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Notre Dame Football

6 Thoughts on a Thursday

January 11, 2024

A lot of college football fans are going to refuse to give Michigan credit for their national championship*.

It does feel wrong to congratulate them. It’s like celebrating the Houston Astros after everyone found out what helped them win the 2017 World Series. They can say they went on the field and won it, but baseball fans won’t forget how they won.

All of the other stuff surrounding Michigan does distract from how the program was built. They are about to have close to 30 players taken in the NFL Draft over the last three years. That’s not because of sign stealing.

Jim Harbaugh and his staff developed players like a top-five program when they weren’t recruiting like a top-five program. They’ve had seven offensive and defensive linemen drafted in the last two years. They might have another seven from their 2023 team. Harbaugh put an emphasis on line play and development and it's what everyone would like to see Notre Dame emulate under Marcus Freeman. (They are headed in the right direction)

Look at the difference it made for Michigan when Sherrone Moore became the offensive line coach in 2021 and then eventually the offensive coordinator in 2022. Harbaugh also made the call to fire Don Brown as defensive coordinator and bring in the more adaptable Mike Macdonald before he gave way to Jesse Minter. Both of them were coaches who had worked with Harbaugh’s brother with the Baltimore Ravens. Those changes helped Michigan take a massive step as a program.

This offseason could be remembered as the one where Notre Dame made that same kind of step as well. They already have the right coordinator and system on defense with Al Golden. Combining that with an upgrade on offense with Mike Denbrock is something that needed to happen.

Harbaugh certainly did a lot of things wrong at Michigan. He wouldn’t have been suspended six games this season if that wasn’t the case. He did get some things right, though, and getting the right people in place to coordinate both sides of the ball was at the top of the list.

I think Freeman has the right people in place on both sides of the ball now too and I’m excited to see where that leads for Notre Dame’s program.

2. Washington wasn't over the 50% blue-chip ratio threshold for recent national champions. They also had the 36th ranked defense in DF+ (combined FEI and SP+ rankings), which was the lowest ranked defense of the four-team College Football Playoff era to play in a national championship game.

Pretty much the only way they were going to win was for their skill guys on offense to be dominant during the game. They were not, so it didn’t matter that they had five of the six best NFL prospects playing in the game with four of them playing quarterback and receiver.

I don’t think we can say that being explosive in the passing game doesn’t matter as much as we thought it did because of Michigan beating Washington or that having elite receivers matters less now. Winning the line of scrimmage is always going to be critical in these kinds of games, but Washington is closer to those Lincoln Riley Oklahoma teams who never won a CFP game than most other national title game participants in the last decade. They simply didn’t match up well against Michigan up front.

2023 Michigan joins Alabama in 2015 and 2017 as the only teams in the CFP era to not finish in the top-15 in explosive passing (20+ yard receptions). Michigan didn’t have to deal with a team who could match up with them up front and had the explosive passing game as well, so dominating with the running game was enough to overcome a bad day on 3rd down.

The Wolverines had things break their way in terms of CFP opponents. Alabama’s offensive line was the worst one they’ve had in years and the team that matched up the best with Michigan didn’t make the CFP this season. Georgia could have gone toe to toe with Michigan the line of scrimmage and they were sixth in explosive passing. We don’t know what would have happened if Georgia had made the CFP, but they only have themselves to blame because they should have never lost the SEC Championship Game to Alabama. 

We can now look back on that as Nick Saban’s final big win of his career.

3. It’s on to 2024 and the first year of a 12-team playoff. That adds a different level of intrigue to everything with more games and likely more injuries having an impact because of it.

Depth is going to be critical. I also think strength of schedule is going to matter in that regard because the teams who don’t have to go through a gauntlet will get the benefit of being less beat up by playoff time.

Michigan had a massive advantage this season because of their easier schedule. Xavier Watts played 708 snaps this season for Notre Dame in 13 games. No one on Michigan’s defense got to 700 snaps in 15 games because they didn’t have to go through a stretch of games like Notre Dame did. Their top players didn’t have to play for four quarters until they made it to November.

At the moment, it looks like the Irish have a much friendlier schedule in ‘24 than they had in ‘23. They only have three true road games and there is no opponent who is an obvious choice to make the playoff next season.

We’ll see if that leads to a healthier roster late in the season because I believe that’s going to matter a lot when these teams start playing multiple games in December.

4. When there are still NFL declarations to be made, transfer portal decisions that are still to come, and another ride on the coaching carousel that will happen as soon as Alabama names a new coach, it all seems ridiculous to worry about where a team is ranked in the way-too-early top-25.

With that caveat in place, it’s not nothing that Notre Dame doesn’t have an opponent who is viewed as a national title contender in any of these rankings. While there are big games during the 2024 season that are already being circled by Notre Dame fans, there’s a whole lot of questions about those teams the Irish will face in those games.

We’ll see how it shakes out with Florida State in the portal, but replacing Jordan Travis with DJ Uiagalelei isn’t making anyone think the Noles are going to be the same team they were last year. Everything is changing at the skill position for them with no Keon Coleman, Trey Benson, Jaheim Bell, and Johnny Wilson. That defense is going to look a lot different without Jared Verse screaming off the edge as well.

