I hope everyone enjoyed their bye week. Did you get that lawn work done? How about spend some quality time with the family? Perhaps you just enjoyed the non-stressful results of Notre Dame being idle while 4 Top 10 teams suffered defeat. Whatever you did, it’s time to put that away because the second half of the season is ahead of us.
Welcome to USC week! Oh yes, there’ll be time to hate on the condom school out west, but this preview looks to set the stage for what should be an interesting…exciting…compelling…jubilant(?)…miserable(?) next couple of months.
Notre Dame’s 5-1 start to the season, accompanied by UGA’s continued success and the general “meh”-ness of most of the top teams not named Alabama has raised the generalized expectations of what this season could be. The schedule is also set to get noticeably tougher. There is, as people in the biz will tell you, plenty of meat left on the bone. While some are already channeling their anger for how an 11-1 Notre Dame gets left out of the playoff picture, let’s take a looksy shall we at the opponents ND will need to beat to get to that level.
I present to you a Countdown List (blogs/websites freakin’ love lists AND countdowns…so I’m pretty sure I’m onto something great here) of Notre Dame’s remaining games in reverse-order of difficulty. I’m considering ND and their future opponents as they exist on October 16, 2107. Some of the things I looked at:
- Each team’s immediately preceding 3 game stretch before the match-up. I’m generally looking at quality of opponent, home/away splits, etc. rather than actual result. This is for good reason: I have no clue the results of future match-ups.
- What I’m calling mismatch opportunities. I looked at things like scoring offense, scoring defense, rushing offense, rushing defense, passing offense, passing defense, and turnover stats to consider particular areas for exploitation. I wasn’t so much interested in the close calls as I was with clear advantages one way or another.
- Quality of competition. What would I consider each team’s profile to date on what they’ve already accomplished? I reviewed things like the number of games played to date versus Power 5 conference opponents, each team’s best win as well as their worst loss.
- A few advanced metrics: Once I had some preliminary thoughts, I pulled in the work of folks like Jeff Sagarin and Bill Connelly to see if there was anything obvious that maybe I was overlooking. I’m not going to reference them much because I’m told stats are for losers or something. Rest assured though, I certainly reviewed some #sportsmath.
- The Moons anxiety factor. This is just what my gut tells me about each match-up. I could be wrong about applying #’s 1-4, but I feel reasonably confident in my application of the Moons anxiety factor.
- Finally, Sunday night, via Twitter, I crowd sourced other folks’ countdown just to see what the masses are thinking. There’s some selection bias as if you follow me on Twitter, you probably have questionable judgment. I can’t say I necessarily considered these rankings, but I’ll include them below for reference.
So people can know what I was considering, here are my generalized observations about the Irish.
Quality of Competition: 4/6 games to date have been versus Power 5 competition. In a bit of an anomaly, the Irish are 3-0 on the road in such games and 0-1 at home. Notre Dame’s first 3 games of the second half will all be at home versus P5 teams, so the chance to correct that weirdness starts this weekend.
To date, Notre Dame’s road win versus Michigan State I have ranked as the second best “Best Win” among remaining competitors. I give USC a slight edge to date for their 42-24 dismantling of Stanford in Week 2. Defeating Sparty 38-18 on the road was certainly impressive, and given that that’s their only loss, I certainly get those that might want to elevate the result even higher. I just think that Stanford is a superior opponent to Sparty. I could be wrong.
Notre Dame’s 1 point loss to UGA also ranks as the seoncd “best” “Worst Loss” among the remaining competitors. Miami’s “yet to lose” edges out the Irish. You don’t think they’ve played anybody? Fine. But let me assure you, even if ND and Miami didn’t play one another, an undefeated Miami would be ranked higher than a 1-loss ND. If you don’t like that, please take that up with history and the people who actually have votes.
USC, NC State, and Stanford have all had a greater percentage to date include Power 5 competition. Stanford has by almost any measure played a more difficult schedule than the Irish. Miami and Navy trail by a wide margin in schedule strength played.
Notre Dame’s Profile for the statistical categories I considered are as follows [Rank provided first with (value in parentheses)]:
Scoring Offense: 14 (40 PPG)
Scoring Defense: 14 (16.8 PPGA)
Rush Yards per Attempt: 3 (7.74 rpa)
Rush Yards Allowed per Attempt: 44 (3.72 rpa)
Pass Yards per Game: 116 (163.2 ypg)
Pass Yards per Game Allowed: 78 (231.2 ypg)
Turnovers Forced: 17 (14 created)
Turnovers Allowed: 31 (7 surrendered)
For today, let’s unveil numbers 6 and 5 on the Countdown:
#6: Navy – November 18, 2017 – Home: (Crowd Source Rank: #5)
There was clear consensus among the match-up profiles, advanced stats, crowd sourced results, and Moons anxiety factor about which two games were numbers five and six. Most of the crowd sourced results had Wake Forest as number 6 and Navy as number 5. Look, I get it. Navy in recent years has generally finished with a better record than Wake Forest. They’ve also given appeared to be a bit of an Irish tormenter, but the truth is, Brian Kelly has typically had Navy’s number and this year feels particularly ripe for some domination. Here were my big reasons for putting Navy at #6:
Quality of Competition: Don’t be fooled by Navy’s 5-1 mark. They have easily…and I mean EASILY, played the worst schedule to date. Their loss to Memphis isn’t that bad. It was only three points, and Memphis has already notched a win over UCLA this year as well. However, finding Navy’s “best” win was tough. I eventually landed on their road win over Florida Atlantic as their best result to date. They have yet to play a Power 5 team, and they’re probably set up to suffer another defeat this coming weekend versus Central Florida. They’ve yet to record a win versus a team over .500. Eeking out 3 point wins versus 2-5 Air Force and a 2 point win versus Tulane doesn’t much move the needle.
