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.

Report: Maryland AD signed off on DJ Durkin helping coaches, developing game plans during leave

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The cloud hanging over the University of Maryland in general and the football program specifically shows no signs of dissipating anytime soon.

Citing multiple sources, the Baltimore Sun‘s Jeff Barker is reporting that DJ Durkin told the task force investigating the culture of the football program in the aftermath of the death of offensive lineman Jordan McNair that he “continued to communicate with assistant coaches and develop game plans for the team after being placed on administrative leave.” Most damning, at least for those still in place at the university, the then-head football coach alleged that athletic director Damon Evans approved the ongoing communication with his coaching staff.

Durkin further claimed that he had not been told by anyone at the university that he was to have no contact with his players or assistant coaches while on leave, a forced sabbatical that ultimately lasted nearly three months.

While the university declined to make Evans available for comment, a spokesperson did deny the allegations made by Durkin to the task force, of which the university system’s Board of Regents were also aware.  From the Sun‘s report:

But in a statement late Wednesday, a university spokeswoman said Durkin “was not to perform coaching duties while on administrative leave” and that neither Evans nor Loh had granted permission for him to do so.

“Matt Canada was performing all head coaching duties during this interim time and continues to lead the team,” spokeswoman Jessica Jennings said.

Durkin, two members of the training staff and then-head strength & conditioning coach Rick Court were placed on administrative leave in early August after a bombshell report alleged mishandling of the medical event that preceded McNair’s death as well as a toxic culture within the football program.  That report described the toxic culture under Durkin as one based on fear, intimidation, belittling, humiliation and embarrassment.  Players were, allegedly, routinely subjected to what was described as extreme verbal abuse that included, in part, obscenity-laced epithets meant to mock their masculinity.

On Oct. 30, it was confirmed that Durkin had been reinstated and would remain as the Terrapins head coach.  The next day, and amidst an avalanche of criticism from football playersstudent groups and high-ranking government officials, U of M, College Park president Wallace Loh announced that Durkin had been dismissed as the Terrapins head football coach.

Miami pays Arkansas State $400,000 settlement over canceled game

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A legal issue that arose between a Power Five school and one from the Group of Five has finally been resolved.

The Miami-Arkansas State game in Jonesboro last season was scuttled by Hurricane Irma, mainly because of The U’s concerns over traveling back to South Florida in the wake of the superstorm.  ASU sued Miami in February of this year, seeking financial damages as a result of a breach of contract; Miami had sued ASU two days earlier in an effort to void the contract because the effects of the hurricane were out of its control.

In mid-September, a judge set a Dec. 20 deadline for the two sides to resolve the dispute via third-party mediation.  Wednesday, ASU announced that a settlement has been reached, with each entity dismissing their lawsuits against the other as well as Miami paying the Sun Belt school $400,000.

ASU had been seeking $650,000 in damages.

“I am pleased that both lawsuits have been resolved and that this matter is now behind us,” Brad Phelps, general counsel for the Arkansas State University System, said in the statement. “I believe this is a fair resolution of these issues.”

As part of the settlement, the 2017 game, which was the back-end of a home-and-home series, will not be rescheduled.

Last year’s winner Ed Oliver one of eight semifinalists for Outland Trophy

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Another day (hour?), another award paring down its field of players eligible to win this year’s honor.

The latest to do as much is the Outland Trophy, with the award that is handed out annually to the nation’s top interior lineman on either side of the ball announcing the eight semifinalists for this year’s honor.  Headlining the most recent group is Houston’s Ed Oliver, who was the 2017 Outland winner.

Top-ranked Alabama (offensive tackle Jonah Williams, nose guard Quinnen Williams) and second-ranked Clemson (offensive tackle Mitch Hyatt, defensive tackle Christian Wilkins) accounted for half of the eight semifinalists.  The other three semifinalists not already mentioned are North Carolina State center Garrett Bradbury, Wisconsin guard Michael Deiter and Oklahoma guard Ben Powers.

Next week, this group of eight semifinalists will be pared down to three finalists.  The winner of the 2018 Outland Trophy will be announced during the Home Depot College Football Awards show on ESPN in early December.

Ohio State LB Baron Browning ruled out for Maryland game

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For the second straight week, Ohio State will be down a man in its linebacking corps.

Earlier this week, Urban Meyer listed Baron Browning as probable for Saturday’s game against Maryland.  Wednesday night after practice, however, the head coach confirmed that the linebacker will not play against the Terrapins.

Browning is dealing with an unspecified injury that sidelined the sophomore linebacker for the win over Michigan State this past Saturday.

Through eight games in 2018, Browning has been credited with 22 tackles, 3½ tackles for loss and a sack.  As noted by ElevenWarriors.com, Browning has been rotating in with Tuf Borland at the middle linebacker spot throughout the season.

A five-star 2017 signee, Browning played in a dozen games as a true freshman last year.