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Notre Dame Football

6 Thoughts on a Thursday

February 10, 2022

We’re in the doldrums of college football right now. It’s that point in time when the coaching carousel has *almost* stopped spinning and fans only get excited by any morsel of recruiting news they can get. Even a winter workout video that doesn’t reveal much of anything can help because it’s better than nothing.

However, we are just over a month away from spring ball starting for Notre Dame and ESPN’s Bill Connelly has blessed us with his first set of SP+ projections for 2022. Hopefully it’s enough to get us all through another week before the “will he or won’t he?” gets resolved with Al Golden as Notre Dame’s next defensive coordinator after the Super Bowl.

Connelly has Notre Dame projected 8th (22nd on offense and 10th on defense). That’s about where one would expect the Irish to be and the difference between them and fourth ranked Michigan (I can hear your collective ugh through my WiFi connection) isn’t very big. There isn’t a big gap between them and fifth ranked Clemson either, although he unsurprisingly has their defense ranked first.

Ohio State is a different story. They’re ranked first and there's a wide gap between them and the Irish. (More on them on my next thought)

As for how the rest of the schedule plays out, they don’t face another opponent projected higher than 23rd. That would be BYU. North Carolina is the only other opponent ranked in the top-40 (40 on the nose). And the next highest ranked is Marshall (56th). Lincoln Riley’s first USC team is 64th and that’s even taking into account they just added Caleb Williams at quarterback.

Projections are projections and how things are supposed to play out on paper isn’t how things always end up in the crazy world of college football, but this schedule certainly sets up well outside of the two top-five opponents. I’m not sure I can recall a schedule where they were going to play so many teams who were outside of the top-40 in SP+ projections (not including when they played ACC teams exclusively in 2020).

This is a new team and a new era, but one way that Marcus Freeman should be judged in year one is how his team performs compared to Brian Kelly's teams against programs outside of the projected top-40 in the last five years. Kelly never lost to any of those teams. He shouldn’t have. Those are the games you’re supposed to always win at Notre Dame and the reason Kelly was able to get that fat contract at LSU is because he won all of them.

In the long run, Freeman is going to be evaluated on winning the games that Kelly couldn’t win and there is no doubt that the most important games on the schedule this season are Clemson and Ohio State. That’s true, but it’s also true that it took Kelly a long time to consistently win the games he was supposed to always win. It shouldn’t take Freeman as long for that to happen, which is why another double digit win season should be the floor for Notre Dame in 2022.

2. The Buckeyes are ranked at the top of SP+ with them, Georgia, and Alabama a clear cut above everyone else. With quarterback CJ Stroud, wide receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba, and running back TreVeyon Henderson returning, they are expected to be the top offense in the country heading into the season.

That there’s a gap between them and Notre Dame doesn’t make them unbeatable, just ask Oregon and Michigan last season, but the gap does show how challenging it is going to be to come out of Columbus with a win in Marcus Freeman’s first game. Upgrading at defensive coordinator after adding Jim Knowles to their staff isn’t going to make things any easier either.

Brian Kelly played two College Football Playoff caliber teams in the month of September (Georgia in 2017 and 2019), but never had to open a season against one. Freeman has his debut against one on the road.

I know the reactions to the game no matter what the outcome are going to be hyperbolic because this is Notre Dame after all, but I hope that the circumstances of this game are taken into account and re-evaluated at the end of the season.

3. Connelly also shared his returning production rankings and Notre Dame is 93rd and that’s largely because they lost their starting quarterback, leading receiver, and leading rusher. The Irish are 113th on offense.

Connelly calculates returning production and weights it like this for his rankings:

Percent of returning WR/TE receiving yards: 37% of the overall number

Percent of returning QB passing yards: 29%

Percent of returning OL snaps: 28%

Percent of returning RB rushing yards: 6%

I brought out the trusty old Texas Instruments and figured out that it falls like this for Notre Dame where they are bringing back 69.2% of WR/TE yards, 14.2% of QB yards, 77.1% of OL snaps, and 34.2% of RB rushing yards. That seems surprising to me that it would end up being 113th in the country based on that, but then again, I’m not about to dive into the numbers for every program to compare them. The work Connelly does to do that is appreciated, especially in this day and age of frequent transfers.

It is worth noting that BYU and Stanford ranked second and third in overall returning production, but I’m always skeptical of how much that matters if they weren’t good on one side of the ball.

So Stanford is second in returning production on offense, but they were 94th in F+ last season. They’ll be better, but they aren’t likely making a jump from 94th to top-25.

BYU is first in returning production on defense, but they were 84th in F+ there last season. Maybe they become average, but the odds of them becoming great on defense in 2022 aren’t very good no matter who they have coming back.

4. With Harry Hiestand and offensive lineman, it’s mostly sink or swim. We know what happens to the ones who swim, though, which is why I’m interested in seeing what happens with some players who aren’t expected to start this season.

Tosh Baker and Michael Carmody are the two that leap out to me. Both of them were thrust into action when they weren’t probably ready for it. The fact that two freshmen, Joe Alt and Blake Fisher, have overtaken them on the depth chart would suggest that maybe they are destined to be depth players or shine somewhere else.

Maybe that will be the case, but I’m really interested to see how both of them take to Hiestand’s coaching before putting that down in ink. Both of them had the misfortune of arriving at Notre Dame when the pandemic first started. That first year was far from a normal one in terms of practicing and strength and conditioning. Last year was more of a reflection of what a first year would be like so it wouldn’t be shocking if either of them were to make a big physical leap this year.

We’ll see if one or both can make some waves over the spring and summer, but I’m excited to see how it works out for them with the coaching change.

5. Any time there may be a coach leaving, I’m on alert looking for potential replacements and with Miami’s interest in Tommy Rees, I definitely was looking at offensive coordinators if something ended up happening.

Fortunately for Notre Dame it didn’t, but I will admit that I was openly intrigued after looking at some candidates who may be out there if Rees were to leave.

Kentucky offensive coordinator Liam Coen really did wonders at Kentucky in his first season there. They jumped from 93rd in F+ on offense to 17th. I’m surprised there wasn’t more buzz about him with other jobs this offseason, but my guess is that plenty of bigger programs will come around looking to steal away him next year.

Coen is from the Sean McVay coaching tree after working with the Los Angeles Rams the previous three years and we know what’s happened with those coaches in recent years.

6. If there was only one word to take away from listening to Jaylen Sneed when he spoke to the media last week, “confident” would be the most appropriate. He knows he’s a talented athlete and didn’t back away from talking about it.

Maybe that might rub some people the wrong way for a player who hasn’t done anything at the college level yet, but how he carries himself is no different than how Blake Fisher, Joe Alt, Lorenzo Styles, and Logan Diggs carried themselves last year when they arrived on campus. Everything we heard about them was that they were very confident and they all ended up backing that up as freshmen.

We’ll see if that happens with Sneed or not, but that type of confidence is one step in the right direction for him making an early impact at Notre Dame. He needs to back that up in workouts and during practices in the spring first, but setting high expectations for himself is a good thing.

There are some elite veteran players on the roster this year led by Isaiah Foskey and Michael Mayer, but if Notre Dame wants to get to where they want to go, they’ll need those freshmen who shined last year to be great as sophomores and they’ll need some freshmen, like Sneed, to contribute like those players did last year.

I think there’s enough talent in this 2022 class that can provide that. We’ll see soon enough if they can live up to their own expectations.

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