Notre Dame’s Scoring Offense versus Navy’s Scoring Defense: Despite playing the worst schedule and no Power 5 teams, Navy also has the worst Scoring Defense by nearly 5 points a game. There is not an opponent in the second half Notre Dame will leverage a greater scoring offense versus scoring defense advantage against than the match-up with the Midshipmen. Given Navy’s scheme, they are also least likely to take advantage of Notre Dame’s unknowns in the secondary. If you believe in the Elko “fundamentals” progression, this is a match-up that Notre Dame should dominate. A disciplined Notre Team should be able to stop Navy dead in their tracks.
Brian Kelly’s History versus Navy: There’s an assumption I’m going to make here that I must open up to everyone: This year’s Irish offense is run dependent. While there may be other match-ups that make that more problematic, it plays into an advantage for Brian Kelly’s squad in this particular context. First of all, Navy’s allowing 4.5 yards per carry this year to opponents which ranks just 83rd nationally. Only the Stanford game presently provides indicators of a greater natural opportunity to leverage Notre Dame’s run prowess. Last year marked multiple firsts for the Irish versus Navy in the Kelly era: First loss. First time the team failed to score 38 points. First time rushing plays accounted for less than 55% of the offensive play selection.
Historically and consistently until last year, Kelly has seemed to understand the latent talent disparity this game poses, and has usually been content to grind it out and wear down Navy on the ground. The past 2 seasons showed a slight uptick in the number of passing plays called, but I have a strong hunch that Notre Dame will return to the ground in this one. The MO for the 2017 squad has already been to leverage the rushing game, and a similar strategy versus Navy should be enough to make this an easy win. Brian Kelly’s averaged 43.5 points per game in his last 6 meetings* with Navy with less prolific offenses. In the Kelly era, if ND rushes the ball at least 60% of the time (for the season they sit at 59.82%) versus Navy, they’ve scored 50, 38, and 49 points. That’ll do to make this a comfortable win.
*This was updated. I did not include the 2010 season because good lord was the team in rough shape from the Weis years. However, my statement was misleading. Apologies!!
#5: Wake Forest – November 4, 2017 – Home: (Crowd Source Rank: #6)
It didn’t take long to find a place to disagree with the crowd, and I get it. Navy’s track record both overall and versus Notre Dame in the recent past provides reason for pause. However, this Wake Forest team is a little more tested than Navy, and by a narrow margin, they find their way to the #5 slot.
The Devil’s in the Details: Wake Forest’s schedule to date is an interesting one. They played at Clemson pretty tough, but what do we make of that with Clemson’s upset loss to Syracuse over the weekend? They also played Florida State tough in an eventual 7 point loss. There’s no question that FSU is not at the same level it normally is. This year’s Clemson team also lacks some guy named Watson. So, maybe you discount those games somewhat. However, from a pure talent perspective, those should both be blowouts. FSU and Clemson possess some of the highest aggregate recruiting rankings over the past 4 seasons. Wake Forest is one of the worst among Power 5 teams in that same department. Basically, I think you have to give Wake Forest credit for playing some name brand schools extremely tough, but need to temper those evaluations to a degree. And, if I don’t give ND credit for losses, there’s only so much credit I’m going to give Wake Forest. The Demon Deacons 4-2 mark is impressive for a school that has so routinely found itself scrounging for wins. However, their “best” win to date would have to be their only Power 5 win: At Boston College 34-10. BC is not good. I’m just not sure even squinting you could find any better win on Navy’s schedule.
The Elko Carryover: Let’s leave aside the strength of schedule argument for a moment (After all: I could point out that Notre Dame has only played 1 team who ranks above 98th in scoring offense to date…and they lost to that team). Wake Forest is the only team that currently ranks ahead of ND in scoring defense. They are the one match-up of the second half where, at present, the defense is ranked higher than ND’s offense. I’m all for qualifiers, and putting Wake fifth out of sixth, I’m obviously discounting that performance a good amount, but, if you’re in love with Mike Elko’s “fundamentals,” then just remember where he came from. I doubt all of Elko’s magic left Winston Salem in an offseason, and the early returns suggest this team still outplays its natural talent level.
Schedule Concern?: At first blush, I was concerned about Wake’s place in the order. Coming off of back to back weeks versus ranked teams (USC and NC State), I thought, is there room for a let down? But, given the difficulty of ND’s back end generally, I actually landed on this being the second best situation for Notre Dame. Not only will the Irish basically have been home for a month by the time this game is played, but Wake will have played Georgia Tech and then Louisville leading up to having to play Notre Dame on the road. Irish fans are all too familiar with the “option” hangover that playing Navy can cause. What about playing the Paul Johnson version and then getting the presiding Heisman Trophy winner?
Don’t Bank on Turnovers: The Irish did a great job of exploiting turnovers in the first half. Their 14 forced turnovers is presently tied for 17th in the nation. What it appears Notre Dame has not been advised of as a partial ACC member is that turnovers are kinda taboo. North Carolina State, Wake Forest, and Miami are all tied with Alabama for the fewest turnovers surrendered in the country to date. While I don’t think this matters all that much in the match-up with Wake as they’ve also not been particularly great at forcing turnovers, the other 2 match-ups may warrant greater attention.