Notre Dame has opened a season 6-0 for the third time in Brian Kelly’s tenure, joining 2012’s 12-0 start and 2014’s 6-0 start. The Irish have achieved that only two other times since Tony Rice graduated: a 10-0 start in 1993 and an 8-0 start in 2002. We know not to get too excited; after all, 2012 ended in dejection and 2014 went off the rails quickly and badly. Kelly’s other good starts, 10-1 in 2015 and 8-1 in 2017, chilled quickly in November. We know, man. And yet it’s hard to keep our enthusiasm in check after seeing this team trend up hard after the Wimbush-to-Book transition. I’m not sold that this team is elite yet, because, well, I’ve seen that movie before, but I’m comfortable saying that it’s really good. We might be watching something special unfold.

We already revisited our preseason predictions; be sure to check that post out to see how brilliant off the mark we were on everything. Today we’re going to take a look at the remaining Irish opponents, who mostly have found more disappointment than they expected. That’s not to say we’re destined for a flawless back nine as well – the odds are relatively favorable, but the course is replete with hazards that Irish teams have tended to hit into, Tin Cup style, in the past. If they can channel their inner Rory, though…

Enough with the tortured cross-sport metaphors! On to the good (?) stuff… Like last year, we’ll start with the advanced stats rankings for each opponent on the schedule. S&P+ publishes overall and unit rankings; FEI publishes overall rankings for now, with unit rankings due to come out next week. S&P+ measures per-play success, while FEI measures per-drive success.

For reference, Notre Dame ranks 8th in S&P+, 32nd in S&P+ Offense, 5th in S&P+ Defense, and 10th in FEI.

Opponent S&P+ S&P+ Off S&P+ Def FEI
Michigan 5th 25th 2nd 16th
Ball State 109th 116th 91st 99th
Vanderbilt 75th 80th 65th 90th
Wake Forest 89th 78th 92nd 84th
Stanford 41st 56th 39th 22nd
Virginia Tech 47th 40th 59th 29th
Pitt 73rd 55th 90th 100th
Navy 95th 44th 114th 103rd
Northwestern 58th 97th 31st 27th
Florida State 69th 115th 25th 63rd
Syracuse 60th 63rd 61st 50th
Southern Cal 37th 60th 30th 31st

Numerical Notes

First, some things to point out from that advanced stats table:

  • Our first half opponents’ average S&P+ rank is 61, while their average FEI rank is 57.
  • Our second half opponents’ average S&P+ rank is 65, while their average FEI rank is 62.
  • We’ve already seen the highest-ranked S&P+ defense on the schedule in Michigan, and we handled them fairly easily.
  • On the flip side, we’ll face three of the next four highest ranked defenses in the last four games of the season.
  • We’ve also already played the two highest-ranked S&P+ offenses in Michigan and Virginia Tech. Navy is the highest-ranked offense remaining.
  • According to S&P+, Florida State is roughly a mix of Ball State’s offense and Northwestern’s defense. I have no deeper comment on that. I just wanted to say it.

And a few tidbits based on counting stats (BOOOOOOOO COUNTING STATS!) as well:

  • Barring a stunning reversal of (maybe, I’m not looking it up) unprecedented proportions, Michigan’s 5th ranked pass efficiency defense is and will remain the highest ranked Notre Dame will see this year. Without looking, try to guess who the next highest-ranked opponent is.
  • It’s – I swear I’m not making this up – Syracuse. At 37th, they sit 6 spots ahead of Ball State, 17 spots ahead of USC, and 19 spots ahead of Florida State.
  • Syracuse also ranks 3rd nationally in sacks, with 20 through the first six games. They’re probably reasonably good at generating pressure, but of course playing UConn and Florida State helps. (Again, I just wanted to say that.)
  • Notre Dame ranks 2nd nationally in passes defended (INTs plus PBUs) with 41, behind only Alabama’s 46. Stanford ranks 7th and USC ranks 13th. Hopefully our performance against one is a predictor of our performance against the other.
  • Navy ranks 6th nationally in red zone touchdown conversion rate; no other Irish opponent is inside the top 40.
  • I don’t know if I mentioned this, but Florida State’s offense is bad. Like, really bad. 109th in scoring offense, 126th in rushing yards per game, 74th in pass efficiency, 119th in turnovers, 115th in sacks allowed, 129th in TFLs allowed, 125th in third down conversion, 74th in red zone TD conversion… Every way you can find to be bad, they’re bad. No more analysis needed – I just really wanted to say that.

