Notre Dame Fighting Irish head coach Brian Kelly runs onto the field with his players before last year's game against Virginia Tech. The Irish are 33-6 over the past three years. (Matt Cashore/USA Today)

Football

Our 12th annual preseason Top 25: No. 9 Notre Dame’s CFP route gets murkier with canceled games

Cross your fingers, Irish fans. The Nov. 7 showdown with Clemson is still on, and Notre Dame really needs it.

Posted July 17th, 2020

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The college football season is two months away. Right? As it approaches with question marks, our 12th annual countdown series of our preseason Top 25, as selected by the American-Statesman sports staff, breaks down who we think are the top teams in the country.

Last year’s eventual College Football Playoff semifinalists ranked first, fourth, fifth and sixth in our 2019 poll.

No. 9 Notre Dame

The Fighting Irish face unique challenges because of the pandemic. Several conferences are moving to conference-only schedules, which leaves Notre Dame — an independent — without many options for potential opponents. Already, the scheduled matchups with Stanford, Wisconsin and USC have been scuttled. The ACC, however, has not yet called off non-conference games so the Nov. 7 showdown with Clemson remains the biggest game on the schedule; a shortened season with fewer out-of-conference games could mean that game’s winner will hold an advantage over schools without that signature non-conference win. Notre Dame has won 10 or more games in four of the last five years and should again be among the national title contenders with a senior quarterback and one of the country’s top offensive lines. Notre Dame’s title title chances will come down to its defense and scheduling conflicts.

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Notre Dame was ranked No. 7 in our preseason poll last year.

 

About the Fighting Irish

2019: 11-2; beat Iowa State 33-9 in the Camping World Bowl

Coach: Brian Kelly (242-92-3 overall, including 124-68 with FBS schools and 71-36 in 10 years at Notre Dame)

Returning starters: 6 offense, 4 defense

Shoes to fill: TE Cole Kmet (2nd round, Bears); WR Chase Claypool (2nd, Steelers); OLB Julian Okwara (3rd, Lions); RB Tony Jones Jr. (last year’s leading rusher); CB Troy Pride (4th, Panthers); DE Khalid Kareem (5th, Bengals); S Alohi Gilman (6th, Chargers)

 

Catching up

In all, six players were taken in the NFL draft; the Irish must replace two stars on each side of the ball — the passing game could be impacted without Claypool and Kmet, who were top targets last year, and the defense lost players who accounted for 14 sacks and 22.5 tackles for loss. But getting Ian Book, a two-year starter, back for this season was a pleasant surprise. He led Notre Dame to six straight wins to end last season and took the Irish to the College Football Playoff as a sophomore in 2018.

Notre Dame quarterback Ian Book threw for more than 3,000 yards and 34 touchdowns last year, and he’s also the team’s leading returning rusher. (Darren Yamashita/USA Today)

Returning leaders

Passing: Ian Book (led team), 240-399-3,034 yards, 34 TDs, 6 INTs

Rushing: QB Ian Book (2nd), 112-546-4; RB Braden Lenzy (3rd), 13-200-2

Receiving: TE Tommy Tremble (4th), 16-183-4

Tackles: LBs Drew White and Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah (tied for team lead), 80

Sacks: LB Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah (tied for team lead), 5.5; DL Adetokunbo Ogundeji (T-3rd), 4.5

Interceptions: None

 

FYI

Calling the shots: Notre Dame parted ways with offensive coordinator Chip Long (now an offensive analyst for Tennessee) in favor of Tommy Rees, the team’s quarterbacks coach and himself a former starting quarterback for Kelly at Notre Dame from 2010-13. His first game calling plays was Notre Dame’s bowl win over Iowa State. The Irish scored 33 points. Rees gets to call plays as a rookie coordinator with the luxury of a senior quarterback and five returning offensive line starters.

A three-year run: The Fighting Irish are 33-6 over the past three years as Kelly has hit his stride and put Notre Dame back in the national conversation. It’s the best three-year run since Lou Holtz guided the Irish to a 31-5-1 span from 1991-93. But Kelly’s program won’t be considered a true championship contender until it starts winning big games. Last year there were losses to Georgia and Michigan, two years ago the perfect season was ruined by a CFP blowout loss to Clemson, and in 2017 there was a loss to Georgia in the second game.

Altered schedule: The three leading receivers from 2019 are gone, but maybe there will be some relief from the 2020 recruiting class. The program’s three highest-rated signees all could provide offensive firepower in their first years. Michael Mayer was the country’s No. 2 tight end prospect and Notre Dame’s lone five-star signee. And wide receiver Jordan Johnson and all-purpose back Chris Tyree were four-star signees.

 

2019 national stat rankings

Where Notre Dame ranked nationally in various statistical categories last season — and how the Irish ranked in 2018.

Scoring: 13th (2018 — 41st)

Scoring defense: 12th (13th)

Total offense: 43rd (32nd)

Total defense: T-18th (30th)

Passing: 49th (T-36th)

Pass defense: 3rd (44th)

Rushing: 45th (51st)

Rush defense: 60th (36th)

Red zone offense: 10th (T-44th)

Red zone defense: 129th (T-11th)

Turnover margin: 4th (41st)

Time of possession: 96th (T-86th)

 

Our Top 25 — so far

No. 25: Boise State figures to keep its perch atop the Mountain West

No. 24: Might this pandemic lead to not one, but two Iowa State-Iowa games?Inside the Cyclones

No. 23: Will Kirk Ferentz emerge from Iowa’s summer of discontent unscathed? / Inside the Hawkeyes

No. 22: Cincinnati’s picking up recruiting in 2020 where it left off in 2019 / Inside the Bearcats

No. 21: Former Gamecocks quarterback hopes to take over at Utah / Inside the Utes

No. 20: Central Florida, Darrell Wyatt are reloading with receivers / Inside the Knights

No. 19: Recruits are raving about Minnesota coach P.J. Fleck / Inside the Gophers

No. 18: A Q&A with North Carolina coach Mack Brown / Inside the Tar Heels

No. 17: Jim Harbaugh is fighting for Michigan, college football / Inside the Wolverines

No. 16: Oklahoma State’s Hubbard finds his voice / Inside the Cowboys

No. 15: USC is Zooming up the recruiting rankings / Inside the Trojans

No. 14: Is Jimbo Fisher taking Texas A&M back to the good ol’ SWC days? / Inside the Aggies

No. 13: Wisconsin’s Paul Chryst stands with his players’ new-found voices / Inside the Badgers

No. 12: Assistant coach will Auburn’s recruiting in Alabama / Inside the Tigers

No. 11: For Texas and Sam Ehlinger, it’s now or never / Inside the Longhorns

No. 10: Oregon’s Penei Sewell eyes a second straight Outland Trophy / Inside the Ducks

No. 9: Notre Dame Fighting Irish

 

Coming tomorrow

Our No. 8 team. Want a hint?

This school has four national championships and two Heisman Trophy winners, but doesn’t even rank among the top 15 of college football’s all-time victories list.

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