That’s a lot of traveling. That’s especially true, given ND’s opponents.

There may not be any Alabamas or Ohio States on this year’s slate. But the Irish will need to take care of business against a bunch of teams that are fully capable of winning—especially against a jetlagged squad that will need to stay healthy and focused.

5, IS PHIL STEELE RIGHT?

Readers of Phil Steele’s college football annual know that it’s chocked full of lists. Toughest Schedule. Power ratings. Most Improved. And Biggest Surprise Teams.

And there is Notre Dame: No. 1 on Phil's Surprise Team list.

I’m not sure how a team ranked as high as the Irish, who are 11th in the initial coaches poll, can be a surprise team.

But he’s thinking the Irish are stacked on defense, have capable offensive-line replacements and will see big strides from now-experienced Brandon Wimbush.

Where some people see an insane number of frequent-flier miles, Phil Steele sees ‘’just four true road games.’’ He thinks Brian Kelly is just the savvy guy to manage all of this.

And. . . his Power Ratings ``project an even better year for ND’’ than last year.

I am not nearly that convinced that all of those things are going to fall into place.

I look at Notre Dame’s schedule and I see at least two or three losses that would not shock anyone. Michigan, Stanford and Florida State are perilous home games, while Virginia Tech and USC are dangerous road trips. And there are other teams that could sneak up on the Irish if they aren’t careful.

But bring it on. Notre Dame should be interesting. As usual.[/membership]

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