Everett Golson, Brian Kelly

CFT Top 25: No. 15 Notre Dame

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2013 record: 9-4
2013 postseason: Pinstripe Bowl vs. Rutgers (29-16 win)
2013 final AP/coaches’ ranking: No. 20/No. 24
Head coach: Brian Kelly (90-37 overall; 37-15 in four years at Notre Dame)
Offensive coordinator: Mike Denbrock (first season as OC; 5th year under Kelly at Notre Dame)
2013 offensive rankings: 81st rushing offense (150.92 YPG); 39th passing offense (254.8 YPG); 68th total offense (405.8 YPG); 74th scoring offense (27.2 PPG)
Returning offensive starters: RB Cam McDaniel, WR DaVaris Daniels, OL Ronnie Stanley, OL Nick Martin, OL Christian Lombard
Defensive coordinator: Brian VanGorder (first season at Notre Dame)
2013 defensive rankings: 71st rushing defense (168 YPG); 15th passing defense (198.2 YPG); 31st total defense (366.2 YPG); 27th scoring defense (22.4 PPG)
Returning defensive starters: DT Sheldon Day, LB Jaylon Smith, CB KeiVarae Russell, S Austin Collinsworth
Location: South Bend, Ind.
Stadium: Notre Dame Stadium (80,795, FieldTurf)

THE GOOD
Notre Dame’s offense should be much improved with Everett Golson at the helm — he’s the playmaking quarterback Brian Kelly has wanted ever since coming to South Bend from Cincinnati. In 2012, Golson “rode the bus” to the BCS Championship, as Kelly put it, running a relatively basic offense. And in 2011 and 2013, Tommy Rees quarterbacked the Irish to eight and nine — not where Notre Dame wanted to be in either year.

In Year 2 of Golson, even with his 2013 exile from campus, Notre Dame finally looks to have the kind of offense that can win the team big games. Golson has loads of talent around him, from sophomore running backs Tarean Folston and Greg Bryant to wide receivers DaVaris Daniels, Chris Brown and Corey Robinson to tight end Durham Smythe — remember that last name going forward. The offensive line looks solid, too, and there doesn’t appear to be a whole lot holding back the Irish offense outside of a little inexperience heading into the fall.

Notre Dame has a number of stars on defense, too: Linebacker Jaylon Smith is the best player on the team, while defensive tackle Sheldon Day looks primed for a breakout season if he can stay healthy. The Irish secondary is stout, led by junior cornerback KeiVarae Russell, sophomore safety Max Redfield and graduate student/Florida transfer Cody Riggs. It’s a deep unit, too, and one that should play well in Brian VanGorder’s aggressive defensive scheme.

THE BAD
I mean, have you seen Notre Dame’s schedule? Road games at Florida State, Arizona State and USC — all of which come in the second half of the season — are tough as it is, but throw in home games against Michigan, Stanford, North Carolina and Louisville and the Irish have an awfully difficult minefield to navigate this fall.

There’s a chance Notre Dame actually is a better team than it was last year — the Irish finished 26th in F/+ — but wind up with the same 9-4 record…or worse. The toughest stretch comes in early to mid October, when Notre Dame faces Stanford and UNC at home on back-to-back weekends before traveling to Florida State.

Stanford and Florida State certainly are tough, but that North Carolina game has all the makings of a dangerous trap game for the Irish. UNC has a good enough offense to give the Irish defense fits, and if Notre Dame goes into Oct. 11 looking ahead to Florida State the Tarheels could be primed for an upset.

THE UNKNOWN
Notre Dame lost five starters off its front seven from a year ago: Louis Nix, Stephon Tuitt, Prince Shembo, Carlo Calabrese and Dan Fox. Sliding in for those guys is a group of inexperienced players who potentially could be good…but also who could potentially struggle to stop a number of the high-powered offenses Notre Dame has to face.

Guys like defensive tackle Jarron Jones and linebacker Joe Schmidt performed well in limited duty a year ago, but will they be able to succeed in larger roles? Can a converted safety (John Turner) and a converted wide receiver (James Onwualu) play Sam linebacker? Will freshmen defensive linemen Daniel Cage, Pete Mokwuah, Jonathan Bonner and Andrew Trumbetti be ready enough to provide much-needed depth up front?

The X-Factor with Notre Dame’s defense is how the unit performs running a defense that’ll take more chances under VanGorder than it did under Bob Diaco. The last few years of stats don’t really apply to Notre Dame’s defensive outlook this fall, given there’s a greater emphasis on forcing turnovers and sacks rather than two-gapping and preventing big plays. We won’t know how this defense really shakes out until it actually takes the field this fall under VanGorder, so that makes it very much an unknown.

MAKE-OR-BREAK GAME: Nov. 29 at USC
Hypothetically, if Notre Dame heads to Los Angeles with one loss (likely to Florida State), a win over USC and an 11-1 season could be enough to get the Irish into the four-team playoff.

