(Previous entries in this series include Jamie’s take on Northwestern, my previous take on Wisconsin and Chris Vannini’s takes on Iowa, Purdue, and Ohio State. We’re practically midway through the conference and will hit all Big Ten teams before the season kicks off).
Since Notre Dame is really the adopted son who refuses to admit he was actually adopted into the family the Fighting Irish have been thrown into the JCB prop machine along with the other dozen Big Ten members. (Heck, with Penn State’s recent semi-banishment into oblivion for the next decade Notre Dame gives the Big Ten 12 respectable schools again).
Expectations vary greatly on what’s expected of Notre Dame this season. The schedule, which features a pair of likely Preseason Top 5 teams in USC and Oklahoma, is daunting enough to caution even the ND-flag waving Lou Holtz. Yet, the mastermind play caller and head coach Brian Kelly coupled with extremely talented skill-position players has others expecting a year mirroring Ara Parseghian’s 1966 squad. Let’s take a look at the props to stat and track.
Notre Dame wins: Over/Under 8.5
There are various projections on Notre Dame’s win total for the upcoming season, with numbers ranging from 6 to 10. Here’s a thought: If Notre Dame is going to reclaim its spot among college football’s elite it will have to do it against a schedule like the 2012 slate. Finishing 10-2 with a BCS game appearance coming from playing mediocre competition might make Notre Dame some extra cash, but it’ll do nothing to help the team’s perception, which is already at arguably an all-time low.
There’s a big reason why 8.5 is a great number for this Irish team: 8-4 won’t make anti-Golden Domers bat an eye while 9-3 will – or at least should – garner respect based on a murderer’s row of a schedule.
There are never any “gimmes” on schedule, but let’s play the game. Here’s a quick outlook on what should happen to the Irish this season.
GUARANTEED WINS (4): Purdue, BYU, Pitt, Wake Forest LIKELY WINS (3): Navy, Miami, Boston College TOSS-UPS (3): Michigan State, Michigan, Stanford LIKELY LOSSES (2): Oklahoma, USC
With that breakdown in mind, it’s “likely” Notre Dame has seven victories and would need to win two of the following three games (at Michigan State, vs. Michigan, vs. Stanford) – which are all in the first half of the schedule – to reach nine victories. As egregious as Notre Dame was at times last season with a dysfunctional quarterback fraternity that would make Frankenstein seem normal the Irish still finished the regular season 8-4. That includes giving away the first two games (vs. South Florida, at Michigan) when the team amassed more than 500 yards of offense.
It’s a fair assumption that heading into the 2011 campaign most prognosticators might have draw similar conclusions to whatshould have happened during ND’s season. There were those likely losses (USC, Stanford), toss-ups (Michigan, Michigan State, Pittsburgh), likely wins (USF, Wake Forest, Navy, Boston College) and guaranteed wins (Purdue, Air Force, Maryland). This year’s team is pretty similar to last year’s squad, especially on the defensive end. Linebacker Manti Te’o, who we’ll be talking about later, is one of those players who can change a game. He’s similar to former USC great and current Pittsburgh stud Troy Polamalu. While he might not be as explosive as Polamalu (who is?), he is always in the right place to make game-changing plays. He can single-handedly hide flaws in other parts of the Irish defense.
Offensively, Notre Dame is still loaded at the skill positions – and will be as long as Brian Kelly resides in South Bend. Yes, Michael Floyd is gone, but like most offensively-explosive programs the Irish will have the pieces to make a smooth transition. In fact, it might not be with another wideout but rather two Tight End sets a la the New England Patriots. It would probably give the already gifted Tyler Eifert more help by forcing linebackers and safeties to choose between him and another tight end. Someone will have to be open, right?
There are questions, most notably the QB controversy. That said, I expect Coach Kelly to figure out if junior Tommy Rees (despite being charged with four misdemeanors) or sophomore Andrew Hendrix will be the guy before Week 1. Year 3 is not the time for a coach to dabble with a QB carousel.
It’s worth noting that in Kelly’s first year Notre Dame finished the regular season 7-5 and went 8-4 last season – his second – so topping the 8.5 number above would be the best season yet in Kelly’s tenure. The last Notre Dame coach who failed to win at least nine games once in his first three seasons was Gerry Faust. The forgettable Faust went 5-6, 6-4-1, 7-5, 7-5 and 5-6 in his five years in South Bend from 1981-85.
Notre Dame did open at 25/1 to win the NCAA National Championship at Caesars Palace. That puts the Irish as the 11thteam in the pecking order right behind Oklahoma, Virginia Tech and Michigan (all 20/1) and right in front of Wisconsin, South Carolina and West Virginia (all 30/1). What it should tell you is that most oddsmakers believe the Irish have a shot – albeit it a murky one – to really surprise a lot of people this season.
Cierre Wood, Total Offense and Total Touchdowns: Over/Under 1,700 yards, Over/Under 12 touchdowns
Notre Dame’s running game is perhaps more important now than it has been in decades. With so much uncertainty under center the ground game needs a leader to carry the load. That man is Cierre Wood. Overshadowed for much of 2011 – would you have guessed Wood rushed for 1,102 yards and nine touchdowns (becoming the Irish’s first 1,000-yard back since 2006) and added another 189 receiving yards? – expect Wood to be a major part of Kelly’s game plan in taking Notre Dame to the next level.
