All-America junior running back Travis Etienne’s surprising announcement Friday that there will be a senior season for him at Clemson pretty much assures that the Tigers’ status as the consensus No. 1 team in the plethora of way-too-early top 25s for 2020 will also be the pick in the only-mildly-absurdly-early top 25s.
If the 2019 national runners-up can make it all the way to Nov. 7 still wearing that No. 1 tag — and there’s a good chance they will have played all unranked teams to that point — the Tigers will arrive at Notre Dame Stadium that day as just the second top 10 team and first top-ranked squad to face the Irish at home in the Brian Kelly Era (2010-present).
In fact, it’ll be the first time an Irish team played the top team in the polls at Notre Dame Stadium since coach Charlie Weis’ No. 9 Irish team in 2005 succumbed in the final seconds to USC, 34-31, in the “Bush Push” Game, and the ninth time at home overall since the inception of the AP poll in 1936.
In the meantime, here are some numbers and some context — the latter courtesy of our recent Pod of Gold podcast guest, FOX college football analyst Brady Quinn — that may shine the light on the viability — or not — of an Irish uprising that day:
Are the Irish improving under Kelly?
In tracking 24 key statistical categories — nine on offense, nine on defense, five on special teams and the all-encompassing turnover margin — Notre Dame in 2019 posted Kelly Era highs in the national rankings in 10 of them, and the second-best in five others.
The 10 bests came in scoring offense (13th), red-zone offense (10th), team pass efficiency (20th), turnovers lost (4th), pass-efficiency defense (5th), tackles for loss (23rd), third-down defense (18th), turnovers gained (4th), punt coverage (15th) and turnover margin (4th).
The runner-up categories (with the Kelly Era highs listed, too) were sacks allowed (12th; 2nd in 2013), total defense (18th; 7th in 2012), scoring defense (12th; 2nd in 2012), sacks by (32nd; 22nd in 2012) and kickoff coverage (18th; 17th in 2010).
Using the same 24 statistical categories, the 2012 Alabama team that waxed the Irish in the BCS National Championship Game finished with a higher ranking for that season than ND in 20 of the 24 categories, with the 2012 Irish winning three and there being a dead heat in one. Pitting the 2019 Irish against national champion LSU in the same comparison, the teams split the categories with 12 advantages each.
The stat that looks like a typo and was the area in which Notre Dame performed the worst in 2019? Red-zone defense. The Irish were 129th out of 130 last season. The area of most urgent improvement, though, is third-down efficiency on offense.
The Irish were 65th nationally, tied for the second-worst ranking of the Kelly Era, only to 2010’s No. 73 ranking. By comparison, three of the four playoff teams in 2019 finished in the top five in that category. The exception, Clemson, plummeted to 27th with a 1-for-11 performance against LSU in the CFP National Championship Game.
How might the offense be different/better under Tommy Rees in 2020 and beyond?
Rees, Notre Dame’s intermittent starting quarterback from 2010-13 and its quarterbacks coach from 2017-19, added the title of offensive coordinator on Tuesday to his QB coaching duties.
Quinn, ND’s starting QB from 2003-06 and who spent a couple of days on campus last preseason observing Rees in a coaching capacity, is a big fan of the 27-year-old becoming deposed coordinator Chip Long’s replacement.
“I really do believe this has always been his path and his journey once his playing days were done,” Quinn said of Rees. “He was going to get into coaching and he was eventually going to rise in the ranks. I personally don’t think it’s going to stop here. I think he’s eventually going to be a head coach as well.
“You got a really good sense that he’s a teacher, and that not all of the players and quarterbacks are going to learn the same. And so he had a different approach to each one of them.
“Sometimes you miss out on something that’s right in front of you that might be the best thing for you, instead thinking the grass is going to be greener on the outside, looking at a guy like Todd Monken or a guy like Joe Moorhead.”
Monken was named this past week to be Georgia’s offensive coordinator, while Moorhead is headed to Oregon in the same capacity. Both were connected to Kelly’s coordinator search that ultimately led him to staying in house with Rees.
Long, fired in early December after three seasons at ND, is still looking for his next coaching stop. And Quinn believes the change will lead to a better Irish offense moving forward, despite Rees’ lack of play-calling experience beyond the Dec. 28 Camping World Bowl romp over Iowa State.
“I get the sense from talking to Tommy and watching the games that maybe Chip tried to highlight certain people within his offense,” Quinn said. “And it just felt like they were trying to stick players they recruited into different spots within the system instead of, ‘Hey let’s create this offense around what we do really, really well and be flexible in what we’re doing offensively.’
“I think Tommy understands that and has more of an ability to do that instead of putting guys in positions where, ‘Well this is what this position does and this is what this position does within this offense.’
“And so maybe you can say, ‘We’re going to move Chase Claypool around a little more. Maybe we can do more things instead of just isolating him and catching balls down the field and running certain routes. Maybe we can do more with him.’ So I can see more of a variety with (Rees).’”
The 35-year-old Quinn, incidentally, gave a lot of thought about getting into coaching himself once his playing days were over. What steered him away from that and toward a media career was the notion of spending too much time away from his family — wife Alicia, a former Olympic gymnast, and daughters Sloan (3) and Teagan (1½).
“And child No. 3 is on the way,” Quinn said.
Will Ian Book evolve as a third-year starter?
Book heading into his fifth year becomes the ninth third-year starter at quarterback at Notre Dame in the past 50 years, and first of the Kelly Era. Jimmy Clausen, who declared for the NFL Draft in December of 2009 — in the same month Kelly was hired at ND, was the most recent third-year starter.
He and Quinn are the two most successful of the nine statistically. And as passers, there’s no one close to them. Each of them made significant leaps in growth from year 2 to year 3, with each of them finishing their third season among the top 10 nationally in passing efficiency.
Quinn says Rees’ vantage point as a former QB — and a former ND QB, at that — as well as his tweaks to the scheme will significantly enhance Book’s chances to improve in 2020. But much of that task is still on Book.
“The thing I would want to see from Ian moving into next year is just how he manages from within the pocket,” Quinn said. “Talking to the coaching staff before the year, and then watching this year go by, one of the things they talked about to him was letting it loose, taking more shots down the field. And I think you saw that against certain opponents — Bowling Green State for example.
“But there were some other times, against more difficult opponents, where you kind of hope he was going to pull the trigger, and he didn’t. And that’s going to be the next step — in those big games, in big moments, like on the road against Michigan. Pulling the trigger, taking those shots, taking chances.
“And another thing would just be the pocket presence. He’s got a really good ability to create when he scrambles and runs, but there are also times when he actually has a clean pocket and he’s leaving a clean pocket, leaving a good pocket. He just needs to step up into the pocket, and he’d be just fine. And there still are going to be some open receivers there.
“There are times when he would use that ability to be mobile and create, and actually bring more pressure and hits on himself. It’s not a statistical thing. But I think it’ll show up when you’re watching their offense and they’re still going to be able to move the ball more consistently and it’s not going to feel as if things are breaking down and he’s got to scramble to make a play.”