There will be no messing around at the start of this Notre Dame football season.
Michigan comes to South Bend for a marquee night game on Saturday, Sept. 1. By the time the NBC crew signs off, the Irish will either be squarely in the playoff hunt. Or disappointed.
Of course, that’s also true for Michigan. Which is why some of us love the college game over the NFL, where a team can have a schedule littered with losses and still be in the championship hunt.
An opening loss will not necessarily disqualify the Irish or the Wolverines from the College Football Playoff. It will make the margin for error miniscule the rest of the way, though.
The key question for the Irish: Is quarterback Brandon Wimbush ready to learn from a challenging 2017? The physical tools aren’t in question. If Wimbush sees a field filled with talented receivers, Notre Dame could see a lot of success.[membership level="0"] The rest of this article is available to subscribers only - to become a subscriber click here.[/membership] [membership]
The offense, which lost two first-round NFL linemen and returns six starters, will be the younger unit this fall. Second-year offensive coordinator Chip Long, who revitalized the offense a year ago, has plenty of pieces in place. Ian Book, who played well off the bench last fall, also returns at quarterback. Also on the roster is talented dual-threat freshman QB, Phil Jurkovec. Kelly has said nice things about wanting Jurkovec to push WImbush. If ND turns to him or Book, though, that’s not a good thing.
The defense, which returns nine starters, ought to be solid. Clark Lea, 36, who was linebackers coach last fall, moves up to coordinator. He replaces his mentor, Mike Elko, who who left to become DC with Jimbo Fisher at Texas A&M.
In the opener, the focus will be on the quarterbacks—Wimbush and Michigan grad transfer Shea Patterson. But the defenses are likely to tell the tale. The Wolverines also return nine starters from a loaded squad that has a chance to be the best defense in the nation.
In other words, don’t be surprised if this is a defensive battle that leaves both QBs flustered.
Senior Dexter Williams inherits the running-back job from Josh Adams, a free-agent signee with the Philadelphia Eagles. Williams reportedly is likely to be suspended for the first four games. If so, expect to hear a lot about redshirt freshman runner Jafar Armstrong.
Notre Dame, which bounced back from a 4-8 disaster in 2016 to 10-3 last fall, is well positioned for continued success.
Beyond Michigan, the schedule is filled with the usual challenges. No. 13 Stanford, No. 15 USC, No. 17 Virginia Tech and No. 19 Florida State all are ranked in the top 20 of the pre-season coaches poll. For what it’s worth, none of the opponents, including No. 14 Michigan, is ranked higher than the coaches No. 11, Notre Dame.
That said, if things—especially Wimbush—mesh, the Irish have the ingredients to be a darkhorse threat to be one of the four teams to make the College Football Playoff.[/membership]