Notre Dame Fighting Irish
2014 Record: 8-5
F/+ Rank: 34
Wins: Rice, Michigan, Purdue, Syracuse, Stanford, North Carolina, Navy, LSU
Losses: Florida State, Arizona State, Northwestern, Louisville, USC
Midway through October, Notre Dame was a top five team, undefeated, in the discussion for the first annual College Football Playoff. They had shutout Michigan, 31-0, and they'd beaten #14 Stanford, 17-14. They were heading into a titan matchup with second-ranked Florida State, a game that wound up living up to its billing. A controversial pass interference call aided the Seminoles, who walked away with a 31-27 victory.
Still, Notre Dame was in the discussion for the CFP, and a 49-39 win over Navy did nothing to diminish that. And then November happened.
The Irish lost four in a row, getting blown out, 55-31, by #11 Arizona State. They lost in overtime to Northwestern, then lost by three to Louisville. By the time they lost to USC, 49-14, Notre Dame was 7-4 and a shell of what they were hyped to start the season as. They wound up in the ACC bowl pecking order, taking the conference's trip to Nashville for the Music City Bowl. There, they beat #22 LSU, 31-28, ending a "what if" season on an up note.
Series: Notre Dame leads, 13-9
First matchup: 1975 (ND won, 17-3)
Last matchup: 2012 (ND won, 21-6)
In five years as head coach of Notre Dame, Boston native Brian Kelly (born in Everett, raised in Chelsea, attended St. John's Prep in Danvers and Assumption College in Worcester) restored some of the tarnished pride endured by the end of the Charlie Weis era. After going to two straight BCS bowl games, Weis went 16-21, including a 3-9 campaign in 2007, qualifying for only one bowl game. Since, Brian Kelly's won no less than eight games, qualifying for a bowl game every year, including the 2012 BCS National Championship Game.
It's that type of success that's followed him everywhere he's gone. At Grand Valley State, he went to three straight NCAA Division II National Championship games, winning it in 2002 and 2003. In three years at Central Michigan, he built the Chippewas into a MAC Championship team that won the Motor City Bowl. In four years, he built Cincinnati into a national powerhouse, winning two Big East championships and leading the Bearcats to the 2008 Orange Bowl and 2009 Sugar Bowl.
Despite his success and his restoration of pride, however, he's yet to "win the big one" for the Irish. They were destroyed in the BCS National Championship Game against Alabama, and as good as last year's team was, they fell apart down the stretch. With a team as good as this team is predicted to finish this year, expectations are potentially higher than ever.
Virtually everyone other than the starting quarterback is back on offense. Tarean Folston should be a 1,000 yard back this year even with a solid handcuff in Greg Bryant behind him. William Fuller headlines an explosive receiving core amassing over 2,000 of total offense last year, bringing with him Corey Robinson and CJ Prosise, among others.
The defense returns everyone who played meaningful snaps last year, which is a positive except for the amount of injuries they incurred in 2014. Per the SBN preview, only two defensive linemen played in all 13 games. The linebacking corps felt the injury bug, and the secondary was bad to atrocious at times. Even though everyone's back, health and development are going to be huge for ND.
Last year's offensive line was good but not great. It didn't help that Golson made some really boneheaded plays through the middle and end of the season, but the line was still, at times, mediocre. Still, youth can be attributes to some of that, especially since Ronnie Staley as a sophomore started as many games as Nick Martin had as a junior.
This year, the line is still somewhat inexperienced, having only started 67 games between the only three starters coming back. They'll need to break in newcomers on both sides of the line, which should be easier to do with the vast array of weaponry the offense possesses.
Returning Quarterback: No
Everett Golson is gone, having transferred out as a fifth-year senior to Florida State. In his place is sophomore Malik Zaire. Zaire played sparingly last season, completing 21 of his 35 attempts for 266 yards and a touchdown. But he went 9-for-20 for 170 yards against USC last season and will need to be much better with the football. Given what Notre Dame has in the backfield and for weaponry, he needs to be able to sustain drives up and down the field to wear down opposing defenses. It's his show to run, but he should probably lay off trying to win the Heisman with every throw.
Biggest Problem for 2015:
The problem with Notre Dame is that they don't really have a weakness outside of an inexperienced quarterback and an average offensive line. That's easily corrected by saying the line will get better this year with more development and by pointing out the amount of young players who stepped in and won big football games.
Two things stick out for me as ND's potential Achilles' Heel - 1) The secondary last year was downright bad, and 2) they play arguably the toughest schedule in the nation. They open up with Texas, Virginia, and Georgia Tech - all teams with something to prove this year against a very good team. After playing a cupcake game at home against UMass, they play Clemson. The rest of the schedule gets easier with games against Navy, Temple, and Wake Forest, but USC, Pittsburgh, BC, and Stanford are all there. That's a gauntlet.
By the time they get to BC, Notre Dame will either be in the national picture or searching for answers as to why they didn't do it this year.
Biggest Strength for 2015:
This team is LOADED with talent. In his sixth year, every single player in the Notre Dame system is a Brian Kelly recruit. He's brought in tremendously talented individuals who are trained to play in his system. He has nearly every player back, and the turnover that he has is limited to guys with tremendous upside.
Sports Illustrated has the Irish as a CFP team in 2015. If they're undefeated, they're in. But with a team this good, I think even a one-loss Notre Dame team is going to be pretty hard to keep out of the national semifinals.