Why people are buying Notre Dame as College Football Playoff contender (and why some might hold off)

34 Comments

It’s about that time of the year again when Notre Dame starts generating some buzz as a national title contender. This seems to happen every few years or so. If we’re not asking if Notre Dame will be back, we are asking if they will be in the championship conversation. Perhaps those questions are the same for some. Whatever the case is, the Irish appear to be entering the 2015 season with high expectations by many around the college football universe. Are you buying the Irish as a College Football Playoff contender, or are you holding off to see how they start the new season?

Associated Press college football writer Ralph Russo placed Notre Dame in a College Football Playoff semifinal, against Auburn (Ohio State and Baylor are in the other semifinal). Russo’s early summer bowl projections are not the only place you will see preseason hype for the Irish. Stewart Mandel of FOX Sports said in a recent mailbag post he views Notre Dame as a legit playoff contender. The always knowledgeable Matt Brown, of Sports On Earth, lauded the playoff talent on Notre Dame’s roster, suggesting Notre Dame may actually be underhyped. Fresh off Notre Dame’s Music City Bowl victory over LSU at the end of last season, Chicago Tribune writer Chris Hine set the bar for the Irish at the College Football Playoff level. Anything short of a playoff game won’t cut it for the Irish in 2015, Hine suggested. Travis Haney of ESPN.com reviewed first-time starting quarterbacks for this upcoming season’s supposed playoff contenders, which naturally included Malik Zaire of Notre Dame.

So here we are on June 10, with many respected names around college football’s media coverage dropping Notre Dame in the playoff conversation. Are they on the mark with the Irish, or is it a tad early to suggest Notre Dame will have everything in place to make a postseason run?

A quick review of what the Irish have shows why so many seem to be optimistic about Notre Dame in 2015. First, the Irish return 19 starters from last season. This does not account for the possible returns of potential starters Ishaq Williams at defensive end and KeiVarae Russell at defensive back. As mentioned above, Zaire is set to take control of the offense without anybody standing in his way following Everett Golson transferring to Florida State. Zaire has shown some promise, but now the job is his. Let’s see how he and head coach Brian Kelly handle it.

Notre Dame’s defense was hampered by injuries down the stretch of the season in 2014, and it showed. What will ultimately place Notre Dame in the playoff hunt will be an improvement in turnover margin. When the Irish defense was beat, it was torched. Last season the Irish forced 23 turnovers, but gave the football away 26 times. It was the third time Notre Dame had a negative turnover margin in a season since 2008. Not so coincidentally, when Notre Dame made a run to the BCS Championship Game in the 2012 season, the Irish had their highest turnover margin in that stretch, with a +8. The Irish will also have to improve inside the red zone. Last year the Irish entered the opponent’s 20-yard line 62 times. On 40 of those trips the Irish scored a touchdown, good for the 45th best red zone touchdown percentage in the country. Three of the four playoff teams had a higher percentage last season (Florida State was significantly lower).

If Notre Dame can improve in these two areas, then the schedule does set up well for the Irish to remain in the playoff discussion into November, but there are some significant hurdles along the way. Notre Dame opens the season at home in primetime against Texas, but the Longhorns are still in a bit of a rebuild state right now under Charlie Strong. Georgia Tech can be a stingy test early on for the Irish as well, but the defending ACC Coastal champs are on the road in week three. Notre Dame plays at Clemson in the first weekend in October, followed by a home game against Navy and another home game against USC. The Trojans could be dangerous, but you never know what will happen when they visit South Bend. A road game at Pittsburgh could also be tricky given the offensive talent the Panthers have (James Conner and  Tyler Boyd are among the best at their positions in the ACC, if not the country). Notre Dame’s season ends with games in Fenway Park against Boston College and on the road against always tough Stanford.

Under the new College Football Playoff model, one loss is not nearly as catastrophic as it may have been before for Notre Dame, but the margin for error is still small. The Irish not playing a conference championship game could lead to a similar fate as last season’s Big 12 co-champions from Baylor and TCU (although the Big 12’s strength of schedule was also a fair target, one that may not apply for Notre Dame).

Is Notre Dame for real in 2015? Yeah, they could be, but we will have a much better idea of what to make of Notre Dame by mid-October. If Notre Dame is 7-0 or 6-1, get ready for a Notre Dame playoff push coming down the stretch of the regular season.

As of now, Jim Harbaugh plans to play Shea Patterson and Dylan McCaffrey in every game

Getty Images
Leave a comment

Michigan does not open training camp until Aug. 2 and does not play its first game until Aug. 31, so any “as of right now” statements are devoid of 20-odd practices worth of context.

Still, as of Big Ten media days, Jim Harbaugh plans to play both Shea Patterson and Dylan McCaffrey in every game.

“Yeah, I do (see games where they’ll both play). Where it stands right now, and that could change later or not, is I see them both playing,” Harbaugh told the Detroit Free Press. “Where it stands right now, I see it as maybe redefining what a starter is…. I’m really not talking about playing them both at the same time (on a play), when I say both in games it’d be they’re both playing quarterback during the same game. And in the way it stands now, in every game.”

