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Our 11th annual Top 25 countdown: No. 7 Notre Dame’s schedule has CFP flavor

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.

Notre Dame Fighting Irish quarterback Ian Book (12) is lifted by offensive lineman Aaron Banks (69) after his touchdown against the Northwestern Wildcats during the second half of their game at Ryan Field in Evanston, Ill., on Saturday Nov. 31, 2018. Notre Dame won, 31-21. (Nuccio DiNuzzo/Chicago Tribune)

Returning leaders

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

The schedule

Sept. 2 at Louisville
Sept. 14 New Mexico
Sept. 21 at Georgia
Sept. 28 Virginia
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

Year W-L/Conf. Rank Bowl
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. 25: Stanford will need its experienced defense to lead the way early

No. 24: Can Nebraska carry its end-of-2018 momentum into 2019?

No. 23: Was 2018 a one-time thing, or is Syracuse back as a program?

No. 22: A run to last year’s Big Ten title game has Northwestern wanting more

No. 21: Mike Leach hopes Clemson’s quarterback loss is Washington State’s gain

No. 20: With no proven quarterback, Wisconsin will ride the legs of Jonathan Taylor

No. 19: With Jarret Stidham in the NFL, Auburn must choose a freshman quarterback

No. 18: Army might end up throwing a real wrench into the CFP’s plans this year

No. 17: Iowa State hopes to keep its recent rise moving full steam ahead

No. 16: Central Florida is trying to overcome a pair of serious quarterback injuries

No. 15: Utah casts its eyes on winning the Pac-12 title this year

No. 14: Penn State’s baromoter? Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State (again)

No. 13: Defense may determine Washington’s chances at another Pac-12 title

No. 12: Texas A&M must navigate a scheduled peppered with heavyweights

No. 11: Is Jim Harbaugh’s coaching seat at Michigan getting hotter?

No. 10: If Feleipe Franks continues his rise, Florida can make some noise in the SEC

No. 9: Texas is counting on Ehlinger — Sugar Bowl MVP, coverboy, potential Heisman candidate

No. 8: Oregon’s Justin Herbert may end up as the Ducks’ career passing leader

No. 7: Notre Dame

Our Top 25, by conferences

5 schools:

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

3 schools:

SEC — No. 10 Florida, No. 12 Texas A&M, No. 19 Auburn

2 schools:

Independents — No. 7 Notre Dame, No. 18 Army

Big 12 — No. 9 Texas, No. 17 Iowa State

1 school:

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.

Source: HookemPlus.com