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Notre Dame Football

6 Thoughts on a Thursday

July 30, 2020

It came at a price, but Notre Dame is going to play a full ACC schedule this season with a shot at winning the conference. It’s not going to feel normal, but nothing is normal right now so everyone might as well embrace the weird.

Though, it shouldn’t feel that weird for the players or the coaching staff. With the Irish having played so many ACC teams over the last six seasons, there is a familiarity with most of the programs already. And with their record against the conference in the last three years being what it is, 14-2 if you included the College Football Playoff game versus Clemson, Notre Dame fans would have to like their odds of them qualifying for the ACC Championship game.

The schedule actually got easier for the Irish after losing Wisconsin, USC, and Stanford. North Carolina and Florida State won’t be cake walks, but swapping USC out for UNC is close to a wash and Wisconsin was considered a tougher game than FSU with them Seminoles having to travel to South Bend.

In Athlon Sports’ 2020 college football preview magazine, they rank the ACC’s position groups from 1-14 like they do every year. Unsurprisingly, Clemson is either 1 or 2 in every category. That game remains and looms the largest this season. It’s pretty obvious there is a huge talent gap between them and every other program.

Out of the seven position groups (quarterback, running back, wide receiver/tight end, O-line, D-line, linebacker, and defensive back), North Carolina is the only other team who has more than four ranked in the top-five at each position.

Where would Notre Dame rank in the ACC? The short answer is closer to Clemson than everyone else, but for fun I slotted them in at each position group to see just how close.

Without a doubt, Notre Dame would have the number one offensive line in the conference. It’s not a strong year at the position and Clemson is considered to have the best line despite returning only one full-time starter.

Having Ian Book at quarterback probably puts them at number three behind only Trevor Lawrence at Clemson and Sam Howell at North Carolina at quarterback. There’s an argument that would put Book ahead of Howell as well.

While Notre Dame doesn’t have much production returning at receiver and tight end, they still would be fifth at the position compared to everyone else because of their overall talent. They’d be behind Clemson, North Carolina, Florida State, and Louisville, but I would put them ahead of Miami and Wake Forest.

Running back is the one area where it would be impossible to rank Notre Dame higher than the middle of the pack because of the uncertainty there. If Chris Tyree and Kyren Williams blossom into playmakers, then it will be viewed differently at the end of the year, but I had them ninth in the conference given they have no one proven as a bell cow or an obvious choice to breakout from the returning backs on the roster.

The defense is a different story.

I would rank Notre Dame as the second best linebacking unit in the conference behind only Virginia Tech heading into the season. The defensive line I would have fourth, which is surprising given the overall talent and depth, but the ACC’s top defensive lines are as good as any conference in the country.

It’s not a knock on the Irish being ranked behind Clemson, Miami, and Pitt. Those are three outstanding defensive lines that are loaded with future pros. The difference between one and four in the defensive line rankings isn’t very big in my opinion. Notre Dame certainly has a front seven that is as good or better than any in the ACC.

Even with Notre Dame losing three starters in the secondary from last season, they still have a top-five group in the ACC. And all you have to know about the difference between the top defensive back groups and the rest of the conference is that NC State is ranked 6th for defensive backs and their best corner transferred to Notre Dame.

When compared to the rest of the league, Notre Dame is a legitimate threat to reach the ACC Championship game and will probably be favored to get there. When compared to Clemson, there’s a few areas where Notre Dame needs to find answers while the answers appear to already be there for the Tigers on their roster.

There is a chance we may get to see Notre Dame against Clemson twice in 2020. Those would be two huge “prove it” games for the program and Brian Kelly. Splitting those would say a lot about where things are when it comes to closing the gap that existed in 2018.

The stakes might be different. Things might be weirder in a conference and some Notre Dame fans might not like it. But it’s a big opportunity for the program to make a statement. They may get two shots to make it now that they can qualify for the ACC Championship game.

2. Notre Dame didn’t have Virginia Tech added to their schedule, but I bet the ACC teams that did were happy knowing that cornerback Caleb Farley opted out of the season. He is considered to be a likely first round pick next spring so it’s a big deal for college football because it may be just the beginning of players like him opting out of games this fall.