The Rest of the Slate

“Yeah, nerd, numbers are fun – can we talk about the schedule?” Why, yes, yes we can. The second-half schedule seemed like a potential murderers’ row in the preseason, but with USC, Florida State, and Northwestern all underperforming it looks much more manageable. Don’t be fooled, though; danger still awaits the unwary traveler…

You tried to warn me, but no, I had to keep making fun of Florida State…

Speaking of frontier travel, much has been made of Notre Dame’s frequent flyer mileage scheme since the announcement that the Syracuse game would be in New York City. I don’t love the travel situation, but I’ve come around on it perhaps not being as impactful as it seemed at first. In consecutive weeks we’re home, off, in San Diego, in Chicago, home, in New York, and in LA. San Diego comes after the bye and, from a travel perspective, Chicago isn’t really different from a home game. So to me the main problem is New York one week followed by LA the next; I’d prefer we weren’t doing that, but I can live with it, especially if the Syracuse game goes as expected (more on that below).

Oct. 13 – vs. Pitt

Pat Narduzzi continues to do his damnedest to prove that his success at Michigan State really belonged to Mark Dantonio. In 2015, his first season at Pitt, he posted a respectable S&P+ Defense ranking of 50th. In 2016 that fell to 62nd, in 2017 it fell to 75th, and this year he’s flirting with triple digits. Not great, Bob. This should be a blowout for the now-efficient Irish offense.

However… Pitt has shown an ability to be awful and still knock off the occasional good team and/or make things closer than they should be. See: Miami 2017, Clemson 2016, Iowa 2015, Notre Dame 2013 (with help from our buddy Pat Ryan, but still), Notre Dame 2012. That spans coaches, so it’s not something Narduzzi is doing, but for whatever reason Pitt is one of those teams that other teams seem to overlook. Fresh off the emotional high of Blacksburg, it’s a risk for the Irish – although I’m less concerned than I would be if the game were in the soulless confines of Heinz Field.

Oct. 20 – BYE

Cheeseburgers! The Irish seek to avoid unforced errors, like those related to mid-terms, stomach flu, and comparatively fleet-footed SBPD personnel.

Oct. 27 – vs. Navy (in San Diego)

Last year, Notre Dame couldn’t quite string together enough early success on offense to get Navy out of their triple option shell. Brandon Wimbush played reasonably well, but he had enough troubles early that Navy was able to run the burn and shorten the game. The smart money this year says that Ian Book’s efficiency will lead to quick early scores against Navy’s very soft defense, and the key element for a comfortable win will be in place.

I also really like that this game comes after the bye week from a preparation standpoint. I know we worry about guys getting dinged up every year, and in that sense it’s nice to have the bye week after. But extra prep time is good too, and hopefully we really will get them out of their base offense early and that will reduce the number of cut blocks we face. (Yes, triple option lovers, I know they’re legal. I still don’t have to like them. Don’t @ me.) Another interesting thing to watch here will be the level of Navy support in the stands – as San Diego is home to the Pacific fleet, I would imagine it’ll be substantial.

Nov. 3 – at Northwestern

Early season losses to Duke and Akron (AKRON!) put Northwestern behind the eight ball. It got worse when they lost their leading rusher to medical retirement, as Jeremy Larkin sadly hung ’em up due to cervical stenosis. Their defense has been respectable, while the offense is a disaster – but hey, at least it’s better than Florida State’s! (Oops, there I go again.) At 2-3, the Fighting Fitzes have an uphill climb even after upsetting Michigan State this past weekend. To finish above .500, they can only afford two losses on a second-half slate that includes home games with Notre Dame and Wisconsin and road tilts at Iowa and Minnesota. That seems, uh, unlikely. If all goes according to plan for the Irish, a game Wildcat defense will succumb to unrelenting pressure caused in part by their offense putting them in bad situations repeatedly.

