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

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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.

Michigan State RB Connor Heyward reverses course, pulls name from transfer portal

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Mel Tucker appears to have picked up his second personnel win as the Michigan State football head coach.

In September of last year, running back Connor Heyward took the first step in leaving the Michigan State football team by entering his name into the NCAA transfer database.  A little over four months later, after Mark Dantonio‘s abrupt retirement, Tucker took over in East Lansing.

On Twitter a week after Tucker came back to the Spartans, Heyward announced in a tweet that he has reversed course and will pull his name from the portal.  And, in his social-media missive, the running back credited Tucker for the personal reversal.

“After talking with [athletic director Bill] Beekman and Coach Tucker, I have decided to take my name out of the transfer portal and return to Michigan State University,” Heyward wrote. “It has been a long process, but I know this is home in my heart.

“I’m looking forward to what the future holds.  I can’t wait to get back to work with my brothers.

“Go Green!”

A three-star member of Michigan State’s 2017 recruiting class, Heyward was rated as the No. 72 player regardless of position in the state of Georgia.  In 2018, Heyward led MSU in rushing yards (529), rushing touchdowns (five), carries (118), all-purpose yards (1,065) and kick returns (13 for 287 yards; 22.1 avg.).  That year, he was named as a finalist for the Paul Hornung Award, given annually to the nation’s most versatile player.

This past season, Heyward ran for 79 yards on 24 carries.

All told, Heyward has ran for 618 yards and five touchdowns on 145 carries.  He’s also caught 43 passes for another 314 yards and two touchdowns.

Because he played in just four games in 2019, Heyward will be permitted to take a redshirt for last year.  That would make him a redshirt junior for the 2020 campaign and leave him with two years of eligibility to use.

USC officially replaces FCS school with San Jose State for 2021 game

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USC football has officially returned itself to elite scheduling company.

In July of last year, USC football angered a sizable portion of its fan base as well as former players by announcing that it had scheduled a 2021 game against UC-Davis.  The Trojans had been one of three FBS programs that had never scheduled a game against an FCS team.

Wednesday, however, new athletic director Mike Bohn confirmed that the Trojans are on the verge of canceling that football game and replacing it with another.  Thursday night, USC football made it official as both they and San Jose State confirmed a Sept. 4, 2021, game at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

San Jose State had originally been scheduled to face Georgia on that date.  Last week, however, UGA canceled the game in order to play Clemson in that season’s opener.  For that cancellation, San Jose State will receive $1.8 million from UGA.

“Facing USC in Los Angeles is a great opportunity for our student-athletes and fans,” SJSU athletic director Marie Tuite said in a statement. “Southern California is an important footprint for us in recruiting and we’re very excited to add this game to our 2021 football schedule.”

Tuite was also very complimentary of her UGA counterpart for his transparency throughout the process.

“I’d like to thank Georgia athletics director Greg McGarity for being transparent with us during the process,” said the AD. “I’ve experienced the atmosphere in Athens on gameday and it’s a special place. Maybe one day in the future the Spartans will make the trip.”

As for USC football, they officially rejoin Notre Dame and UCLA as the only FBS schools that have never played a game against an FCS team.  They are, however, in denial about never having scheduled an FCS school.

Be that as it may, USC will pay UC-Davis $750,000 for the game-that-was-never-scheduled-but-actually-was.

USC and San Jose State have met four times previously, with the Trojans winning all four of those matchups.  The two schools are also scheduled to play in 2024.

Clemson, Georgia paying seven-figures to make 2021 opener happen

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Clemson and Georgia are both spending money to make money.

In the wake of the two schools announcing a highly anticipated 2021 season opener in Charlotte, news has now surfaced at just how badly the two programs wanted to play each other.

The total tab: roughly $2.9 million.

That’s the combined amount the Tigers and Bulldogs will be paying to get out of their previously scheduled Group of Five games set for the same date.

Per the Greenville News, Clemson is ponying $1.1 million to cancel their contract with Wyoming. The Athletic reports Georgia is cutting a $1.8 million check to San Jose State.

“This is another great opportunity to schedule a national non-conference game with a top-level opponent,” UGA head coach Kirby Smart said in a release announcing the game. “Playing a regular-season game in Charlotte will give our fans the opportunity for a completely new experience in a great city and top-level stadium. I know our coaches and players will be excited for the challenge to kick off the season in this kind of environment.”

Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, N.C. will host the regional rivals on Saturday, Sept. 4, 2021.

Georgia and Clemson have met 64 times over the years, most recently in 2014. The 2021 date is a one-off but the programs are still scheduled to meet five more times between 2021 and 2033. This includes the 2024 Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game and a pair of home-and-home series scheduled for 2029/2033 (in Death Valley) and 2030/2032 (between the hedges).

The Tigers will also take on fellow SEC program South Carolina in those years and will host UConn and FCS South Carolina State to round out their 2021 non-conference slate. The Bulldogs have their annual game against Georgia Tech plus UAB and Charleston Southern in 2021 as well.

Tennessee AD Phillip Fulmer says he could have coached Vols again but it ‘didn’t appeal’ to him

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Could Tennessee have had Phillip Fulmer back on the sidelines at Neyland Stadium coaching again?

There was speculation that he could have done just that from the moment he took over as athletic director at the school. Actually having it happen in Knoxville though? It apparently was not on the table due more to the necessity of Jimmy and Joe’s as opposed to X’s and O’s.

In a wide-ranging interview with The Tennessean about his on-going tenure as AD, Fulmer was asked if he ever considered putting the whistle back on for the team he led to the national title over two decades ago. Though it crossed the minds of many at the school, it didn’t for the man himself thanks largely to the rigors of the profession changing from 2008 to now.

“No. I mean, that energy level that it takes to do that. Could have coached and wanted to coach, that’s two different things, right?” Fulmer told the paper. “I certainly could have come coached the team or whatever, but the recruiting and the staffing and all those things, I’ve done my time, and I had a great run. That didn’t appeal to me, nor did I ever lose confidence that Jeremy (Pruitt) was going to do it.”

While that latter line is notable for the team’s current head coach after a historically bad start to the 2019 season, don’t gloss over his earlier comments. In fact, it says plenty about the situation on Rocky Top in recent years that Fulmer directly confirms that he “could have” come down from the AD box to the sidelines.

The only thing that stopped him? Not optics, but just the time a head coach has to devote to things like recruiting. While there’s no doubt that is pretty much a 24/7 operation nowadays at SEC schools like Tennessee, it’s interesting that was one of the few things preventing a move many in orange and white clamored (or at least expected) to see at some point.

Instead, Fulmer will have to make do with his 152–52 overall record at the school and a national title in the 1998 season. That forever cemented his status in Knoxville as one of the program’s greats and it appears he’s content to let things end there despite not having the ending he wanted back in the day.