As we nestle into the halfway point of the season, we notice that it’s time to revisit our predictions from our staff and commentariat polls right before the season started. Later in the week we’ll bring you a preview of Notre Dame’s second-half opponents and discuss – gasp! – a potential march to the playoffs.
Big Picture Questions
62% of the readers and 58% of the staff thought we’d go 10-2 or better this year. With a 6-0 start in the bag and the back end of the schedule looking much less daunting than it did in the preseason, this finish seems highly probable. In fact, S&P+ win probabilities give the Irish a 96% chance of going 10-2 or better at this point, so even the advanced stats back up the optimism. If you’re curious, 19% of you voted for 11-1 or better and a Panglossian 6% chose 12-0; S&P+ now puts the probabilities of those outcomes at 42% and 35%, respectively.
No shocker here – 65% of you and 67% of the staff picked quarterback play. We were right and we were wrong, in that it was a major concern through the first three games but it seems to be at absolute zero now. The decision to replace Brandon Wimbush with Ian Book at 3-0 might go down as one of the biggest moves Kelly has ever made; I say without irony that it may have set his Notre Dame arc on a different direction. It’s early, but it’s also not crazy to think that. Did you know that every significant offensive contributor aside from Mustipher, Weishar, and Dexter have eligibility beyond this year, and that many of them have eligibility through 2020? Like I said.
The other concerns were a mish-mash of things – offensive line play, linebacker depth, offensive playmakers – that have also largely been answered positively over the last few weeks. It’s a good time to be an Irish fan, unless you’re the kind of fan who lives with an existential dread of the other shoe. Which, actually, describes your average Irish fan. Soooo…
Brandon Wimbush led all vote-getters in both surveys, taking 40% of your vote and 33% of the staff vote. Chase Claypool was second with 26% in the readers’ survey, with the rest of that and the staff survey being pretty evenly divided. I don’t know what the second half of the season holds, but barring the best comeback since Aerosmith, the offensive MVP won’t be Wimbush. Kudos to the clairvoyant 3% of the readers who tabbed Ian Book; that bet is looking much better now than it did preseason. Miles Boykin and Dexter Williams are in the running as well.
55% of you and 50% of the staff took Te’Von Coney. Drue Tranquill was second for you with 18% and among the “others getting votes” for us. Julian Love was third for you with 15% and second for the staff with 42%. You know who didn’t get much love? Jerry Tillery, the guy I would tab for the honor at this point – he was not considered by the staff and got only 9% of the reader vote. There’s a case to be made for Coney, Tranquill, and Love, but arguably no defender in the country has been as dominant as Tillery, who is tied for fourth nationally in sacks. AS A DEFENSIVE TACKLE. Phenomenal.
Play of the Year
66% of you and 83% of the staff chose the defense, which seemed like a safe bet with so many preseason questions around the offense. 7% of you and the rest of the staff chose special teams, which leaves 26% of you and none of the staff who chose the offense. I don’t know if we have a play of the year yet, but there are a few good candidates. Is it the strip-sack that ended the Michigan game? The leaping, battling touchdown catch by Finke that put the Skunkbears on notice? Was it Coney’s pick against Stanford, or the exquisite throwback to a lonely Alize Mack on the next play? Was it Dexter’s 97-yard run or Love’s scoop and score against Virginia Tech? I’d vote for Dex’s scamper, but for a definitive answer the Magic 8 Ball says check back later.
Once again we were pretty much in sync, as 62% of the readers and 58% of the staff chose Claypool. Boykin has paced the team to this point though, with 28 receptions, comfortably ahead of a tightly bunched group of Finke (19), Mack (19), and Claypool (18). Book suggests has clearly developed some chemistry with the big Illinoisan, but the early picture on him suggests that he likes to spread it around. So this could yet change; he still shows love to the big Canadian, the big Nevadan, and the tiny Ohioan.
44% of you and 67% of the staff chose Kevin Austin, while 38% of you and 17% of the staff took Houston Griffith. Griffith has played more, but it seems too early to call it between the two of them. Braden Lenzy was third with you and tied for second with us, but has been a non-factor after some physique concerns and a practice concussion set him too far back. No one else has really come close to matching the contributions of Austin and Griffith. Jahmir Smith actually has 7 touches to Austin’s 3, which is notable, but Smith has mostly played in garbage time while Austin has played a lot of meaningful snaps.
Honorable mention also goes to C’Bo Flemister, Tariq Bracy, and Bo Bauer, who all have appeared now and then with the game on the line.
5 Wins in the First 6 Games
52% of the readers and 42% of the staff took the over here. Yes, next year I’ll make it an x.5 line… I took the over, but I did it with some trepidation given that the first half of the season included Michigan and Stanford at home and Virginia Tech on the road. Check, check, and check. That sterling start positions the Irish for a strong chance at back-to-back 10-win seasons for the first time since 1992-93.
