As we dive into the fall season, that only means one thing: football is back! Many schools know that you must be nearly perfect if you want a shot to be one of the final four teams participating in the College Football Playoffs (CFP) in January. Last year, Notre Dame went 12-0 in the regular season and received a bid to the CFP for the first time since it was established in 2014. It did not go as planned for the Fighting Irish, however, as they were a first-round exit after falling to the Clemson Tigers by a final score of 30-3. This year, the Fighting Irish are out for revenge. With the return of Senior Quarterback Ian Book, many fans of the Fighting Irish believe that a CFP appearance is possible yet again. With the departure of a few key starters and one of the toughest schedules in college football though, does Notre Dame have what it takes to run the table again?
Let’s begin with the Fighting Irish offense for the 2019 campaign. Notre Dame returns seven starters on the offensive side, including Senior Quarterback Ian Book, who has gotten high praise from both coaches and the media. He opens the season with the odds 60:1 to win the Heisman Trophy. The odds aren’t great, but it puts him in the top 15 in all of football. Also returning are the electric wide receivers Senior Chase Claypool and fifth year Chris Finke. Both guys made huge contributions to last years undefeated run, and they are expected to do the same this year. On the offensive line, they lost both Center Sam Mustipher and Guard Alex Bars to graduation and the NFL. However, they return the right side of the line which provides great experience for Junior Running Back Jafar Armstrong to run behind as he comes into his second season as the starting back. Last year, Armstrong lost some of his workload upon the return of Dexter Williams, but Williams has graduated, and Armstrong is ready to take a heavy workload in the backfield for the Fighting Irish this season. The new guys in the offense should mesh well, especially with the leadership that Book brings to the offense. Notre Dame finished last season 35th in total offense, and you can expect them to break the top 25 this season.
Now for the defense, Notre Dame finished last season 19th in total defense. Notre Dame returns six of their starters on the defensive side. That may seem like a good amount, but when the five exits include Jerry Tillery, Tevon Coney, Drue Tranquill and Julian Love, it’s definitely a punch in the gut on the defensive side. Each of those players had a different role in the defense: Tillery leaves a spot on the defensive line open, Coney and Tranquill leave two spots open in the linebacking core, and the secondary takes a hit upon the departure of Love. However, some of the returning starters provide both leadership and spark for the defense. On the defensive line, the Fighting Irish return both ends in Julian Okwara and Khalid Kareem. They both provided big plays in big situations, such as Kareem and Okwara both joining Tillery in stripping Shea Patterson to seal the deal against Michigan last season. Plays like these are why these two are huge returns for the Notre Dame Front Seven. As for the secondary, the Fighting Irish return Troy Pride at corner. The other corner this year will be Shaun Crawford, who also saw some playing time last year. Both of the safeties will return to the team. The biggest return this season for the defense is Senior Safety Alohi Gillman, who has praise to be the best defensive player in the country this season. Last year, we saw leadership and many big plays from Gillman, and now his senior campaign is his chance to prove his worth. The Fighting Irish did lose a lot, but they still have enough talent to finish the season with one of the best defenses in the country.
As far as the strength of the schedule goes, Notre Dame comes into the season with the ninth ranked strength of schedule in the preseason rankings. Their road schedule is where it gets really tough. Along with a solid Duke team and Louisville, who are trying to turn things around, Notre Dame has #3 Georgia, #7 Michigan and #25 Stanford all on the road this season. Many believe it is almost impossible to go undefeated with this road schedule, but if Notre Dame plays every game week by week, they have enough talent to handle it. At home this season, they have two cupcake games in the form of New Mexico and Bowling Green, with the remaining home schedule being filled in with rivals such as USC, Navy and Boston College. They also play two ACC schools at home in the form of Virginia and Virginia Tech. The home schedule shouldn’t be too much for the Fighting Irish to handle this season.
Overall, with the return of 13 total starters, the Fighting Irish have just as much talent, if not more, this season than they did last year when they finished 12-0. Looking at the Fighting Irish schedule, it is definitely a tougher schedule than last year, which is why Notre Dame could see a finish anywhere between 10-2 and 12-0. If Notre Dame is able to finish the regular season at 12-0, it will be nearly impossible to keep them out of the playoffs due to the tough strength of schedule. Notre Dame comes into this campaign with high expectations for themselves. Can they meet their goal and return to the CFP?