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Notre Dame Football

6 Thoughts on a Thursday

August 26, 2021

There is no such thing as easy money or a sure thing when it comes to sports betting. Things can change in an instant with an injury or suspension that change the trajectory of a team. Sometimes there’s just plain bad luck involved that can swing a game or result in a backdoor cover.

I say all that as a caveat that things change and what we think we know can flip in an instant. A bet can appear to be easy money and that notion can disintegrate in an instant.

That’s why they call it gambling.

I know this, though: Notre Dame’s win total of 9 or 8.5 (gasp!) in some places feels like it’s based on things that don’t accurately reflect the state of the program.

The total is partially based on the loss of production for Notre Dame, but relying on that ignores what Brian Kelly and his staff have done with development in recent years.

They lost Drue Tranquill and Te’von Coney, two outstanding players on a very good Irish defense in 2018. They had 27.5 Havoc plays between the two with four more coming from starting Rover Asmar Bilal. The drop off seemed like it would be steep the next season, but all Bilal, Drew White, and Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah did was combine for 40.5 Havoc plays.

That’s one specific example, but I chose that one because linebacker was considered to be a potential weakness for the 2019 defense and yet the starting group ended up producing more negative plays against the offense than the previous year.

This is where things are with Notre Dame. Even if there is a drop off in certain areas, it’s never a significant one because they have recruited and developed to the point where the next guys step in and continue to play at a high level.

Stars leave and new stars emerge and there are plenty of players on this 2021 Notre Dame team who are on the verge of becoming stars on Saturdays this fall.

The other part of why the total is lower than I think it should be may have to do with the number of “open-dates” teams have before playing Notre Dame. Five opponents have that this season and it could be a big deal.

Could is the key word there. Seven Notre Dame opponents had “open-dates” before they played the Irish in 2017. They won all of those games and finished 11-2.

There is also that rough stretch of games where they play Wisconsin, Cincinnati, Virginia Tech (on the road), USC, and North Carolina. I don’t think anyone can brush aside those games and think they will automatically run the table. All of Notre Dame’s eight losses in the last four years have come against teams who have won nine games or more and Wisconsin, Cincinnati, USC, and UNC could all do that.

Brian Kelly is still 11-8 in those games, though. And he’s undefeated against unranked opponents. Could Notre Dame go 2-2 in those games and lose to an unranked opponent? They could, but it’s unlikely, which is why the 8.5 total feels especially off of what the expectations should be.

The Irish are deep at a lot of spots on the roster and aren’t nearly as deep at some others. If they have bad luck with those others, then who knows what can happen with the season.

But betting on the total isn’t about betting on the worst case scenario or even the most optimistic one. It’s about making a play on what’s most likely to happen.

I think it’s most likely that Notre Dame is going to win 10 or 11 games this season so if I was going to do something with that win total, give me the over.

2. I know that many Irish fans are unenthused by the idea of playing with two and three tight ends on the field as much as Notre Dame did in 2020, but I think a lot of that had to do with how the tight ends were targeted in the passing game.

Brock Wright was essentially a blocking tight end. Tommy Tremble was much more of a weapon as a run blocker than as a receiver. He only had four more targets than he had in 2019. Michael Mayer was TE1, at least as a receiver. He’ll remain that this season as one of the best at the position in college football.

With all of these years of having multiple tight ends with NFL futures on the team, Notre Dame has never really embraced a one-two punch at the position in terms of the passing game during the Brian Kelly era. Maybe they won’t do that this year, but what we saw from Kevin Bauman in camp was enough to at least think about the possibility.

It wouldn’t be about taking targets away from Mayer. It would be more about taking advantage of matchups because most teams don’t have the personnel to deal with two guys like them.

I’m at the very least intrigued by the idea if not this season, then next when both will be in their third year.

3. I was thinking about how I would rank recent wide receiver units for Notre Dame the other day when Braden Lenzy was saying that this was the best camp the wide receivers have had since he’s been with the program.

My first camp covering the team for ISD was in 2015 and that was the strongest group with Will Fuller, Torii Hunter Jr., Chris Brown, Amir Carlisle, and even a young freshman Equanimeous St. Brown making plays. Miles Boykin was a freshman and made some good catches and he was pretty much an afterthought, which gives a pretty good idea of how talented that group was.

Strictly based on what I saw in camp, I would go (in order) 2015, 2018 (Boykin making the leap, Claypool, Finke, and a young Kevin Austin), 2016 (EQ, Hunter Jr., Kevin Stepherson as a freshman), 2021, 2017 (EQ as WR1, flashes from a young Claypool and Finke), and 2019 (dominant Claypool, steady Finke, but not much after an injured Michael Young).

Unfortunately we didn’t get to see the 2020 receivers in camp, but I imagine they would have ranked pretty low and likely at the bottom.

I’m excited to see what this current group does this season and I think they have enough pieces where they can have a very productive season between them all. So much is going to depend on Austin and what he can do to emerge as the top option because I believe they’ll get enough big plays from the rest of them. 

4. I asked Bo Bauer last week about his role on 3rd down and how that’s going to change this year with Marcus Freeman now running the defense and this is what he said:

“Coach Free and Coach Lea, they have different personalities when it comes to 3rd down and defense in general. They’re both great. They both get success. Just like how he’s a different person, his 3rd down approach is a bit different, so it’s just kind of adjusting to those things and we’ll find out at Florida State.”

He was clearly not trying to reveal anything with that answer and also making sure to not disrespect his former coach as well. It’s also difficult to argue with the results Lea’s defense had on the money down. The defense finished 11th in 3rd down defense last fall.

Cincinnati was 22nd in 3rd down defense last season and 5th in 2018.

I wrote about how there was going to be a greater variety of pressures from Notre Dame this season based on what Freeman showed at Cincinnati. From what we saw last Thursday, I’m certain I’ll be proven correct.

What I hope to see is them attack weaknesses in protections more often. I think they can take more advantage of that and have the kind of pass rushers to do so as well. How good they will be with their edge guys is to be determined. At this time I would say that the interior rushers are the best on the team and they have multiple options there.

5. On the other side of the ball, we know Mayer is going to continue to be a key target on 3rd down. He led the team in 3rd down receptions with 16 and no one caught more for first downs than him.

The problem is that other teams could key on him as well. Javon McKinely and Ben Skowronek weren’t go-to guys on 3rd down. Avery Davis actually had more receptions than them in those situations. He might be the other receiver they look to when it comes to consistently moving the sticks aside from Mayer.

The ideal thing would be to have multiple players that they can count on and Austin could be in that mix as well.

Watch out for Kyren Williams in those situations this season. He only had 5 catches on 3rd downs and I’d expect that number to go up.

6. Analytics are a bigger part of the college football conversation than ever thanks to some very good writers who have helped grow the game in that area. It’s made me think differently about the game and hopefully many of the people reading this as well.

I loved reading this from Tyrann Mathieu in reference to analytics.

There is this falsehood that it’s all about instincts when there is someone who makes as many plays as he does. The reality is that those instincts come from studying and preparation.

There is no one who can just go out there and wing it using only their instincts. Film study is important, but marrying that with analytics to learn tendencies as well as strengths and weaknesses can put it over the top for a player.

I don’t know how deep Notre Dame gets when it comes to their analytics that they privately use to prepare for opponents each week, but in a game of inches, gaining an edge in any way can be the difference between making a play and getting beat.

It takes a lot of players a while to learn that they need to do more than just rely on being a great athlete to play football at the highest level. Hopefully there’s a lot of young players that see a guy who is known for having elite instincts, but in reality he is using every piece of information he can to be a playmaker.

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