5 Wins in the Last 6 Games
I SAID NEXT YEAR I’LL MAKE IT AN x.5 LINE, STOP ASKING! Sorry, lost my composure there for a second… 47% of the readers and 62% of the staff took the over here. I’m guessing that, given first half results for all opponents, you might vote differently now than you did then. USC will be the toughest second-half opponent by a good margin, and they, uh, might not really be that good. Glory awaits, my friends.
Average BK team sacks: 24.0
Average BK team TFLs: 71.0
90% of the readers and 100% of the staff took the over on sacks; 94% of the readers and 100% of the staff took the over on TFLs. I think I’m going to have to use post-BVG averages next year to make these lines more interesting, because it looks like both will be blown away this year.
Through six games, the Irish have registered 15 sacks and 43 TFLs, putting them on pace for 33 sacks and 93 TFLs for the year. Both would be Kelly-era highs, the sacks in a tie with 2012 and the TFLs by a comfortable margin over 2015’s 84.
10.5 Possessions Versus Navy
45% of the readers and 58% of the staff took the over here. As noted previously, the line is not an accident; 11+ possessions against Navy usually mean a blowout, 10 or fewer usually mean a dogfight. The key as always is to get up two or three scores early and force Navy out of their clock-control offense. With the Irish offense’s new-found efficiency and Navy looking weaker than usual, this might seem more likely than it did preseason. Stay tuned.
4.5 Non-Offense Touchdowns (BK average:
64% of the readers and 58% of the staff put far too much faith in me and took the over here, which is unfortunate as I realized afterwards that I’m really bad at math. Arithmetic, specifically, which is kinda sad. The actual average in the Kelly era is not 4.0 but 2.4 non-offense scores per year. The higher line is extremely unlikely; even the lower line seems unlikely now despite Love winning in Blacksburg. There have been some other close calls, though; Michael Young was maybe one tackle away from breaking a kick return, Finke returned a punt to Wake Forest’s four yard line, and had Coney kept his feet on his Stanford pick he might’ve made it in. So, again, stay tuned.
0.5 Interceptions by Safeties
99% of the readers and 100% of the staff took the over on this tongue-in-cheek line, set with an eye towards the group’s nearly-incomprehensible goose egg in 2017. Jalen Elliott must’ve taken it personally, since he quadrupled the line all by his lonesome against Ball State. He also dropped a pick against Stanford, and Alohi Gilman had another Stanford pick negated by penalty. Each barely missed another on the same play against Virginia Tech. Something tells me this group isn’t done yet.
Speaking of goose eggs, one of my favorite bits of sports trivia: The tennis term “love” as a synonym for “zero” goes back to the game’s French origins – way back when, players noted a nothingburger by referring to it as l’oeuf (pronounced roughly as “loof” with the “oo” sound from book). L’oeuf means “the egg.” It always fascinates me to discover a modern colloquialism that isn’t really modern. Anyway, back to football…
800 Rushing Yards by Brandon Wimbush
This was of course a proxy question for whether you thought Wimbush would hold onto his job; 56% of you and 50% of us thought he would. Book has Wally Pipped him, with the ailment in question being a broken heart – as NBC has been kind enough to show us umpteen million times. Take the cameras off him, guys. We get it.
I suppose this theoretically remains in play, as Wimbush has recorded 187 rushing yards (sacks excluded) and there’s plenty of time left in the season for him to get some run. But don’t hold your breath.
120 Tackles by Te’Von Coney
48% of the readers and 58% of the staff (including me) took the over on this aggressive line – only Manti Te’o, in 2010 and 2011, has topped this number in the last 26 Irish seasons. Coney’s 117 tackles last season, when he didn’t become a full-time player until the fifth game, made it seem like a no-brainer. Through six games Coney does lead the team with 48 tackles, which puts him on pace for 104 on the season. That’s nothing to sneeze at, and it could pick up in the second half after being depressed somewhat by the pace of Stanford and Michigan’s offenses.
It could also be depressed somewhat by the work of Coney’s teammates, as five other defenders have at least 30 tackles. This is a very active front seven, which probably leaves less for #4 to clean up. If Coney is going to hit this mark, he’ll have to average 9-10 tackles per game the rest of the way. It’s not impossible, but it’s a big number; last year he averaged 8.9, and in Teo’s 2010 and 2011 seasons he averaged 9.9.
8.0 Sacks by Khalid Kareem
Just 21% of the readers and 25% of the staff took the over here. He’s not far off the pace through six games; his 3.5 projects to 7.6 in the full season. Like his bookend buddy Julian Okwara, he has had some near-misses too; I wouldn’t write this one off just yet. Especially if the refs suddenly decide to start calling holding penalties.
