We’re 39 days away from the 2019 season opener, but it’s never too early to talk college football. We continue with our 11th annual countdown series of our preseason Top 25 as selected by the American-Statesman sports staff. Last year’s eventual CFP semifinalists ranked first, second, eighth and 13th in our 2018 poll.
Our No. 7 team: Notre Dame
The Fighting Irish’s best-case scenario: For the Fighting Irish to reach double-digit victories for the fourth time in five years, they’ll have to fight through a suffocating schedule. With QB Ian Book in the fold — combined with one of the country’s best offensive lines — this group could contend for another run through the college football playoffs and a national championship.
And their worst-case scenario: Worst case? With the loss of kicker Justin Yoon and six players who were taken in the NFL draft, this season could be a disappointment if their backups don’t live up to expectations. Nevertheless, Notre Dame should do no worse than 9-3 with a bid to a high-level bowl game such as the Outback, Gator or Citrus.
Last year, Notre Dame was 13th on our preseason poll.
Inside the Fighting Irish
Coach: Brian Kelly (10th year, 60-34; 231-91-2 overall, 29 years at Grand Valley State, Central Michigan, Cincinnati and Notre Dame)
2018: 12-1 (lost to Clemson in the CFP semifinals). Kelly is the fifth coach to last 10 years or more at Notre Dame. The other four (Knute Rockne, Frank Leahy, Ara Parseghian and Lou Holtz) won national championships.
Returning starters: 8 offense, 6 defense
Shoes to fill: RB Dexter Williams (leading rusher); WR Miles Boykin (leading receiver); LB Te’Veon Coney (leading tackler); DL Jerry Tillery (8 sacks); K Justin Yoon; P Tyler Newsome (43.8 average)
Spring cleaning: Highly touted QB Brandon Wimbush transferred to Central Florida, where he’s now in line to be the Knights’ opening-game starter. … Notre Dame will rely on two players who are in their fifth year with the team, including Asmar Bilal, who moves from outside to inside linebacker. They are also counting on nickel back Shaun Crawford, who returned to spring camp after suffering his third season-ending injury last year. … Lance Taylor, previously a running backs coach at Stanford who mentored Heisman Trophy runner-up Christian McCaffrey and recruited another in Bryce Love, has been hired as the team’s RBs coach.
PASSING: Ian Book (led team), 214-314-2,628 yards, 19 TDs, 7 INTs
RUSHING: Tony Jones Jr. (2nd), 83-392-3; QB Ian Book (4th), 95-280-4
RECEIVING: Chase Claypool (2nd), 50-639-4; Chris Finke (3rd), 49-571-2
TACKLES: S Alohi Gilman (2nd), 95; S Jalen Elliott (4th), 67
SACKS: DL Julian Okwara (T-1st), 8.0; DL Khalid Kareem (3rd), 4.5
INTERCEPTIONS: S Jalen Elliott (1st), 4
Book is back: If Notre Dame has a Heisman candidate, it’s Book, who became the starter during the fourth game last year. His numbers tell an impressive story — 19 TD passes, a 70.4 completion percentage and an average of 219 yards passing a game. He looked in midseason form when he went 16-for-21 for 220 yards and a pair of touchdowns in the spring game.
Strength in numbers: The strength of the defense is its stock of pass-rushing defensive ends, led by seniors Daelin Hayes (42 tackles, 4.5 sacks), Julian Okwara (38 tackles, 8 sacks, 21 QB hurries) and Khalid Kareem (31 tackles, 2 sacks). Two others could start for most Power 5 conference teams.
Hello, ACC: For the record, Notre Dame is not in the Atlantic Coast Conference, but one might not be able to tell by looking at the schedule. The season opens with Louisville. The Irish can look forward to Virginia in September and Virginia Tech and Boston College in November. Last year they played five games against ACC teams, then played a sixth when the faced Clemson in the CFP semifinals.
2018 national stat rankings
Scoring: 41st (31.4 ppg)
Total offense: 32nd (440.1 ypg)
Passing: T-36th (257.5 ypg)
Rushing: 51st (182.6 ypg)
Red zone offense: T-44th
Time of possession: T-86th (29:03)
Scoring defense: 13th (18.2 ppg)
Total defense: 30th (347.4 ypg)
Pass defense: 44th (207.9 ypg)
Rush defense: 36th (139.5 ypg)
Red zone defense: T-11th
Turnover margin: 41st
|DATE||OPPONENT||LAST YR’S RESULT (IF PLAYED)|
|Sept. 2||at Louisville|
|Sept. 14||New Mexico|
|Sept. 21||at Georgia|
|Oct. 5||Bowling Green|
|Oct. 12||USC||W, 24-17|
|Oct. 26||at Michigan||W, 24-17|
|Nov. 2||Virginia Tech||W, 45-23|
|Nov. 9||at Duke|
|Nov. 16||Navy||W, 44-22|
|Nov. 23||Boston College|
|Nov. 30||Stanford||W, 38-17|
The key game? Sept. 12, at Georgia. Both teams have CFP aspirations this season. With a win here early in the season, Notre Dame’s chances improve exponentially with a road game at Michigan in late October being the other big challenge on the schedule.
The last 5 years
|2014||8-5||17th / —||Music City Bowl, W|
|2015||10-3||11th / 11th||Fiesta Bowl, L|
|2016||4-8||10th / —||No bowl|
|2017||10-3||— / —||Citrus Bowl, W|
|2018||12-1||12th / 5th||CFP semifinals, L|
|Total||44-20||4 bowl games (2-2)|
Note: Ranks are that year’s preseason/final ranking.
Our Top 25 — so far
No. 7: Notre Dame
Our Top 25, by conferences
Pac-12 — No. 8 Oregon, No. 13 Washington, No. 15 Utah, No. 21 Washington State, No. 25 Stanford
Big Ten — No. 11 Michigan, No. 14 Penn State, No. 20 Wisconsin, No. 22 Northwestern, No. 24 Nebraska
SEC — No. 10 Florida, No. 12 Texas A&M, No. 19 Auburn
Independents — No. 7 Notre Dame, No. 18 Army
Big 12 — No. 9 Texas, No. 17 Iowa State
AAC — No. 16 Central Florida
ACC — No. 23 Syracuse
Coming tomorrow: Our No. 6 team
Want a hint?
This school is (a) on Texas’ schedule, (b) produced seven 2019 NFL draft picks and (c) is coached by a former player from the same school.