Louisville is another team who has been included in the way-too-early lists, but they have to rebuild the O-line plus replace RB Jawhar Jordan and WR Jamari Thrash on offense. They might be just as good as they were, but being a CFP team seems like a stretch.

Texas A&M and USC are both wildcards who could be much better than they are perceived to be right now, but that’s no guarantee. Playing A&M early (new staff and a boatload of new players) and playing USC late (after they face LSU, Michigan, Wisconsin, Penn State, Washington, and UCLA during the season) is probably going to be a good thing for Notre Dame as well. I think SC still has serious roster issues when it comes to depth on the offensive and defensive line.

Two losses was the cut off for the top-12 teams in the final CFP rankings in 2023, but I think a lot of Notre Dame fans recall that the 2019 Irish team lost two games and was 15th. Only having one top-25 win (USC) had something to do with it.

Yes, it’s thinking too far ahead when looking at what might hurt Notre Dame in making the 12 team field, especially when we don’t know if one or more of these teams might end up being a lot better than we think. Win ‘em all and it won’t matter, but there’s going to be more arguments and examination of teams than ever before with these rankings.

Just looking at the schedule on paper, it looks pretty close to the one they played in 2021 when the only team who ended up ranked from their regular season schedule was Cincinnati.

5. We’ll see if Notre Dame is officially done with transfer portal additions now that they’ve added safety Rod Heard II and kick returner/wide receiver Jayden Harrison, but they really did a fantastic job of addressing immediate needs with all of the additions.

The only area where they haven’t is offensive tackle. That can obviously change in an instant. Someone not on the radar can become a name to know quickly and the other piece of it is that some of these commitments have flipped.

I think at this point, it’s very unlikely to happen, though. This is a position where Notre Dame doesn’t need a body.

If they are going to take someone, they better be a starting caliber player and a starting offensive tackle at Notre Dame is a future NFL player.

There have been seven regular starters at offensive tackle for the Irish since 2017. Four of them became NFL Draft picks, two of them will be in a few months, and the lone exception is Josh Lugg.

48 offensive tackles were selected in the 2022 and 2023 NFL Drafts. Only two of them were transfers, Tyler Steen and Wanya Morris were both multi-year starters at Power 5 programs before transferring.

Three of the top-24 rated offensive tackles in this upcoming draft were transfers and two of them, Oklahoma’s Tyler Guyton and BYU’s Kingsley Suamataia, transferred when they were young.

Landing another young tackle to compete with the returning players wouldn’t be a bad thing, but there is a big difference between someone like Nolan Rucci transferring two years ago and transferring today. He signed in the same recruiting class as Joe Alt and Blake Fisher. Those two started a lot of games and played well. Rucci played 70 snaps in three years at Wisconsin.

Maybe something changes and there will be an offensive tackle added to the mix. I don’t think the options look better than developing the guys Notre Dame will already have on campus.

6. Sports need heroes and villains. For many college football followers, Nick Saban was the latter.

It had little to do with how he coached or how he treated people. Notoriously known as a difficult boss to work for, an average college football fan didn’t hate him because of how he chewed out assistants on the sidelines.

It was simply because he won.

It wasn’t how he won. It was how much he won. When that happens enough, seven national championships is more than enough, people start to dislike someone because their existence is preventing someone else’s team from winning.

Saban is the greatest college football coach of the modern era. He might be the greatest of any era, but I’ll let that be debated by people who are fiercely loyal to the accomplishments of Knute Rockne and Frank Leahy.

There have been drastic changes in the sport since he led Michigan State to 9 wins in 1999. No one adapted better than him during his time at LSU and then the 17 seasons at Alabama. Not only did he adapt on the field, he sparked significant change off of it.

His program set the standard that every program is trying to reach. It seemed impossible to match what Alabama was doing because what he was doing was unprecedented.

Through constant staff turnover, conference realignment, and the transfer portal, Saban kept winning.

He also kept recruiting at a ridiculous level. They just signed the second ranked class in the country and they hadn’t finished lower than second in the five classes before it.

He had 44 players drafted in the first round from his Alabama teams and 11 of them were in the last three drafts. I don’t think he lost his fastball in recent seasons despite being 72 years old.

Saban set the bar and everyone was chasing Alabama until it looked like Georgia had overtaken them as the new standard. Of course, Saban went out and beat Georgia this season with maybe the first Alabama team that couldn’t match up talent for talent with them.

He made sure everyone knew that Alabama wasn’t ready to accept Georgia as the new Alabama just yet.

The top programs knew they needed to recruit at an elite level if they wanted to compete with Alabama. Everyone knew they had to expand their football and personnel staffs because Alabama had more coaches, more scouts, and was doing more than them.

There’s that and the fact that he was one of the best football minds in the business. The game changed and he changed with it.

Hate him all you want. Paint him as the villain. I can’t help but respect how he built a modern dynasty. No one person had a greater impact on college football in the last 30 years than Nick Saban. He might not be missed by many, but he should never be forgotten.

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