Long FG of 52.5 by Justin Yoon
41% of the readers and 58% of the staff had as much faith in Yoon as they should have. 52 yards is his career long, set his freshman season against Navy. His longest attempt this year is 50 yards, which he took against Stanford and hooked just barely left. There’s still plenty of time for him to get a long chance before halftime or something. It’s going to happen.
1.5 Games Won by Justin Yoon
44% of the readers and 42% of the staff took the over on this one. With an average margin of 15.3 points and no win closer than 5 points, Yoon thankfully hasn’t been needed in a game-on-the-line situation yet. The second half schedule doesn’t seem like it sets up to give him many opportunities either, but you know how that goes…
4.5 Games Before Dex Gets 10+ Carries in a Game
61% of the readers and 75% of the staff took the over, and boy, were we all wrong. Dex’s career high for carries in a game coming into this season was 8, which he hit four times. He almost tripled that against Stanford, logging 21 carries for 161 yards, and added another 17 carries against the Hokies. His performance clearly seized the bell cow role, even without consideration for the health status of Tony Jones and Jafar Armstrong. If the Dex we’ve seen so far is truly the New Dex, he’s going to make himself some money this year.
1.5 Nicco Fertitta Ejections
Just 8% of readers and 25% of the staff took the over, which looks smart at the moment as the Italian Tomahawk is stuck on zero. However, it’s a long season, folks. He leveled a couple of guys late in Saturday’s game, and remember that he takes special joy in unleashing on USC.
0.5 Red Sox references by Kelly During Shamrock Series Week
81% of the readers and 100% of the staff took the over on this far-too-low line. The Shamrock game is yet to come, of course, so we’ll see, but the over still seems like a pretty safe bet. Doubly so if we manage to preserve Jaunty BK between now and then.
Who will start at running back against Michigan?
89% of the readers and 100% of the staff chose Tony Jones over the field. Shockingly, this one was wrong, as Jafar Armstrong got the start. In fact he nearly doubled Jones’s offensive touches in that game, with 15 carries and 2 receptions against Jones’s 9 carries. Jones has slightly more touches on the season, with 60 to Armstrong’s 54, so in the end utilization has been roughly even.
Who will start at running back against USC?
46% of the readers and just 17% of the staff chose Dexter over the field. It’s only two games, but it really looks like the staff is going to be very, very wrong on this one. Most of us didn’t feel comfortable trusting Dex given his uneven first few years, but he has looked like a different player from his very first touch of the season. He is Notre Dame’s most explosive offensive piece, and he’s finally playing like it. And then some!
The Irish will have a 1,000 yard rusher in 2018.
32% of the readers and 25% of the staff bought in here. The picture is very muddy at this point, but we can say that it’s highly unlikely that Jones or Armstrong will reach this mark. Dex, somewhat surprisingly, has a chance, given his bell cow status and his 339 yards through two games with some weak rush defenses ahead. If he can indeed reach this threshold he’ll be the fourth Kelly back to do so, joining Cierre Wood (1,1o2 in 2011), CJ Prosise (1,029 in 2015), and Josh Adams (1,430 in 2017).
The Irish will have a 1,000 yard receiver in 2018.
30% of the readers and 50% of the staff liked us to hit this mark. The Book Ascendancy* is a potential godsend for the guys targeting this, as it probably wasn’t going to happen with Wimbush at the helm. Miles Boykin is in position to make a run at this, with 428 yards through the first six games. Claypool, Finke, and Mack are all bunched behind him, too far off the pace to have a serious shot.
* Also a new Robert Ludlum novel hitting shelves soon.
Who will lead the team in touchdowns scored?
73% of readers and 83% of the staff tabbed Wimbush, which seems overwhelmingly unlikely at this point; after recording 14 touchdowns by his lonesome last year, Wimbush has just one through the first six games. Armstrong holds the current team lead with five, Williams has four, and Jones, Boykin, and Book have three apiece. This race is wide open at the halfway point, although given Dex’s placement on the list and the head start the other guys had…
Who will lead the team in sacks?
34% of the readers and 42% of the staff took Kareem over the field. He was certainly a defensible choice, and in fact he’s second on the team now. The problem (?) is that he’s been absolutely lapped by Tillery, who has 7.0 sacks to Kareem’s 3.5. Tillery is probably going to run away with this as he climbs postseason award watch lists.
Who will lead the team in interceptions?
A scant 17% of readers and 33% of the staff took Troy Pride over the field. Pride is currently tied for the team lead with Elliott, as each have two picks. Love, Coney, and Okwara are all on the board as well. I still like my bet on this one, as teams have gone away from Love to this point and Pride has benefited.