Noie: Too many questions, too few answers for a 2020 season

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

Each year since 1892, late summer and fall in South Bend has meant college football. Notre Dame football.

The Four Horsemen and the Gipper. Touchdown Jesus and fans flooding to The House That Rockne Built, then one that the university remodeled. The Four Horsemen and the Gipper. Gearing up every August to chase another national championship, a race the Irish have been running without the desired conclusion for 31 seasons and counting.

Even with adding facemasks and the forward pass, to the advent of blitz pickups and now the all-popular run-pass options, the game has remained pretty much the same. Everything about that this season may change. Maybe it already has. A season that many believe has to be played might not get off the deck as the country continues to work through the coronavirus pandemic.

It won’t start on time for the Irish. It will include only or mostly conference games for many of the power leagues. That includes 10 league games for Notre Dame and a single non-conference game. For independent Notre Dame. For the next few months, Notre Dame is as Atlantic Coast Conference-invested in football as Boston College and Duke, as Clemson and Louisville. Somewhere, the Gipper and Rockne and Ara weep.

Desperate coronavirus times require desperate coronavirus solutions. Notre Dame believes it found one by joining the ACC to play 10 league games and to be eligible — independence ignored — to play in the league’s championship game for the 2020 college football season. That is, of course, if there is a season. Going into August, that remained a massive IF.

Had this been any other summer and season, independent Notre Dame would be preparing for its annual pilgrimage down U.S. 31 to open training camp at the Culver Academies. Then it would be back to campus for the rest of camp and the root canal that is media day, both for the players and the reporters. The season opener against Navy in Dublin, Ireland, would be closing quickly, when passports would be as required as third-down packages.

But none of that’s now happening. Too risky. Too unnecessary. As of early August, the regular season remained a go, but how long before that green light turns yellow, then, ultimately, red?

Can we get in a month of the regular season? Two months? Three? The most common answer to any question regarding college football 2020 — regarding life in 2020 — usually follows.

We.

Don’t.

Know.

Everybody wants the games to go on, but nobody knows how they will. Many schools barely got going with spring practice in March before the sports world — heck, our world — came to a stop. No more workouts. No more practices. No more spring. Then, really no summer. Fall? Stay tuned.

The Irish returned to campus in mid-June and were promptly quarantined at the Morris Inn on campus. Each player in his single room with his playbook and his PlayStation, trying to stay healthy, trying to stay hopeful, trying to stay focused. Trying to get to the regular season, where maybe some semblance of normalcy awaits.

What’s normal now? For those who write and talk about Notre Dame football, normal now is previewing/forecasting an upcoming college football season when the only real reference point for Notre Dame is the Camping World Bowl victory last December against overmatched Iowa State. The press box ran out of Chick-fil-A sandwiches at halftime, long after Iowa State had run out of gas and the Irish out of challenges.

Feels like that game was another time. In another world.

July in South Bend often is the calm before the college football storm. One final month before everything gets going and before you know it, it’s Thanksgiving week and another regular season is in the books. This July should’ve signaled the start of the internal countdown clock for one date, one game — Nov. 7 at home against 2019 national runner-up and presumptive 2020 No. 1 Clemson.

Now, Notre Dame may play Clemson twice. Or, maybe, not at all.

July around these parts was different. No clamoring about Clemson, or about any other Irish game. Just quiet. An uneasy quiet. The slightest nugget of news offered some hope that there might actually be a season. For a few minutes, everything seemed ... normal.

Then concern continued over how Notre Dame somehow would find a way to navigate the roadblocks and minefields that await and somehow could still play a 10-game ACC regular season and its plus-one game. Maybe chase ... all together now ... a conference championship. Maybe chase another trip to the College Football Playoff. Even win at least 10 games for a fourth consecutive year, something that’s never been done in this program.

It’s tough to think football, to talk football, to write about football knowing that in an instant, as happened in mid-March, everything just … ends.

Looking ahead

If there is a season, there’s a lot to like about Notre Dame. The Irish have a chance to be good. Maybe even beat Clemson at home and snag a second appearance in the College Football Playoff semifinals good. Some would say playing an ACC schedule gives the Irish a better chance — an easier chance — to get to 10 wins. Substituting Boston College, Florida State and Syracuse for Stanford, Southern California and Wisconsin? Yes, please. Thank you.

What’s to like about these Irish? Quarterback Ian Book and how he’ll fare in his third season as the main guy, something we haven’t had since the forgettable Jimmy Clausen run of the late 2000s. In 35 career games, Book’s been steady. He’s been solid. But can he be super?

Running back Jafar Armstrong is poised to take his game from potential to production. Both will work behind an Irish offensive line that returns all five starters. There’s no McGlinchey or Nelson in that group, but that’s OK.

As for guys on the outside, Kevin Austin, Jr., might turn that brief spring buzz about how he looked the part into actually playing the part. Who might be next in line at Tight End U? Tommy Tremble? Michael Mayer? Options abound.

That’s only on offense. Don’t forget the other side of the ball.

The Irish defensive line is as deep and as talented and as driven as its been in years. Associate head coach Mike Elston will have the motors on every one of those guys humming from Day One. Daelin Hayes is determined to deliver on that five-star recruiting ranking with his best season. Ade Ogundeji should be a pass-rush terror off the edge. Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah is poised to move from curiosity story to dominant defender.

Watch Drew White piggy-back last season’s breakout year with another big one. Who might follow in White’s cleats this season and step from the shadows to make more plays and tackles than anyone imagined? Somebody’s coming. Is it Jordan Genmark Heath? Jack Lamb? Marist Liufau?

Along the back line, just how special is sophomore safety Kyle Hamilton? Again All-American good, as he was as a freshman? Can he step into the leadership/tackling/play-making void left behind by Jalen Elliott and Alohi Gilman? Will Houston Griffith finally find his flow? Will first-year cornerbacks coach Mike Mickens get more out of the position than former Irish All-American/CBs coach Todd Lyght?

Speaking of coaches, watch defensive coordinator Clark Lea take another step this season toward being a future head coach. How much longer will he call South Bend home? And exactly what will a Tommy Rees offense look like? Wide open and free-wheeling and producing, much the way former offensive coordinator Chip Long promised but never really delivered?

The head coach is a staggering 33-6 over the last three years. But for many, that’s nowhere near good enough. It should be.

What’s it all mean this college football season for Notre Dame?

Hope we find out. For now, hope is all we’ve got.

Exactly how many games will quarterback Ian Book and his teammates play at Notre Dame Stadium in 2020? Nobody really knows as preseason camp nears during a coronavirus pandemic.