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.

Alabama losing special teams staffer to the New England Patriots

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The Alabama kicking game needs all the help it can get but will have to soldier on without a key member of the coaching staff.

According to The Athletic’s Bruce Feldman, assistant special teams coordinator Joe Houston is leaving Tuscaloosa for a position with the New England Patriots.

Houston certainly has become a fast-riser as a coach. He was kicking field goals for USC from 2007-10 and got into coaching just recently. He served as an assistant special teams coach at Iowa State prior to joining the Crimson Tide staff.

While Houston is highly regarded off the field, his slim small body of work at Alabama was a mixed bag. Kickers Joseph Bulovas and Will Reichard combined to made just 12 of 18 field goal attempts in 2019. That includes a critical miss in the Iron Bowl that knocked the team out of the Playoff chase.

The Tide should still be okay on special teams come 2020 though. Reichard was injured early and hopes to be healthy after signing as the top prep kicker in the country a year ago. Highly regarded special teams coordinator Jeff Banks also returns.

Houston’s move to Foxborough no doubt came with a recommendation from Saban to his old pal Bill Belichick. The latter also struggled with the kicking game last season. Hopefully for both, this latest move will boost both teams in the critical third phase of the game.

Colorado closing in on hiring… Karl Dorrell?

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The unexpected Colorado coaching search may have an unexpected conclusion.

In a move first reported by Yahoo! Sports, the Buffs are supposedly close on hiring Karl Dorrell as their next head coach. USA Today later confirmed the news. He replaces Mel Tucker, who left for Michigan State in early February.

Bringing Dorrell in is, needless to say, a surprise move. The school had flirted heavily with former USC head coach Steve Sarkisian before parting ways. As it turns out, Colorado was looking at the wrong former coach in Los Angeles.

Dorrell spent five seasons in Westwood as head coach at UCLA from 2003-2007. The tenure had a high point of going 10-2 in 2005 but otherwise floated around .500. It didn’t help either that Pete Carroll had things humming across town at the same time as Dorrell was trying to get things turned around at his alma mater.

Since his firing, Dorrell has mostly been in the NFL. He had a one season stint as Vanderbilt’s offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach in 2014 but is otherwise been coaching in the pros. That includes two stints in Miami and others with the Houston Texans and New York Jets.

Less than 24 hours before his reported hire at Colorado, Dorrell was promoted to assistant head coach of the Dolphins by Brian Flores.

Though Dorrell reached a bowl game in all five of his seasons in Westwood, his meddling record saw him pushed out the door. His replacement then? Former Buffs coach Rick Neuheisel. The two memorably helped lead the Bruins to the 1984 Rose Bowl together at the school.

Now Dorrell once again has the goal of getting back to Pasadena. Just not where anybody expected it to happen.

SEC says no to Arkansas spring game in Little Rock

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Arkansas has long been one of the more unique programs in college football in playing their “home” games roughly 200 miles away from campus. As much as playing down the road in Little Rock has become a way of life for the Razorbacks though, it won’t be a part of fans first close up with new head coach Sam Pittman.

In a release this week, UA confirmed that their final practice of spring ball would be held Saturday, April 25 at Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium in Fayetteville. That was not originally the plan however, as the team was hoping to host the scrimmage at War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock.

The reasoning? It had nothing to do with scheduling conflicts but rather the conference office.

“As part of our ONE Razorback initiative, our goal remains to engage fans throughout Arkansas and beyond,” Director of Athletics Hunter Yurachek said in a statement. “Unfortunately, we did not receive the necessary waiver to accommodate the spring game at War Memorial Stadium as originally planned. However, we will continue to explore additional opportunities to enhance the numerous events already being held throughout the state to help bring the Razorbacks closer to our fans.”

SEC bylaws require the league to approve any off-campus spring practice. They didn’t despite Little Rock truly being the team’s home away from home for nearly a century.

The school just recently negotiated a new deal with War Memorial that runs through 2024. That was supposed to result in spring games being held at the venue in even years and a trio of conference games against regional rival Missouri in the Fall of every odd year.

It’s not known if the SEC’s decision was more of a one-off or if spring games in 2022 and 2024 will have to be scrapped.

The news is certainly a blow to those in the Southeast part of the state who were hoping to get a glimpse of the Hogs in their backyard instead of making the trip deeper into the Ozarks. Arkansas won’t have a presence at all in Little Rock this season as a result (for the first time since 1931) and will instead be fully confined to Razorback Stadium for all seven home games plus the spring scrimmage (for the first time ever).

It wasn’t too long ago where the Hogs were called in the state capital three or four times a year. That sadly is no longer the case now as a result of the league office putting a kibosh on things this spring.

Voice of Notre Dame Stadium to retire after 2020 season

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It’s the end of an era at Notre Dame Stadium.

The longtime public address announcer at the famed cathedral of college football, Mike Collins, is stepping down after the 2020 season. The school confirmed the news on Friday.

“I told my wife, ‘If Fr. Ted (Hesburgh) can retire at 75, that’s good enough for me,’” Collins said in a statement. “There is no one reason, but I can walk out with my head held high, good health and be proud that I’ll be better for my last game than my first. I’ve always viewed myself as an ambassador of Our Lady’s University, not merely an employee of the athletics department. I was able to do that for the most prestigious institution in the world, which just happened to be my alma mater.”

Collins’ voice has been the soundtrack for Fighting Irish games under the watchful eye of Touchdown Jesus since 1982. His first game that season came in a win over Michigan that doubled as the first ever night game the stadium as well. 

The Pittsburgh native hasn’t stopped since then. Upon the conclusion of the team’s contest against Louisville on Nov. 21, 2020, Collins will have called 233 straight Notre Dame games at the stadium.

No word on how the university will about finding a new public address announcer for the venue but they did note plans to celebrate Collins’ tenure will be announced later this year. 

While it always is going to be hard to call it quits given how good a gig it is, at least Collins will be going out with a bang given the slate ND has this season. The home opener will be against Arkansas on Sept. 12 while traditional rivals like Stanford join ACC foes like Duke and Clemson in coming to South Bend later in the year. All those games will be broadcasted on NBC. 

Western Michigan is also on the docket for the Irish at home in addition to contests like playing Wisconsin at Lambeau Field and a season-opener against Navy in Dublin, Ireland.