Jonas Gray, a graduated four-year-starter amassed 812 yards last season at nearly seven yards per carry. His 12 touchdowns were also the most for an Irish tailback since Autry Denson in 1998. Someone is going to take those yards and Wood is the best bet. It would be crazy in today’s running-back-by-committee age to expect Wood to carry the entire load, so expect speedster Theo Riddick and George Atkinson III to share much of the burden as well. Nevertheless, with any successful run game – think Wisconsin and Michigan State in recent years – having a platoon of solid backs with different styles makes a team that much more dynamic.
If Wood & Co. flourish it will take the pressure off likely quarterback starter Andrew Hendrix. While he played sparingly in five games in 2011, his 249-yard, one-touchdown and two-interception numbers aren’t grounding expectations. He’s expected to help Notre Dame reach a BCS game regardless of the pieces around him. That’s why Wood is so important. His presence will undoubtedly become a focal point for defenses allowing Hendrix to shine. Hendrix has some surprising mobility as well, rushing for 162 yards on just 25 carries last year. The naked bootleg could become a potent weapon in the Irish offense, but naturally it all hinges on Wood’s season.
Manti Te’o, Total Tackles, Tackles for Loss: Over/Under 131.5, Over/Under 10.5
The Island Assassin – if the name hasn’t been trademarked yet I might have to file a trademark registration soon – is the key to a ho-hum defensive squad. Of Notre Dame’s top five tacklers from last season only Te’o returns. Gone is the quartet of Harrison Smith (90 tackles), Robert Blanton (70), Gary Gray (67) and Darius Fleming (55). Throw in the transferring Aaron Lynch, whose 5.5 sacks were a team high, and the defense is going to need No. 5 to find a whole new level of mean streak.
Te’o’s 128 tackles last season amount to slightly less than 10 per game. This over/under prop is set to where Te’o needs to average 11 per contest during the 12-game regular season to hit the over. It’s more than doable, especially if Notre Dame looks north to Wisconsin as a guide. While many team-leading tacklers are stuck in the 80s – Alabama’s Dont’a Hightower led the Crimson Tide with 85 during last year’s championship season – the Badgers had two of the nation’s tackling leaders in Mike Taylor (150) and Chris Borland (143). Many have speculated that despite Te’o’s impressive numbers and ankle issues that differences with Coach Kelly might have held him back. Despite being a surefire first rounder in the NFL Draft Te’o returned for his senior season which says these coach-player scuffles might have been blown out of proportion.
The defensive line, anchored by nose guard Louis Nix, is expected to be a load once again. If Nix and his flankers, Kapron Lewis-Moore and Stephon Tuitt repeat their 2011 performances it will mean many exciting days for the Irish linebacking corps, especially Te’o.
Turnover Margin: Over/Under +0.5
One team – one! – finished with a worse turnover margin than the Irish last season. That unlucky team was Southern Methodist, which, despite a -16 turnover margin, still finished the year with an 8-5 record capped with a BBVA Compass Bowl mauling of Pittsburgh. The Irish’s -15 turnover margin was historically bad and one reason the Irish’s aspirations of a dream season ended after two opening-season losses.
Turnover margin has been labeled one of the biggest factors in determining a game’s winner. Can a team win a game with a -5 turnover margin? Sure, but it’s extremely rare. Notre Dame’s 23-20 opening-game loss to South Florida is the perfect example. Notre Dame dominated the game, winning the following categories: first downs (27-20), total yards (508-254), and third-down efficiency (5-for-14 vs. 2-for-14). Nevertheless, two lost fumbles and three interceptions crippled the Irish. While Notre Dame still had a chance to win the percentage dropped with each giveaway.
Some of the best 2011 turnover margins belonged to the nation’s best teams. Oklahoma State (+21) finished 12-1; LSU (+20) finished 13-1; Wisconsin (+16) finished 11-3. Now, with those numbers I’m sure you’re asking yourself “If turnover margin is so important why is this dill weed setting Notre Dame’s over/under at a measly +0.5?” Here’s the reason the number isn’t something like 8.5: Teams don’t make the jump from being one of the best at giving away the football to one of the best at taking away the football in one season. Has it happened? Absolutely. In 2010 Cincinnati finished -15 in turnover margin and staggered to a 4-8 record; The Bearcats finished +12 in turnover margin in 2011 and, not surprisingly, ended the year 10-3. Is a turnaround like that ever expected? Not a chance. The key is for Notre Dame to not only continue to be a team that can kill you with its quick-strike scoring attack but also a team that can bleed the clock with a 15-play, 90-yard, 7-minute touchdown drive. That, of course, means holding onto the ball for 15 straight plays without having the itch to play hot potato.
If Notre Dame finishes the season with a positive turnover margin it can be exponentially better than last year’s team – which says a lot considering last year’s team could have easily been 10-2 and playing in a BCS game rather than in the “Let’s-pit-Notre-Dame-vs.-Florida-State-for-good-ol’-times” Gator Bowl. Here’s a great nugget: The 1998 Hawaii team that went 0-12 finished the season with a -10 turnover margin; The 1999 squad, which finished 9-4 to set the record for the greatest one-year turnaround, had a +1 turnover margin. That, my friends, is proof that teams don’t have to be exceptionally better than the opposition with turnovers to be elite – they just can’t be disgustingly worse. For Notre Dame, a positive turnover margin likely will mean the Irish hit the over on the wins prop bet (8.5). Hopefully your gut is salivating over what looks, smells, and tastes like a lovely parlay.