That’s the best-case scenario for Notre Dame. But there are plenty of other hypotheticals that involve Notre Dame either salvaging a disappointing season (say, a 7-5/8-4 year) or generating some early hype for 2015 (say, a 10-win year) that involve beating USC. That it’s a rivalry game doesn’t hurt, either.

There are plenty of other games that could’ve fit here: Michigan, Stanford, Florida State and Arizona State. But given it’s the final game of the season and Notre Dame-USC always carries weight, it gets a make-or-break designation.

HEISMAN HOPEFUL: Quarterback Everett Golson
Six hundred days will have passed since Golson last played in a competitive game when he takes the field for Notre Dame Aug. 30 against Rice. But that long layoff hasn’t prevented Golson from seeing his name pop up as a Heisman dark horse, and the latest Bovada odds have him at 20/1 to win the trophy.

Golson threw for 2,405 yards with 12 touchdowns and six interceptions in 2012, but expect those numbers — as well as his rushing totals — to go up this fall. It’ll take a big leap for Golson to legitimately get in the Heisman competition, but if Notre Dame has a better season than most are expecting Golson very well could find himself in the discussion.

(Click HERE for the CFT 2014 Preseason Preview Repository)

JJ Stankevitz is CSNChicago.com’s Notre Dame Insider. Follow him on Twitter @JJStankevitz.

No. 3 Clemson punches playoff ticket with ACC championship win over Virginia Tech

ORLANDO, FL - DECEMBER 03:  The Clemson Tigers take the field during the ACC Championship against the Virginia Tech Hokies on December 3, 2016 in Orlando, Florida.  (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
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For the second straight season, Clemson can say they punched their ticket to the College Football Playoff with yet another close ACC championship game victory.

The third-ranked Tigers jumped out to a big lead, led throughout and ultimately prevailed over Virginia Tech in a 42-35 win that was a tad closer than the final score indicated.

Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson continued his stellar play down the stretch this season, throwing for 288 yards, three touchdowns and an interception. The signal-caller added another two scores on the ground to go with his team-high 85 yards rushing as well on a night where he made some clutch throws down the stretch to keep the team in front of a stingy Bud Foster defense.

Tailback Wayne Gallman also found the end zone in Orlando but was still relatively limited with just 59 yards on 17 carries.

The Hokies did make sure Clemson sweated out things by threatening in the second and third quarters. Quarterback Jerod Evans threw for 264 yards and a touchdown but couldn’t get any help from Virginia Tech’s normally reliable ground game and threw an interception with 71 seconds left to end a comeback. Evans also led the team in rushing and scored twice while running back Travon McMillian did the same but managed to do so on only 37 yards rushing.

With a second straight ACC title in the bag for Dabo Swinney and company, the only question left for Clemson is where will they stand on Sunday afternoon and what semifinal site they will head to. Alabama appears locked into the No. 1 seed in the Peach Bowl but could the close result against Virginia Tech — combined with Washington’s emphatic win in the Pac-12 title game — force a national title game rematch in Atlanta?

That’s probably not on the minds of the Tigers on Saturday night as they rightfully celebrate yet another league championship and look like a dangerous team to face at the end of the month.

No. 7 Penn State completes comeback for the ages to claim B1G title

Penn State's Saquon Barkley (26) makes an 18-yard touchdown catch against Wisconsin's T.J. Watt (42) during the second half of the Big Ten championship NCAA college football game Saturday, Dec. 3, 2016, in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/AJ Mast)
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On Sept. 24, Penn State was 2-2 on the season, 0-1 in Big Ten play after a 49-10 undressing by Michigan in Ann Arbor. Their Big Ten title hopes were left for dead. As we know, they managed to rally and win the Big Ten East.

And then, with 5:15 left in the second quarter, the Nittany Lions trailed 28-7 and their chances of actually winning the game were again left for dead.

But the Cardiac Cats rallied. Again. The seventh-ranked Lions closed the game on a 31-3 run to race past No. 6 Wisconsin for a 38-31 Big Ten Championship victory.

Of course, this win means much more than that. At 11-2 on the season, winners of nine in a row and winners of college football’s best conference, the question now becomes whether the College Football Playoff selection committee chooses the Lions over 11-1 Ohio State or Pac-12 champion Washington on Sunday.

But first, the comeback.

Penn State simply could not get out of its own way — or get Wisconsin out of its way… or get in Wisconsin’s way, for that matter — over the game’s first 25 minutes. The Badgers opened by forcing two three-and-outs and launching two long touchdown drives to grab a 14-0 lead a dozen minutes into the game. After a McSorley touchdown pass put Penn State on the board, the Nittany Lions allowed an errant snap to be returned for a touchdown early in the second quarter.

James Franklin elected to go for a fourth-and-short in his own territory on the ensuing possession and was rebuffed. Wisconsin again capitalized on the mistake to grab a 28-7 lead with 5:15 remaining in the first half. Penn State again failed on a fourth-and-short near midfield on the next possession, but this time the Badgers failed to cash in. And that proved costly.