Nov. 10 – vs. Florida State

Seminole fans have most emphatically not seen immediate dividends from the homecoming of favored son Willie Taggart. Here’s the Noles’ season so far:

  • Allowed five sacks and five giveaways en route to a 24-3 drubbing by Virginia Tech.
  • Very nearly lost to Samford (which is not Stanford) in a game closer than the final score.
  • Clobbered by Syracuse 30-7 in the Carrier Dome, where dreams famously go to die. Well, dreams that consist of a successful coaching career for Ty Willingham, anyway.
  • A moment of respite against MAC foe Northern Illinois, although they turned the ball over another four times.
  • Saved from defeat to a bad Louisville team only by Louisville’s own fourth quarter incompetence.
  • Blew a 20-point third quarter lead to fall 28-27 to hated rival Miami; with nearly 12 minutes to reclaim the lead, FSU had three possessions in which they ran a total of nine plays for -5 yards and coughed the ball up once.

Speaking of Taggart… Where does the love come from, exactly? I get that he’s a Harbaugh disciple, but: (a) Is that really a good thing? and (b) Don’t results matter? Granted, Western Kentucky and South Florida weren’t great jobs. Still, in eight full seasons as a head coach he’s lost fewer than five games just once, and he’ll lose 5+ again this year. Wonder if FSU will have cause to regret his 85% buyout clause in the near future… It’s also worth noting that they’re paying Taggart’s $3M buyout for Oregon and they paid off Oregon’s $1.2M commitment for his South Florida buyout. That’s a lot of investment in a guy who might be average at best.

Anyway… I’m also loving the November road trip to South Bend. With games vs. Wake, vs. Clemson, and at NC State immediately preceding, there’s a strong possibility Florida State will enter this game 4-5 at best. To face a physical, rolling Notre Dame team on a typical South Bend almost-winter day. That has “quit” written all over it.

You may remember – we here at 18Stripes certainly do – being mocked endlessly by some of the SBN Florida State guys back in 2016-17, as we endured an entire offseason of 4-8 jokes. After our game, the Seminoles host Boston College and then head to Gainesville. They’re going to lose to Clemson, Florida, and us. It’s extremely likely that if NC State beats Florida State in a few weeks, Boston College will hold the karmic key to a 4-8 season for the Noles. That would be some measure of contrition for handing Florida State our title in 1993, as it would enable an offseason of 4-8 dunking on FSU fans. Just something to think about.

Nov. 17 – vs. Syracuse (at Yankee Stadium)

Dino Babers might just be starting to build something in Western New York; in his third year at the helm, Babers has raised Syracuse from “doormat” to “pesky,” which is a not-insignificant thing. Perhaps his most notable accomplishment is turning the Orange into Ole Miss to Clemson’s Alabama – for whatever reason, they seem to have the sauce to cause Clemson more trouble than they should. They very nearly followed up last year’s home upset of the Tigers with a road upset this year, as Clemson scored in the final minute to salvage the win. Oh, and they were favored by 21. Craziness.

Despite their loss to Pitt this weekend, Syracuse could also conceivably roll into the Bronx as a ranked team; at 4-2 now and with North Carolina, NC State, Wake Forest, and Louisville ahead, it’s not that crazy. All that said, they still operate at a significant talent disadvantage versus top-level teams, and this should be a very manageable game. Babers will have some wrinkles saved up for this game, and QB Eric Dungey can be problematic, but there’s no excuse for anything less than a comfortable win for the Irish. With a cross-country trip coming up, it will be key for the Irish to put this game out of reach early and let front-line players get as much rest as possible. If it’s a dogfight, the effects could linger into the next game.