Harbaugh has been a one-quarterback man for the entirety of his career, but Patterson’s inconsistency and McCaffrey’s talent may demand a change. Michigan did juggle quarterbacks in 2017 — John O’KornBrandon Peters and Wilton Speight each threw at least 81 passes — but that was due to necessity, not strategy.

Patterson completed 64.6 percent of his passes last season for 2,600 yards (on 8.0 per attempt) with 22 touchdowns against seven interceptions while rushing 76 times for 273 yards and two touchdowns. In his second year in the program, McCaffrey completed 8-of-15 passes for 126 yards with two touchdowns whilst rushing 10 times for 99 yards and a touchdown.

The son of Ed McCaffrey and brother of Christian McCaffrey is certainly the heir apparent in Ann Arbor, and it appears Harbaugh isn’t willing to wait for the future to arrive in order to unleash arguably his most talented quarterback recruit since Andrew Luck.

Big Ten could realign divisions yet again, according to PJ Fleck

Getty Images
5 Comments

Whether he knew it or not, Minnesota head coach PJ Fleck broke news that will set certain circles of the college football blogosphere (including this one) by touching on the topic that is consistently gobbled up like Thanksgiving turkey: realignment.

“Change is inevitable,” Fleck told The Athletic. “I think we all know that. I think that the East and West have been around for a while. I like it, I like the division of it. But I don’t think it will stay the same. I think we’ll change it at some point because change is coming somehow, some way. And I think people are going to want to move it around, and shake it up a little bit.”

Fleck said the topic came up during the Big Ten’s spring meetings in Arizona; the conference did not comment on the topic.

The Big Ten split into divisions upon Nebraska’s 2011 arrival, memorably going with the idiotic Legends and Leaders alignment that was designed to protect rivalries and preserve competitive balance. That alignment lasted three years, until Maryland and Rutgers joined the party in 2014 and the conference rejiggered its alignment into a more sensible East and West split.

While a geographic divide does preserve rivalries and makes both logistical and logical sense, it has come at the price of competitive balance. The East champion has gone a perfect 5-for-5 in Big Ten title games under the current arrangement.

However, the East is a mere five games ahead of the West in regular season matchups, an average of one extra victory per season.

If — and at this point’s a very big if — the Big Ten does realign again, the conference could return to a Legends and Leaders format (hopefully with different names) or it could scrap divisions altogether, giving each school two or three protected rivals while putting the rest of the league in a regular rotation. The positive aspect of this alignment is it guarantees the top two teams would meet in Indianapolis, but the drawback is it could trigger an instant Michigan-Ohio State rematch.

It’s too early to report when and if a second realignment would happen, but as Fleck reminded us this week it is never too early to speculate.

Penn State DE Yetur Gross-Matos, RB Journey Brown suspended through rest of July

Getty Images
3 Comments

The season does not begin today, but if it did Penn State would be without one of its best players.

Nittany Lions head coach James Franklin confirmed to the press at Big Ten media days that defensive end Yetur Gross-Matos and running back Journey Brown are presently suspended for a “violation of team rules” dating back to spring practice. The suspension is slated to end Aug. 1.

Gross-Matos, a junior, led Penn State in sacks (eight) and tackles for loss (20) while registering 54 tackles, two forced fumbles and one fumble recovery on the season. He enters the year a candidate for the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year award.

“I talk to him all the time,” Franklin told Lions247 of Gross-Matos, despite the suspension. “[He is] doing great.”

Brown, also a junior, posted eight carries for 44 yards and a touchdown in 2018.

Ex A&M, Arizona LB can’t walk on at Colorado because of domestic violence arrest

Getty Images
4 Comments

Santino Marchiol‘s college football career was brief and scandalous, and now it appears it’s over.

Marchiol first joined the news cycle at Texas A&M, where he attempted to cast himself as a whistleblower against NCAA violations committed by Jimbo Fisher‘s staff. When that stick of dynamite turned into a dud, Marchiol transferred to Arizona to reunite with the coach who signed him out of IMG Academy, but he was gone from Tucson as quickly as he arrived after video surfaced showing Marchiol using a racial slur against his black teammates at Texas A&M.

Marchiol returned to his native Colorado in attempt to walk on at CU, but that comeback attempt has once again died before it could live as it turns out Marchiol was arrested for domestic violence on June 24. From the Denver Post:

According to Pueblo police records, Marchiol was arrested at about 3:30 p.m. on June 24 and booked on suspicion of second-degree assault bodily injury, a felony. Marchiol faces two misdemeanor assault charges, court records indicated, as well as a violation for contempt of a court protection order. He was released on bail June 25.

“Santino was never enrolled as a CU Boulder student,” Colorado said in a statement. “He was invited to be a walk-on for the football team this fall. Coach Tucker has since rescinded that invitation.”

Marchiol would’ve had to sit out the 2019 season due to NCAA rules, but now it seems as if he may sit out the remainder of time as it’s unlikely any other college football staffs will take on a player who attempted to narc to the NCAA on violations that, frankly, aren’t a big deal to begin with, then was caught using a racial slur against black teammates and then was arrested for suspicion of domestic violence.