Because that failure to land the death blow allowed Penn State’s Cardiac Cats persona to awaken.

The Lions’ comeback started when McSorley hit Saeed Blacknall for a 40-yard touchdown catch with 58 seconds left in the half to pull within  a more manageable 28-14 deficit at the break.

After Wisconsin missed a field goal to open the second half, McSorley answered by finding Blacknall for a 70-yard scoring strike on the very next play. Then Penn State tied the game on its next touch as Saquon Barkley punched in a 1-yard score at the 4:22 mark of the third quarter.

Wisconsin re-gained the lead with a 23-yard Andrew Endicott chip shot, but only after Bart Houston missed what would have been a walk-in touchdown to tight end Troy Fumagalli on 2nd-and-8 from the 10-yard line.

Given the opportunity to take the lead, Penn State took full advantage, marching 81 yards in only four plays as Barkley hauled in an 18-yard wheel route from McSorley.

McSorley finished the game hitting 22-of-31 passes for 384 yards with four touchdowns and no interceptions — against a defense that came in allowing eight touchdowns while swiping 21 interceptions. Compared to Houston’s numbers — 16-of-21 for 174 yards — quarterback play proved to be the difference in the game. McSorley’s play allowed Penn State to win a game in which it was out-rushed 241-51.

Wisconsin punted on its next touch, and Penn State missed its chance to deliver a knockout punch, instead settling for a 24-yard Tyler Davis field goal with 5:14 to play in the game.

Wisconsin would need a touchdown to force overtime, while Penn State would need a stop to complete its 21-point comeback. The Badgers moved to the Penn State 24, but, facing a 4th-and-1, Corey Clement was stuffed for no gain.

Penn State expired the final 58 seconds and secured the largest comeback ever in a Power 5 conference championship game.

Arkansas State, Appalachian State end up as SBC co-champs

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Two of the 10 FBS conferences don’t have championship games to determine a league champion.  The Big 12, which will go to a title game format next season, crowned an undisputed champion earlier today.  The other game-less league, on the other hand, will have more than one official champ.

Arkansas State had the opportunity to potentially win the Sun Belt Conference outright, but lost in Week 13 to drop to 6-1 in conference play.  Appalachian State won the same weekend to finish the season at 7-1 and claim at least a share of league title.

ASU and Troy, both 6-1 entering Week 14, needed a win to claim its share.

Troy failed miserably, falling 28-24 on the road to a Georgia Southern team that entered the game 4-7 overall and 3-4 in the SBC.  ASU, though, passed its final regular season test, putting 20 fourth-quarter points on the scoreboard in getting past Texas State in a 36-14 win in San Marcos.

The Red Wolves have now won five SBC titles the past six years, with three of those (2011, 2012, 2015) being undisputed.  They’re also the first team since Troy was in the midst of a five-year run from 2006-10 to win back-to-back championships.

As for App State, this is the Mountaineers’ first FBS league championship since moving to the SBC from the FCS for the 2014 season.

The three teams at the top of the SBC will play in some combination of the New Orleans/Dollar General/Camellia Bowls.  Arkansas State will be playing in its sixth straight bowl game, while Appalachian State will be in its second in a row in just its third season at this level.  Troy, meanwhile, will be making its first postseason appearance since winning the New Orleans Bowl in 2010.

San Diego State runs past Wyoming for second straight Mountain West title

San Diego State's Donnel Humphrey runs for a touchdown during the first half against Wyoming in an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Dec. 3, 2016, in Laramie, Wyo. (AP Photo/Michael Smith)
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They say revenge is a dish best served cold. San Diego State checked off both boxes on Saturday night.

The Aztecs captured their second straight Mountain West championship and avenged an earlier loss with a 27-24 win over Wyoming in freezing conditions up in Laramie.

The San Diego State ground game was clicking all night long in a game where it was difficult to get much of anything through the air. Star tailback Donnel Pumphrey finished with 110 yards and a touchdown, passing former Texas great Ricky Williams to become the second leading rusher in FBS history late in the third quarter. The senior trails only Wisconsin’s Ron Dayne by 108 yards on the all-time list with a chance to top his mark later this month in what will likely be a berth in the Las Vegas Bowl.

Pumphrey’s backup Rashaad Penny wasn’t too shabby either, picking up a team-high 117 yards on the ground and finding the end zone twice. It was a good thing both players were humming in the backfield as quarterback Christian Chapman managed only 85 yards on six completions.

The SDSU defense also came to play in one of their best performances in a while. They picked off Wyoming’s Josh Allen twice, recovered a fumble late in the second half and bottled up the prolific runner Brian Hill to the tune of just 93 yards.

The Cowboys made a run to close the gap to just a field goal in the fourth quarter but couldn’t quite get over the hump for their second win in as many weeks over the Aztecs for a first ever Mountain West title.

Instead it was Rocky Long’s San Diego State squad that could lay claim to being the best in the conference this season for the second year in a row.