Lesar: Notre Dame will be good ... but 'Iffy' defense will allow spoilers to impact season

Al Lesar
South Bend Tribune

Don’t fret Irish fans.

Even with Max Redfield at safety, the Notre Dame football team’s defense was going to be iffy, at best. It shouldn’t get much worse.

That being said, there still aren’t any teams on the Irish schedule they won’t be capable of beating.

Of course, don’t expect perfection to happen. There will be blips on the radar over the next 13 weeks.

Logic says three games (all against teams with new quarterbacks) — Michigan State (Sept. 17) and Stanford (Oct. 15) at home, and a trip to Southern Cal (Nov. 26) — will define Notre Dame’s season. But it’s the spoilers — at North Carolina State (Oct. 8) and Miami (Oct. 29) and Virginia Tech (Nov. 19) at home — that could turn out to be pivotal.

Young, talented teams with a suspect defense are prone to letdowns.

• Sept. 4, At Texas: The Longhorns are loaded with young talent, but they may not be ready for prime time just yet. And, it doesn’t get any more prime time than the Sunday before Labor Day when the whole world’s watching.

No matter who Texas uses at quarterback — Tyrone Swoopes, who played a lot last year, or freshman Shane Buechele — the Longhorn offense should be better than it showed in last year’s 38-3 loss to Notre Dame. Texas’ lean defensive line could help make the Irish two-headed monster at quarterback a success.

Notre Dame 31, Texas 21

• Sept. 10, Nevada: Brian Polian, a Notre Dame assistant from 2005-09, is in his fourth year as the leader of the Pack, the Wolf Pack, that is.

With 17 starters back from last year’s 7-6 campaign (including a 28-23 win over Colorado State in the Arizona Bowl), there are high hopes in Reno. Shutting down running back James Butler (1,342 rushing yards, 10 TDs last year) will be a priority.

Look for Irish quarterback Malik Zaire to have a big day and win the bulk of the snaps the next week against Michigan State.

Notre Dame 45, Nevada 20

• Sept. 17, Michigan State: The 50th anniversary of the 10-10 tie won’t carry similar monumental implications, but it will be interesting.

This isn’t the same Spartan team that won the Big Ten and played Alabama — getting skunked 38-0 — in the playoffs last season, but MSU still ain’t bad. It won’t be a tie, but it will be close. The Irish find a way.

Notre Dame 17, Michigan State 16

• Duke, Sept. 24: Another coach with Notre Dame on his résumé (a brief stint in 2005, though he resigned before the season because of health issues), David Cutcliffe has given life to the Duke program over the last eight seasons.

The Blue Devils have personnel questions on both sides of the ball, which aren’t good to have heading into South Bend.

By now, Notre Dame’s offensive line is effective, but not elite. Josh Adams has established himself as the dominant Irish running back and the defense is still struggling — especially with the pass rush.

Notre Dame 38, Duke 10

• Syracuse, Oct. 1 (East Rutherford, N.J.): It wasn’t an accident that Bowling Green was fifth in the nation in passing yards (367 per game) last year.

That’s just who coach Dino Babers is.

Babers has taken that wide-open game to Syracuse and will constantly test the undermanned Irish secondary. There will be a lot of points scored by both teams. Ultimately, the Notre Dame offense will take charge.

Notre Dame 47, Syracuse 31

• Oct. 8, At North Carolina State: With Stanford just a week away, and the Irish unbeaten, there will be plenty of reasons to look ahead.

The Wolfpack (not to be confused with Nevada’s Wolf Pack) have to re-stock their offensive line and find a new quarterback this season. However, having Notre Dame in their stadium can make for some special efforts.

Notre Dame 20, North Carolina State 16

• Oct. 15, Stanford: The plan last year was to contain do-everything back Christian McCaffrey, then dare quarterback Kevin Hogan to win the game.

That’s exactly what happened.

McCaffrey was limited to 94 yards on 27 carries — roughly 50 yards below his average — and didn’t score. However, Hogan threw 21 times and misfired on only four. He rolled up 269 yards and four TDs in a 38-36 Stanford win that was decided by a 45-yard field goal on the game's final play.

Expect the plan to be the same, except with a new quarterback. A Stanford defense that wasn’t very impressive last year, lost its three top players.

Notre Dame 37, Stanford 33

• Oct. 29, Miami: OK, here it comes: The Letdown.

Miami, which hasn’t been vintage Miami for a long time, will be charged up for this one. At 7-0, the Notre Dame hype machine will be getting into full gear.

Even with a week off to get beyond the win over Stanford, it’s hard for the young Irish to get their feet planted back on the ground. New Hurricane coach Mark Richt, who played quarterback at Miami from 1979-82, solidifies his spot in South Beach with the stunning upset.

Miami 24, Notre Dame 19

• Nov. 5, Navy (Jacksonville, Fla.): Fortunately, there’s no Keenan Reynolds to bail the Midshipmen out of a tough jam.

New Navy quarterback Tago Smith is good, but he’s not Keenan Reynolds. The Midshipmen aren’t ready for this matinee.

Plus, the Irish are a little grouchy and re-focused after the Miami loss.

Notre Dame 34, Navy 13

• Nov. 12, Army (San Antonio): The Black Knights of the Hudson are bound to be better than their 2-10 record a year ago.

But not much.

Notre Dame 37, Army 7

• Nov. 19, Virginia Tech: After 29 years at the Hokies' helm, Frank Beamer stepped down after last season. New head coach Justin Fuente will be going through some growing pains while installing a hurry-up offense.

If there were more consistency within the program, this could be a tough one. But, the Hokies aren’t ready to spoil Notre Dame’s home finale.

Notre Dame 30, Virginia Tech 22

• Nov. 26, At Southern Cal: For the past four weeks, the debate has raged across the country: Should a one-loss Notre Dame be considered for the playoff.

Just like the same scenario last year, no consensus was ever reached.

Then again, last year’s season-ending loss to Stanford made it a moot point.

Somehow, Southern Cal avoids its annual midseason implosion. The Trojan talent is amazing and puts the Irish in their place.

Southern Cal 35, Notre Dame 20

• Dec. 30, Florida State (Orange Bowl, Miami): Good thing Notre Dame didn’t make the playoffs. It would have ended like 2012. The Irish are totally prepared to compete with each team on their schedule, but not with the best in the country.

Florida State 33, Notre Dame 27

Will Notre Dame defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder produce a playoff-caliber defense? (Tribune Photo/SANTIAGO FLORES)