I think it’s impossible to predict if Farley is the start of something because his team wasn’t going to be a contender this season unless we’re counting whatever replaced the Belk Bowl. Virginia Tech isn’t going to win a championship so there was less incentive for Farley to stick around.

If all of a sudden a player like Oregon’s Penei Sewell or LSU’s Ja’Marr Chase decide it’s not worth it to play, that would signal to me that all of the top 2021 NFL Draft prospects could decide it’s not worth the risk.

If I was in the shoes of Trevor Lawrence or Justin Fields, it’s something that they would have to at least consider as a possibility given how they are already viewed by the NFL.

3. With it not being like a typical season in terms of preparation before and during the season, experience is going to matter a lot at certain positions. As Jim Nagy, former NFL scout and current Executive Director of the Reese’s Senior Bowl, pointed out on Twitter, Notre Dame is set up well at the position where experience and familiarity matters a lot.

It’s one reason to like Notre Dame’s chances in the conference. They should be the best team up front in a league that won’t have a lot of great lines. Clemson is replacing a lot on their O-line and they would have been considered the top group before Notre Dame entered the mix.

There’s going to be a lot of inexperienced and average O-line play in the ACC, but not from Notre Dame. Throw in a defensive line that has feasted on average offensive lines the last couple of seasons and it’s hard not to like Notre Dame’s chances.

4. I really want to see the full schedule of when games are going to take place because when Florida State visits Notre Dame could change how we look at the match up.

If they play early in the year, Notre Dame should get an edge against a team with a brand new staff, but FSU will get the benefit of warmer weather. If it’s deep in November, it could be good or bad. Good because those Florida boys won’t exactly be thrilled to play in cold weather. Bad because I could see FSU being one of those teams that gets things rolling later in the year under Mike Norvell.

FSU’s top players are as good as just about any team in the nation. They have five players ranked in PFF’s top-50 for the 2021 NFL Draft. They also have an offensive line that is ranked 11th in the conference according to Athlon and it wouldn’t be surprising if some of those top prospects decided to opt out.

5. An ISD subscriber asked about 2022 recruiting for Power Hour the other day and wanted to know if the ceiling for Notre Dame’s class was limited because it was unclear about how many top-100 recruits they had a realistic shot at.

I say this knowing I’m going to be putting out the ISD Fab 50 for the 2022 class in the next couple of weeks: ranking the 2022 class is going to be a mess.

The camp circuit this spring and summer was practically non-existent. This is when several stars from ‘22 would have emerged. There are going to be some, if not most, of the ‘22 class who won’t play their junior seasons this fall. Many of them will go over a year without playing football if they end up playing in the spring.

Evaluations are going to take time and so much of where a player is ranked is going to be based purely on sophomore film for a good portion of an individual’s recruitment. That can only take evaluators so far.

If you told me that only ⅓ of the top-100 in the 2022 class will end up staying in the top-100 by the time these players actually sign, I could believe it because there is going to be so much more information on these recruits that’s gathered later in the process.

I would take any 2022 top-100 with a giant grain of salt right now because chances are it will look much different down the line.

6. I don’t want to see Notre Dame join the ACC as a full-time member in football on a permanent basis, but considering the circumstances, I’d be happy to see any football this fall. And for me personally, I’d rather dive into these ACC opponents for ISD than say Stanford or Navy.

It would be surprising to me if this move was permanent, even though I understand that joining the ACC may be inevitable because it would be more lucrative to do so.

Part of what makes Notre Dame special is independence and the flexibility that gives them with scheduling and I’m always going to be someone who wants to see them play more games like Wisconsin in Lambeau or a home and home with Georgia. That’s the kind of thing that would probably go away if they are playing a conference slate in addition to Navy, USC, and Stanford every year. Even if they dropped Navy, adding another big game to go with USC and Stanford might be too ambitious.

If they get to compete for the ACC this year, it will be a fun change in a unique circumstance. It would be a lot more fun if Notre Dame could jump into the ACC and win it before walking back to independence.

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