Notre Dame will toe line between good and special in 2015

Al Lesar
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND – Now that Lou Holtz has left TV, it seems that Brady Quinn has moved into the role of eternal optimist, when it comes to the Notre Dame football team.

Undefeated? Hmmmm.

At least Holtz had Mark May to bring him back into reality.

When Quinn, the former Irish quarterback turned talking head for CBS Sports, ended his segment on Notre Dame with “Go Irish,” objectivity went out the window.

That’s not to say that Quinn’s assessment was completely unfounded. The Irish are going to be good. Pretty good. But the difference between pretty good and special is significant.

The last time Notre Dame went 12-0 there were games (remember Pitt and Stanford) that easily could have ended the perfection.

This year, the Irish schedule is front-loaded – Clemson, Georgia Tech and Southern Cal – all before the leaves fall. There won’t be any opponents in the second half that will allow for “makeups” for an early misstep.

In other words, there’s no room for error – 12-0, or say goodbye to the playoffs.

Maybe the best preseason stat is that seven teams – including Texas in the opener – will have extra time to prepare for the Irish. Three – Clemson, Wake Forest and Boston College – have open dates before meeting Notre Dame. Three others – Southern Cal, Temple and Pitt – will have a couple extra days since they play on Thursday night the week before.

The coaches and the media may have a pretty good feel for this Irish team. Both ranked Notre Dame 11th in preseason polls, just about the right spot a 10-2 team would land.

• Sept. 5, Texas: Notre Dame 31, Texas 17: Former Notre Dame assistant Charlie Strong, in his second season at the Texas helm, doesn’t really have his stamp on the Longhorns yet. Rebuilding from 6-7 last year will take some time. It won’t happen in Notre Dame Stadium. Last year’s starting quarterback Tyrone Swoopes was so good that he was locked in a battle with Jerrod Heard through most of the preseason. Swoopes will likely be calling most of the signals against the Irish, but it won’t matter.

• Sept. 12, at Virginia: Notre Dame 42, Virginia 20: Is it good news or bad news that only four starters return from a Virginia defense that gave up 24 points and 353 yards a game in a 5-7 campaign? Those aren’t bad numbers. Matt Johns played a lot at quarterback last season, but like the situation at Texas, he is hardly expected to be a dominant offensive force. Notre Dame has too much balance to struggle.

• Sept. 19, Georgia Tech: Notre Dame 28, Georgia Tech 27: Georgia Tech is too good for this to be called a “trap game” for Notre Dame. After beating Clemson and Georgia, losing to Florida State (37-35) in the Atlantic Coast Conference Championship Game, then beating Mississippi State (49-34) in the Orange Bowl last season, the Yellow Jackets are legit. The way Tech runs the option with former Navy coach Paul Johnson at the controls, the Yellow Jackets are Navy with many more quality athletes. And… everyone knows how the Irish struggle with Navy.

• Sept. 26, Massachusetts: Notre Dame 48, UMass 10: The Minutemen could have three weeks to prepare for Notre Dame and it still wouldn’t be any closer.

• Oct. 3, at Clemson: Clemson 35, Notre Dame 24: This is the start of Notre Dame’s October’s gauntlet – Clemson, Navy and Southern Cal. Deshaun Watson, as dynamic an athlete as the Irish will see this season (even though he’s coming back from ACL surgery), will be a significant test for their secondary. Notre Dame will have had four games to develop its pass rush. The best way to bring relief to the back end of the defense is for the front end to provide pressure. Dialing it up against an athlete like Watson won’t be easy.

• Oct. 10, Navy: Notre Dame 45, Navy 41: There will be all sorts of tangibles and intangibles at play in the game. First, Notre Dame always has problems with Navy – that’s a given. Defending that option offense run by a master – Keenan Reynolds – will be a nightmare. Also, the Irish will have to deal with the reality of having been all but eliminated from playoff contention with the loss to Clemson the previous week. This game will go down to the wire.

• Oct. 17, Southern Cal: Southern Cal 35, Notre Dame 31: There should be a law enacted whereas coaches aren’t allowed to operate heavy machinery or speak to alumni groups after mixing alcohol with a medication. The disparaging comments toward opponents – including Notre Dame – that Trojans head coach Steve Sarkisian recently made during a slurred speech to boosters will be resurrected in time to fuel the pre-game hype. That hype won’t do anything toward containing the Cody Kessler-to-JuJu (gotta love a guy named JuJu) Smith passing combination. Of course, the infamous hangover from playing Navy the week before will be at work, too.

• Oct. 31, at Temple: Notre Dame 24, Temple 7: After an open date to lick their wounds and adjust focus, the Irish will head to Philadelphia with the mission of running the table and earning a spot in a New Year’s Day bowl. Count on the defense to get the program headed in the right direction again.

• Nov. 7, at Pitt: Notre Dame 21, Pitt 20: Growing pains of a first-year head coach may play a role in the final outcome. Former Michigan State defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi, Pitt’s new head coach, will be learning on the job in some pretty high-profile games. Pitt has big-time talent in receiver Tyler Boyd. How the offense fits around him will determine the direction of the program. This is a team that lost to Iowa, Akron, Virginia and Houston, among others, in a 6-7 campaign last year.

• Nov. 14, Wake Forest: Notre Dame 38, Wake Forest 10: After going 3-9 last year, Wake Forest doesn’t appear to be much better. After surviving a tough one at Pitt the week before, the Irish are back on solid ground.

• Nov. 21, Notre Dame 30, Boston College 28: Now, this is a “trap” game at Fenway Park for the annual Shamrock Series contest. BC head coach Steve Addazio, like Strong, a former Notre Dame assistant, is making a habit of turning programs around. He brought Temple into respectability a couple years ago, and is 14-12 in two years on Chestnut Hill. A win over Southern Cal (37-31) and narrow losses to Clemson (17-13) and Florida State (20-17) in a 7-6 season in 2014 made people take notice. The venue will be special and all the pomp and pageantry will be there.

• Nov. 28, at Stanford: Notre Dame 38, Stanford 34: In successive weeks, Notre Dame will be challenged to go from one coast to the other. Cardinal quarterback Kevin Hogan will be back for his fifth year. Stanford had strayed at times from its identity as a power offense last season. The Cardinal defense will be rebuilding, losing all but three starters (all linebackers) from a unit that ranked third in the country last year, giving up 282 yards and 16 points.

• Bowl game: Fiesta Bowl vs. TCU.

Notre Dame Quarterback, Malik Zaire runs a drill during a recent practice. (SBT Photo/BECKY MALEWITZ)