Brian Kelly has done a masterful job since joining Notre Dame in December 2010, helping the fighting Irish win at least 8 games in all those seasons, including an unbeaten regular season run in 2012. In 2014, the Fighting Irish got off their season to a blistering start by winning 7 of their first 8 games of the season, but due to injuries and the lack of depth in the squad, the team lost 5 of its last 5 games, finishing the season on an 8-5 mark.
Ahead of the 2015 college football season, Kelly has strengthened his squad, recruiting a very promising group, while the returning starters bring increased experience. With such changes, will the Fighting Irish become the legitimate National Championship contenders they’ve been tipped to be, or will the College Football betting odds prove too steep for them to handle? Find out as give a 2015 Notre Dame season preview and prediction in the analysis done below.
Let’s Breakdown the Question: Is Notre Dame for Real in the NCAA Football Odds Scene in 2015?
Notre Dame has a Foundation to Build on
Offensively, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish return 9 starters from the unit that improved from 405.8 YPG in 2013 to 444.9 YPG in 2014 in total offense and 27.2 PPG in 2013 to 32.8 PPG in 2014. Defensively, the Irish limited their first five opponents to 60 points (12.0 PPG), but crumbled down in the last eight games, surrendering 319 points (39.8 PPG). If the 10 experienced defensive starters returning in 2015 can play in the same way they did during the first half of the season, then we could be having a strong run in 2015.
In addition, the Irish claimed six straight wins at the start of their 2014 season, rising as high as No. 5 in the national polls. Such a capacity to win consistently is a key factor for any team looking to be a national contender, so the proven defeat-less run in the 6-0 start should buoy the team to go for another solid winning run in 2015.
Notre Dame’s Strong Roster in 2015
The Irish have a total of 19 starters returning in 2015 (10 on defense and 9 on offense), which is tied for the second-highest number of returning starters in the whole nation.
Notably, QB Everett Golson transferred to FSU in the offseason, meaning redshirt sophomore QB Malik Zaire will be getting last year. Golson was a serviceable performer in 2014, particularly in the first half of the season when the team went 7-1. However, in the second half, he became turnover prone, throwing interceptions or fumbling the ball away. The regular-season finale against USC was probably one Golson’s worst games, as the Irish trailed the game 35 in the first half, forcing Kelly to bench him before the end of that half. Zaire came in as Golson’s replacement, and he gave a good account of himself, throwing for 170 yards and rushing for a score. Kelly loved what he saw from Zaire and used him as the starter in the Music City Bowl, where led the Irish to a 31-28 upset over LSU.
Having Zaire as the starter in 2015 should thus bode well for the Irish, at least based on what we saw from him in those two games.
Quarterback concerns aside, the returning offense figures to be terrific, led by star offensive tackle Ronnie Stanley, top receiver William Fuller (who caught 76 passes for 1,094 yards and 15 TDs) and starting tailback Tarean Folston (who rushed for 889 yards and six scores in 2014).
The returning defensive players also make up for a talented group, with only cornerback Cody Riggs missing. In addition to the 10 returning starters, the Irish will have cornerback KeiVarae Russell back in the team after he started in 2012 and 2013 before missing the 2014 season due to suspension. Ishaq Williams, a defensive end, is also expected back in 2015 from suspension.
With such a bevy of talent, added to the team’s strong recruiting class that was ranked 11th in the nation, there is no doubt that the Irish will be having one of the most experienced and deepest of squads in 2015—a factor they could capitalize on to record a good season.
Notre Dame’s Challenges Ahead of the 2015 Season
The biggest concern for the Irish is the manner in which they lost four of their last 5 games of 2014 after an incredible start. The defense will particularly have a lot of improvement to do after losing the last four games in a row, while allowing 55 points against Arizona State, 43 points against Northwestern, 31 points against Louisville and 49 points in the 35-point loss to USC in the four-game span.
Offensively, it is too early to judge Zaire based on the 2 games he featured in 2014. Still, there is no doubt that he Kelly and his staff will have to help Zaire to better his passing game, which was evidently weak in the two games. For example, in his start against LSU, Zaire completed 12 of 15 passes for just 96 yards and a touchdown, while he led the team with 22 carries for 96 yards and another score. In that bowl game, which saw Zaire later replaced by Golson, the redshirt freshman was used mostly on rushing plays, and being the great runner that he is, he was able to give good value on such plays. In 2015, the Irish will probably use the same tactic of running the ball more, rather than passing. Even so, improving Zaire’s passing game will be vital, as there are a good number of teams in their 2015 schedule that are lethal in stopping the run.
Notre Dame’s 2015 Season in Perspective
In many ways, Notre Dame’s 2015 schedule is a fair one, which should give the team a strong chance to make a good showing. Summatively, the Irish’s toughest home games will probably come against ACC runner-up Georgia Tech (on Sept. 19) and against Southern Cal (Oct. 17). On the road, the challenging tests will be the visits to Virginia, Clemson, Temple, Pittsburgh, Boston College (Fenway Park) and Stanford. Of these challenging tests, we believe Notre Dame will win all but the three games against Clemson, Southern Cal and Stanford.
In short, a double digit season (10-3) and a major bowl could be in the offing for the Fighting Irish, but as far as their College Football Playoff ambitions and +1800 odds to win the National Title are concerned, we don’t see them making the cut.