Nov. 24 – at Southern Cal

Are you a fan of compelling theater? Because this game has the potential for some seriously compelling theater. There’s a solid chance that Brian Kelly will take an 11-0 Notre Dame team to the Coliseum for the second time in his tenure. The list of seasons in the last 30 years in which Notre Dame came to LA with fewer than two losses is relatively short:

  • 2012, entered 11-0, won 22-13
  • 2006, entered 10-1, lost 44-24
  • 2002, entered 10-1, lost 44-13
  • 1998, entered 9-1, lost 10-0 (and it wasn’t that close)
  • 1992, entered 8-1-1, won 31-23
  • 1988, entered 10-0, won 27-10

The ’88 team won the title with a Fiesta Bowl stomping of West Virginia, the ’92 team destroyed RC Slocum’s Texas A&M “Wrecking Crew” in the Cotton Bowl, and while of course it ended badly (damn you, Lache Seastrunk!), the 2012 team did springboard into the BCS title game thanks to that win. The 1998, 2002, and 2006 squads all followed this loss with another one in the bowl game. So clearly, no matter the precise context, there’s a lot riding on this game.

The 1988, 2002, and 2006 USC teams were all really good, going a combined 32-6. The 1992, 1998, and 2012 teams were all less so, going a combined 21-16-1. This USC edition seems to belong more with the second group than the first. A 3-2 start theoretically leaves a stronger record in play, but the nature of that start has hinted at some major problems. The Trojans were throttled by Stanford and Texas in successive weeks, then beat Washington State and Arizona by a combined seven points. The Wazzu win in particular was a bit of a gift. The replay booth made one of the worst decisions I’ve ever seen in not flagging USC LB/DE Porter Gustin for obvious targeting; had they done so, Wazzu would’ve had a first down in the red zone with about two minutes to go. Gustin had been ejected from the previous game for targeting as well.

Stanford, with their bottom-scraping offensive pace, is the only team USC has held under 20 points. Part of that definitely rests on how bad their offense has been, but in general they’ve shown what we’ve frequently seen from them of late: a talented but soft team that doesn’t respond well to physical play. The most concerning thing about this game is how much super-frosh QB JT Daniels might improve by the end of the season. He has plenty of ability, and if he pieces it together by then their offense could be dangerous. However, in a story that will become repetitive as this season wears on, I expect Notre Dame will have an advantage in the trenches on both sides and that will prove decisive.

Cue Your Best Jim Mora Impression

Playoffs? PLAYOFFS?!? I know, I know, we’ve all been here before. At the midpoints of the 2014, 2015, and 2017 seasons, we were all convinced that we were playoff-bound. Weird things can happen, guys can get hurt, weaknesses can be exposed as the year wears on. I’ll concede all of that. But the way this team has won lately, with elite defense and a highly efficient, physical offense, makes me think this is more real than the recent fever dreams. The catch this year is that with the way the schedule has unexpectedly softened, the Irish likely have literally no room for error. A 12-0 Notre Dame will absolutely make the playoffs, every time. Theoretically there could be four undefeated conference champs, but the likelihood of that runs in the fractions of a percent. 12-0 will get us in, period. 11-1? Maybe in some years, but this year it feels like a one-loss Oklahoma or Clemson or Ohio State would get the nod over us.

So 12-0 will bring us to the playoffs. If we stub our toe in the homestretch, 11-1 will almost certainly keep us out but just as certainly lock us into a New Year’s Six bowl, probably the Fiesta or Peach. The Orange Bowl serves as one of the semifinal games this year, so if we’re not in the playoff that destination is out, and the Cotton Bowl is the other semi. The Rose and Sugar Bowls will preserve their conference tie-ins if possible; even if the Big Ten, Pac 12, SEC, and Big 12 champs all make the playoffs, each conference runner-up is likely to fall in the top 12 teams as required. Which leaves the Fiesta and Peach Bowls, which each feature two at-large selections. We would probably end with an opponent like Penn State, Auburn, West Virginia, Washington, UCF, etc.

If we lose twice in the final six games – which would be both unexpected and massively disappointing – I think we might still end up at the back end of the top 12 depending on what else happens across the country, but more likely we would land in a second-tier, Citrus Bowl-type destination again. Whee. But that seems like a distant possibility at this point.