Analysis: Breaking down Notre Dame's case to be projected as a top 10 team

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND

As weird as preseason polls are in concept — a ranking of the nation’s top 25 teams based on conjecture — creating a methodology to fill out a ballot for one is even more freaky.

That was my charge again this year, as a member of the Associated Press’ 61-person voting panel. The AP will unveil the poll Monday morning at 11 EDT, roughly a week after the deadline for individual voters to turn in their ballots.

Research helps, but returning starters, last year’s stats/scores and summer updates don’t always provide needed context. In the search for more, some teams practice in such seclusion, the only media exposure to them in preseason camps is pre-practice stretching. Imagine nuancing that into projected wins and losses.

As games get played, data points connect and the process becomes more scientific, including the eye test. Strangely enough, the team I got an eye on for four full practices this month, Notre Dame, was one of the hardest teams to place.

Historically, that’s also the case. Just in the last two years, a preseason No. 10 Irish team in 2016 went 4-8 and exposed a culture that had curdled. In 2017, the Irish were one of nine preseason unranked teams that found a home in the final rankings and the second-highest rated among those nine.

I ultimately settled on the Irish at No. 10, one spot higher than where they finished last season in the AP poll as well as their placement in the 2018 preseason coaches poll. I based my slotting of ND on a lot of projected improvement in several key areas, so there was some uneasiness when I hit the send button.

At the end of last season, a modest 60 poll points separated No. 10 Auburn and the 11th-ranked Irish, roughly the same margin that distanced No. 9 TCU from the Tigers. But from a metrics standpoint, the Irish were a chasm away and didn’t really resemble Auburn or the other nine top 10 teams.

There are five key statistics which teams that win national titles and play for them tend to have, the most reliable of which is total defense. In the 16 BCS years and the first four of the Playoff Era, only one of those 20 national champions did not finish in the top 25 nationally in total defense — 2010 Auburn.

But the Cam Newton-led Tigers made up for it by excelling in the other four key metrics — rushing offense, rushing defense, pass efficiency and turnover margin.

In the final AP poll of the 2017 season, every top 10 team was ranked in the top 35 nationally in at least three of those five metrics. No. 1 Alabama, No. 5 Ohio State and No. 7 Wisconsin were 5-for-5, with Alabama ranking no lower than 13th in any of those critical categories.

Notre Dame checked one of the five boxes — No. 7 in rush offense.

The Irish were 101st in pass efficiency, 51st in rush defense, 46th in total defense and 46th in turnover margin.

On Wednesday, two days after I turned in my ballot, I received a sign — literally — that maybe there was more science than art to my ND projection.

On the South wall of the weight room and fitness area of the Guglielmino Athletics Complex, is a white board that lists the name of every player on the ND roster and sorts their performance and effort in director of football performance Matt Balis’ world into three categories — satisfied, hungry and starving.

Within each category, they are also ranked from top to bottom. ND’s top 10 performers, less than two weeks before the Sept. 1 opener with Michigan, are: 1. Drue Tranquill, 2. Jalen Elliott, 3. Tyler Newsome (yes, the punter), 4. Jordan Genmark Heath, 5. Bo Bauer (yes, a true freshman), 6. Liam Eichenberg, 7. Brock Wright, 8. Jafar Armstrong, 9. Ade Ogundeji and 10. Robert Hainsey.

The collective effort, though, is what strongly hinted at a team capable of advancing its 2017 stats and perhaps its 10-3 bottom lines as well.

For comparison’s sake, in the very first workout cycle under Balis — January through April of 2017 — 12 players achieved elite or “starving” status. Three weeks into last summer after a reset, zero players had advanced to that level. In mid-August 2018, 86 of the 118 combined scholarship players and walk-ons were sitting in the starving category.

Eighty-six.

Only two, a pair of walk-ons, were “satisfied.”

“Our guys from a physical and mental standpoint have taken another step,” Balis said with a rare smile. “We have more guys who understand how to train, how to work in year two, how to get the most out of the workouts. and then they’re pushing each other as well.”

That Balis’ radical changes in organization, approach and standards weren’t just cosmetic in 2017 is notable. They translated onto the field in 2017, providing the foundation for a six-win improvement over 2016. Balis is a suppressed story line this offseason from a media perspective. His impact, though, is anything but understated.

One of the most dramatic transformations related to that process is the defensive line position group, which seems poised to take another surge forward under D-line coach Mike Elston this season.

“We’ve got more depth. We’ve got better players,” Elston said. “The guys have a better understanding of what we’re looking for within the scheme of our defense. They have a better understanding of the techniques that I’m coaching.

“I think that we’ll have more production off the edges in pass rush. I just think it’s a better group.”

A significantly better defensive front could lift the Irish in three key categories — rush defense, total defense, and — indirectly — turnover margin. A team that appears to have the ability to generate more pressure up front, coupled with a stronger and deep secondary, could mean more turnovers forced.

The most difficult read, still, is what will happen to the pass-efficiency number, the area where Notre Dame was most unlike a playoff contender.

Incumbent starter Brandon Wimbush’s intermittent performance hiccups in practice drills and scrimmage periods in the passing game aren’t necessarily insignificant, but they’re certainly not conclusive.

The knee-jerk reflex is to overreact.

Patience and perspective is the more prudent path at this juncture. Perhaps the most significant development that warrants that is that the senior tends to show resilience after a mistake now, when late last season there was bewilderment.

Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly tests the QBs burgeoning confidence daily instead of trying to tiptoe around it and fluff it up. That’s a departure from most training camps past under his watch.

Kelly doesn’t want culture shock against Michigan, so Wimbush is facing the No. 1 defense, not the 2s or the raw freshmen and modern-day Rudys of the scout team. and the 1s are bringing pressure and giving Wimbush the kind of looks he’ll see on Sept. 1 against likely the best defense the Irish will face all season.

That backup Ian Book has apparently progressed significantly over last season indirectly makes Wimbush more dangerous. Kelly admitted his confidence in Book to lead the team if necessary makes him less skittish about heavier use of Wimbush in the running game when warranted.

“We’re way ahead of where we were last year with both quarterbacks, certainly just by experience alone,” Kelly said. “(Last August) your No. 1 and No. 2 quarterback hadn’t played.

“That’s a different feeling for a head coach. They’ve won football games and they’ve had success. They’ve been in the mix.

“We’re spending most of the time at the end of practice working on situational football, and that’s where we’ve got to be learning at the quarterback position. That was different. We couldn’t do that last year.”

Running back/wide receiver Avery Davis has his hands full during a recent Notre Dame football practice at ND’s LaBar Practice Fields.
Cornerback Houston Griffith, left, might make the most sense at safety for Notre Dame with the departure of Derrik Allen (center).

1. Clemson 12-2

2. Alabama 13-1

3. Georgia 13-2

4. Wisconsin 13-1

5. Washington 10-3

6. Ohio St. 12-2

7. Miami 10-3

8. Oklahoma 12-2

9. Penn St. 11-2

10. Notre Dame 10-3

11. Michigan 8-5

12. Mississippi St. 9-4

13. Southern Cal 11-3

14. Auburn 10-4

15. TCU 11-3

16. Florida St. 7-6

17. Stanford 9-5

18. Utah 7-6

19. Texas 7-6

20. Michigan St. 10-3

21. UCF 13-0

22. Oregon 7-6

23. Florida 4-7

24. Northwestern 10-3

25. Virginia Tech 9-4