It’s with a bit of sadness and melancholy that attention must turn towards Charlottesville, Virginia for Notre Dame’s next contest. Don’t get me wrong, a Saturday with college football is always great, but I’m not quite ready to move on. The months and final weeks leading up to a new season are always exciting. Everyone walks around like a middle school boy who has just perfumed himself with the finest bottle of Axe Body Spray. He knows he’s hot sh…stuff. He smells amazing. The ladies? Yeah, they can’t resist him. That’s the pull of the new season. Unbounded confidence buoyed by an unblemished record. The season smells goooooood.
A funny scientific fact about Axe Body Spray: It combines with any and all scents around it to form a super scent that burns the nostrils and is a weapon-grade repellant. Yes, about 5 minutes into the period following the application of Axe, all afflicted middle schoolers reach this conclusion. They slink a little lower in their chair and hope that their stank just blends in with a lot of similarly situated dude bros.
That’s how many a season goes as well. After the first game or two, the new season scent’s worn off, and you’re generally left hoping that your stink is just no worse than your opponents. While Brian Kelly’s Notre Dame teams have generally faired well in openers (STOP LOOKING AT ME, 2011 DID NOT HAPPEN), few have really felt like springboards to something better. Don’t get me wrong, the 2012 50-10 drubbing of Navy in Dublin was cool…but it was still Navy. Last year’s triumphant return of Everett Golson in a 48-17 victory over Rice was pleasing…but it was still Rice. While Texas may not be at the height of its power (and every member of FSU Twitter has tried to point that out this week), it was nearly impossible for anyone to say anything negative of the 38-3 smoking. It was a week that saw #22 Arizona give up 32 points to Texas San-Antonio, Stanford lose to Northwestern, Tennessee surrender 30 to Bowling Green, and maybe most shockingly #7 Oregon give up 42 points to Eastern Washington, a program from whom Oregon stole their starting quarterback.
For the first time in quite some time, the opening game of the season seemed to enhance expectations. It’s selfish and silly, but I’m just trying to hold onto that feeling a little longer of wondering whether Malik Zaire can complete 85% of his passes for the season and never turn the ball over. Since the game’s still coming, let’s take a quick look at the match-up we have to “look forward to” on Saturday.
The When/Where/What Time/Etc. 3:30 PM ET, Charlottesville, V-A, TV – ABC, Twitter- Always.
The Opposing Coach: Mike London joins other greats Bob Toledo, Houston Nutt, and Gary Pinkel as coaches whose name contains the name of a
well known city. No, there’s no place call Pinkel (that I know of). But there is a little slice of heaven in Indiana named Gary. But I digress….
London started at Virginia the same year Kelly started at Notre Dame. Coming off a disastrous 2009 season under Al Groh that saw the Cavaliers go 3-9, London inherited as substantial a rebuild as Kelly with far fewer resources. By 2011, though, London had the Cavs above .500 as they finished 8-5 and went to the Chick-Fil-A Bowl. He was receiving accolades of being a talented up and coming head coach/program builder. The problem for London is that 2012 saw the team back slide to 4-8. 2013 got even worse at 2-10. To the surprise of some, London survived a 5-7 season in 2014, but his seat is plenty warm.
London’s a better recruiter than he’s probably given credit for. 2014 saw the defense do well in scoring average. However, Virginia has been downright terrible offensively under London. In his 5 full seasons, the best they’ve done in scoring average came in his first season when they finished 75th nationally. Since 2010, The Cavaliers have finished no better than 86th in scoring average. In 2014 they were 88th averaging just 25.8 points per game. In his career, London has won just two games when the opponent scored 30 or more points. The last time he accomplished this was 2012 versus The U. Speaking of 30+ points by an opponent…
Virginia’s Last Game: Lost at UCLA 16-34. There’s no great shame in losing to a talented UCLA team. In fact, UCLA is a team with similar talent and expectations as the 2015 Irish team. UCLA’s true freshman wonder-qb Josh Rosen torched the UVA defense to the tune of 351 yards and 3 touchdowns while completing 28/35 attempts. The Bruins added another 152 yards on the ground finishing the game with close to 10 extra minutes of possession and nearly 170 more total yards. Like I said, no great shame in this result, but nothing coming out of the game that should concern Notre Dame either.
Team Talent: I use a rough aggregate of recruiting points as assigned by 247 Sports Composite rankings to get a general idea of talent on the team. For those that shrug off recruiting services, I’d refer you to Matt Hinton’s excellent Grantland piece on reverse-engineering a national champion. He used the same rankings and same methodology of simply aggregating the points and found that the 12 highest totals from the 4 years between 2012 and 2015 represented every national title since 2002. Recruiting matters, and the wisdom of the crowd approach used by 247 Sports to award points is as good as any. With that as a lead-in, I took the 5 years between 2011 and 2015 to get a gauge on talent. I think many might be surprised that Virginia trails only USC, Texas, Clemson, and Stanford on this year’s opponent list. That said, there is a roughly 60 point per recruiting cycle gap between the Irish and Cavaliers with ND firmly ahead. 60 recruiting points last year was the difference between Alabama and Penn State. Like I said above, London’s an underrated recruiter, but that a guy who gets recruiting classes consistently ranked in the mid-30’s has just one season above .500 is a pretty big condemnation on his talent as a head coach.
Trends/Thoughts/Stats: Virginia has just 1 win since October 4 of 2014 losing 5 of 6 to close last season and starting off this season equally as rough. Virginia was 96th nationally last season in yards per play (5.0) while Notre Dame was 32nd (5.9). The Virginia defense is more talented than they showed in the season opener, but I’m not sure how much so. At the same time, their offense might actually be worse than the 16 points they scored on UCLA. They’re a pass heavy team who can’t pass. The last 3 seasons, Virginia has ranked 101, 105, and 88 in rushing play percentage. Despite throwing the ball as much of the time as just about anyone, their passing yards per game ranks in those same seasons was 45, 83, and 54. There are few teams from Power 5 conferences that I think play more into the hands of Notre Dame than UVA. While some may still have questions about the Irish defense, those questions will need to wait until September 19 in all likelihood. Any sort of defensive struggle against the Cavaliers would not be a good sign for things to come.
As my title suggests, I’m not terribly worried about this game…which of course means it’ll be a train wreck because of the rain or something else ridiculous. Might have to pull out my Axe Body Spray after all.
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