When Notre Dame and Michigan face off in the Big House on October 26, it will have been 2,240 days since the Wolverines beat the Irish. That’s six years, one month, and change. Sip on that for a while — really let it linger on your tongue (I’m getting notes of, what’s this, a nervous bird?). Tastes good.
In a savvy (heh) scheduling move, Jack Swarbrick somehow finagled the back end of this home-and-home between non-conference
rivals enemies to fall smack dab in the middle of conference play. Not that Wisconsin-Rutgers-Iowa-Illinois is a gauntlet, but the Wolverines do have to travel to Happy Valley the week prior to take on Penn State. This out of conference interruption disrupts the Skunkbears’ Sisyphean mission to win the Big Ten, err, win their division, err, beat up on Rutgers and Maryland. Meanwhile, the Irish will be fresh off a bye, sure to be well-deserved after hosting the Trojans at home.
What I think this all adds up to is a surprisingly straightforward win in Ann Arbor for the Irish. Shea Patterson will be who he is, which is fine, while the departures of Rashan Gary and Chase Winovich will give Ian Book a relatively clean pocket to work with. I fully expect UM to be undefeated at this point, while the betting odds suggest the Irish will have picked up a loss on the way, so a convincing underdog road win against a top 10 team will be a nice inflection point for the season.
This has to be the year Notre Dame’s most talented tight end takes the leap as a receiver. It’s a high standard to live up to, but look for an improvement along the lines of what John Carlson managed in 2006. Carlson’s first two seasons were unremarkable, totaling 13 catches and a single score. He then exploded for 47 receptions and four touchdowns, all at a clip of over 13 yards per. In two years to date, Kmet has grabbed 17 passes, albeit at a higher YPC than what Carlson initially managed.
The opportunity is as ripe as it will ever be — Alize Mack and Nic Weishar are gone, along with leading receiver Miles Boykin. Brock Wright has yet to establish himself as an offensive weapon, other than as an H-back. Kmet should be fully recovered from the high ankle sprain that nagged him throughout 2018. The guy that coaches and beat reporters alike have hailed as the heir apparent to Tight End U has his chance, and this is the year he grabs it.
Old friend Brian VanGorder was recently, somehow, the Defensive Coordinator at our first 2019 opponent, Louisville. Unfortunately and unsurprisingly, when they cleaned house BVG was taken out with the trash, because he sucks and was obviously part of the problem. Then, somehow, he got hired by Bowling Green to coach linebackers and serve as Associate Head Coach. (Update: HAHA he got promoted to Defensive Coordinator.) Seems like a lot of responsibility for a guy who’s had seven jobs in eight years, but okay.
(Sidebar: he has six kids and their names are Molloy, Morgan, Mack, Montgomery, Malone and Freddie. What the hell? I’m not sure if Freddie should be relieved or pissed off.)
Relatedly, the most points the Irish scored last year was 56, a result of Ian Book supercharging the offense in his first start vs. Wake Forest. The last time they reached the 60s was a few years ago against UMass. That should change in early October. BK, please, I beg of you, do not take your foot off the gas pedal until after the final whistle. The Irish will score 69 for the first time since 1977, aided by several Phil Jurkovec touchdown passes, and VanGorder gets shitcanned the day after. A man can dream.
Secondary To None
Perhaps the least exciting thing about the coming season is having to face it without arguably the school’s best-ever cornerback, Julian Love. We all know what the most recent defensive iteration looked like without him. But no quarterback on the schedule is anything like Trevor Lawrence (sorry, JT Daniels), and there’s plenty of remaining talent in the secondary to go around.
Surefire captain Alohi Gilman should generate All American hype in his second season in blue and gold. Jalen Elliott was maybe the team’s most improved player last year, notching four picks and seven pass breakups. Troy Pride didn’t allow a touchdown until the final offensive play he faced all regular season! A full year of Shaun Crawford isn’t something I’d bet on, but the talent is unquestionably there. Houston Griffith and TaRiq Bracy were thrown into the fire in 2018 and will be better for it. True freshman Kyle Hamilton is too talented to not see the field in some capacity.
As you can see, I’ve clearly talked myself into the secondary being stout, and you should too. There will be some positional maneuvering (keep an eye on Griffith and Hamilton), but there’s really no reason not to trust that Clark Lea, Terry Joseph, and Todd Lyght will get it figured out.
Nothing Really Changes, Eat Arby’s
This is less about the 2019 season and more about the program as a whole. During a recent scroll through Rock’s House, a semi-regular activity I have voluntarily cursed myself to, I came across a post claiming, “if every season under Kelly went similar to 2015, 2017, and 2018 there would still be optimism.” Okay! Pretty weird that you’re using the fact that three out of the four most recent seasons were good to argue that things are actually bad. But the good news is: this season’s gonna be similar to those! Optimism reigns at NDNation, I guess!
Honestly, friends, this is the good life. A little while ago I said more or less the same thing on the Rakes Report pod, but we’ve got a good coach, a good staff around him, three 10-win season in four years, consistently solid recruiting, and a playoff appearance to give the latter a nice jumpstart. We recently asked if ND would win a national title in our readers’ lifetimes, and received some surprisingly positive results (to me, at least). Full disclosure, I don’t think so! Which is a little bleak, but mostly okay. We can appreciate this good life for what it is.
The Irish certainly have a chance to change the narrative early in Athens. Wins at Michigan and Stanford would also help (the most realistic but genuinely important Next Step is a NY6 bowl win). But I’m here to tell you that we’re gonna win a bunch of games, probably lose a couple, and eventually look back fondly on this group of guys. Some people will still spend their lives calling Brian Kelly small-timey and ranting and raving about how Savvy Jack is soiling their once-pristine university. My pretty tame prediction is that this season won’t change that, and my opinion is that it doesn’t need to.