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Notre Dame Football

What Notre Dame Needs to do to Win a Championship in 2024

May 13, 2024

We have 10 years of evidence of what is required of a champion during the College Football Playoff era. We’ll see how that might change with an expanded playoff, but the final four team version produced another winner with a lot in common with previous ones.

What do almost all CFP champions have in common?

They recruit at an elite level (50% of greater blue-chip ratio)

They have multiple first round picks on their roster (not necessarily in the immediate draft, but future drafts)

They have NFL talent at receiver and defensive line (a day one or day two receiver drafted and at least three future NFL players on the defensive line)

They have one of the best offensive lines in the country (Joe Moore Award semi-finalist or better)

They are great on offense and defense (top-8 in OF+ and top-15 in DF+)

They create negative plays on defense (Havoc rate of 18.6% or higher)

They have an explosive passing game (top-15 in receptions of 20+ yards)

As mentioned in a column I wrote last year on what it takes to win in the CFP era, not checking one of these boxes isn’t going to eliminate a team from contention. Alabama in 2015 was able to win and didn’t check two of these boxes (top-8 in OF+ and explosive passing), but nine of the 10 CFP champions checked them all or checked all but one.

Last season’s CFP champion Michigan* had a Blue-Chip Ratio of over 50%, which means more than half of the recruits they signed over the previous four recruiting cycles were ranked as 4 or 5-stars.

Though JJ McCarthy was their only first round pick in the most recent NFL Draft, to go along with 12 more total picks, they did have a roster with multiple first round picks. They have as many as four first round picks projected in the 2025 NFL Draft, led by presumed top-10 picks CB Will Johnson and DT Mason Graham.

WR Roman Wilson was a day two pick.

They had two defensive lineman drafted and have two potential first round picks at defensive tackle in the 2025 draft.

The offensive line finished as a Joe Moore Award finalist as one of the top O-lines in the country.

The offense finished sixth in OF+ (combined FEI and SP+ rating) and first in DF+.

The defense had a Havoc rate of 19.2% on defense. Michigan checked all of these boxes except one: an explosive passing game (receptions of 20+ yards). They finished 29th in total number of explosive passing plays, which makes them only the third team to win the CFP who didn’t finish in the top-15.

However, I noted this in 6 Thoughts last week:

Michigan became the only third team to win a CFP title joining Alabama in 2015 and 2017 to not finish in the top-15 in total explosive pass plays (receptions of 20+ yards). That was the only box they didn’t check, but some context deserves to be added to them finishing 29th.
They averaged an explosive play every 7.1 pass attempts, which was slightly better than Ohio State and the Buckeyes finished 12th. They didn’t have Marvin Harrison Jr. or Emeka Egbuka to throw to either.

They were explosive enough.

Notre Dame hasn’t had a team recently that has checked every box. They’ve had good teams, which is why they’ve won at least 10 games in seven of the last nine seasons. None of those teams came all that close to meeting the standards of these champions in the CFP era.

They’ve always had a few pieces missing.

In 2015 they had their only offense that finished in the top-8 in OF+, the O-line was a Joe Moore Award finalist, they had multiple first round picks on the roster, and had an elite receiver in Will Fuller. They weren’t anywhere close to where they needed to be on defense, though.

In 2018 and 2019 they had the defense, the defensive line talent, and the skill talent, but the offense wasn’t close to where it needed to be. That includes the play up front on offense where they weren’t even a semi-finalist for the Joe Moore Award in either season.

The past is the past. We already know what Brian Kelly did and did not accomplish at Notre Dame. This is year three for Marcus Freeman with the majority of the roster composed of players who have only played for or been recruited by him.

How many of these championship boxes can the 2024 Fighting Irish check? Let’s take a look at where they stand heading into the summer.

A blue-chip ratio of over 50%

They don’t have to play a down to know that they’ve recruited well enough in terms of percentage of 4 and 5-stars. The BCR for Notre Dame with the 2021-2024 recruiting classes is 70.5%. That’s the highest percentage the Irish have had since Bud Elliott started tracking this back when he was at SB Nation.

Top-15 in DF+ and 18.6% Havoc rate

Forget about using ink to mark this down. Grab a chisel and start putting this in stone.

Notre Dame is going to have a great defense again this fall. They’ve had a defense finish in the top-15 in DF+ in five of the last seven seasons. They finished seventh last season and they have the pieces to be just as good or better.

The Havoc rate was 19.4% last season and I expect to see Al Golden to continue to be as aggressive with a similar percentage in 2024.

This defense can be a championship-level defense.

NFL talent on the defensive line

Every CFP champion has had at least three future NFL Draft picks play on their defensive line. We don’t have to dig deep here to check this box for Notre Dame.

Howard Cross, Rylie Mills, and RJ Oben were likely NFL Draft picks last season and there are others on the defensive line who could establish their NFL credentials in the fall.

Top-8 in OF+ and day one or day two picks at wide receiver or tight end

This pretty much goes hand in hand together and it’s one of the reasons why it’s difficult to project Notre Dame having an elite offense this season.

Mike Denbrock is a very good coordinator and he was the guy calling plays the only other time Notre Dame had a championship-level offense. He had the second best offense in the country according to OF+ last season at LSU.

He did that with Jayden Daniels, Malik Nabers, and Brian Thomas Jr., though. Notre Dame does not have similar draft-eligible talent.

As of right now, tight end Mitchell Evans is their best bet for this. There isn’t an upperclassman at receiver who looks like the next Will Fuller or Chase Claypool. Is it possible that that could change? Sure, but it’s not probable.

We’ll see how things play out at receiver, but a lot of this could depend on how the freshmen and sophomores establish themselves.

Top-15 in explosive passing plays

The Irish have finished in the top-15 in receptions of 20+ yards only twice during the CFP era. They were seventh in 2014 led by Everett Golson throwing to Fuller and they were 13th in 2019 led by Ian Book throwing to Claypool.

Having “that dude” or multiple dudes helps a lot with this. Graduate transfer Kris Mitchell had 18 20+ yard receptions at FIU last season and he’ll need to continue to be a deep threat for Notre Dame.

Having one main guy isn’t the only way to go. Georgia finished sixth in this category last season and did it mostly by committee. That might be the way the Irish get this done this season.

Jordan Faison had five explosive receptions in only seven games. Before his knee injury, Evans ripped off eight explosive receptions in the five game run when he became Notre Dame’s number one target. Full seasons from those two could give the passing game the boost it needs.

Joe Moore Award semi-finalists

Notre Dame’s offensive lines were finalists or semi-finalists for the award in 2015, 2017, 2020, and 2023. In terms of returning experience, this ‘24 O-line is a lot closer to the lines that weren’t finalists or semi-finalists.

They might ultimately be very talented with three or four future pros as starters, but that doesn’t always equate to strong line play. At least not right away.

Just ask Alabama. They won the award in 2020 and weren’t even semi-finalists the last three seasons despite two top-10 picks during that stretch.

There are more questions about the O-line than answers heading into the summer. With the right answers, this line has the potential to be good. Clemson’s national championship team in 2016 was the only one who had an O-line that wasn’t at least a semi-finalist for the Joe Moore award.

Notre Dame’s defense looks like it can be great again this season and that isn’t likely to change anytime soon with the current staff and the players they’ve recruited. On the other side of the ball, the good news is that they now have a coordinator that everyone knows can produce a top offense when he has the right material to work with. There’s just uncertainty that it can happen as quickly as this season.

No one wins championships by being great on only one side of the ball. Notre Dame’s championship aspirations might be carried by the defense, but they won’t cross the finish line without the offense being better than it has been for most of the last decade.

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