2016 was a highly disappointing season for Brian Kelly and the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. The team finished with a lowly 4-8 record, but did not lose a game by more than eight points all season. The Irish were right there in every game the team played and just somehow found a way to come out on the losing end. Starting quarterback Deshone Kizer moved on the the NFL, leaving Brandon Wimbush to take the reigns. Now halfway through 2017, the Irish find themselves sitting happily on a 5-1 record and a #13 national ranking.
A big part of the team’s regained success has been the establishment of the running game. The Irish are currently 5th in the nation in rushing yards with 308 yards per game. That ranking is a 23 spot improvement from the running game Kelly had at his disposal in 2016 and has done wonders for Wimbush in his first year as a starter. Wimbush himself has also been an upgrade over what Kizer accomplished in his time as the starter. The offense is scoring 40 points per contest with through six games, good for 12th best in the country and six points better than the team’s per game mark in 2016.
The team’s defense is playing much better as well. Led by senior linebackers Nyles Morgan and Greer Martini, the Irish defense has developed into an experienced and aggressive group. Senior Drue Tranquill is another key piece, presenting needed versatility and athleticism to an opportunistic bunch. The secondary is the youngest group in the defense but remains talented as sophomore corner Julian Love leads the team with 8 passes defensed.
There is no question that Notre Dame bounced back in a big way so far in 2017. The one questioning remaining is simply how high can this Notre Dame team go? Having one loss already, the team is still relatively high in the standings at #13 with an opportunity to move up at least one spot if they can defeat #11 USC this weekend. Looking past that, the Irish have five games the rest of the way three of which come against ranked opponents. Huge tests at #8 Miami (FL) and at #22 Stanford still stand between Notre Dame and a Playoff birth.
There is also the fact that Notre Dame will not have the benefit of playing in a conference championship game, as the team does not belong to a conference. The selection committee has made it clear that winning a conference is something that is considered when Playoff selection takes place. We saw TCU lose out because the Big 12 does not hold a true conference championship game during the first college football playoff that saw OSU sneak in ahead of the Horned Frogs and ultimately win the national championship.
All things considered, I do really like this Notre Dame team. They have a great running game and a defense with a strong balance of experience and top level talent. The schedule ahead is daunting, but if somehow this team is able to run the table the impressiveness of such a resume might be enough to overcome the issue of not winning a specific conference. If Notre Dame were to win out, they would finish at 4-1 against ranked opponents and 11-1 overall. Keep in mind that playing in the SEC, if Alabama were to win out and win the conference the team would also finish with four wins against ranked opponents. The task ahead for the Irish is an imposing one but the team should be able to snag a Playoff spot if winning out is accomplished. Where the team can go from there is up to the team and the team alone.