Chat Transcript: Notre Dame vs. 'Bama X's and O's, big-picture implications, and the future

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

Eric Hansen: Welcome to Notre Dame Football Live Chat, pre-relocated Rose Bowl edition. Win or lose, we'll chat next Wednesday at noon ET. Let's get started.

Don from Brigantine Beach, N.J.: Hi Eric. Happy New Year to you! Let's hope 2021 is better than 2020. What is the current mindset of the team as you see or hear it?. I truly believe if they execute the offensive and defensive game plans, block out the noise (all of the ND pundits analyzing this game), and play with a nasty attitude, we WILL win this game. Your thoughts?

Eric Hansen: Happy New Year, Don. I commend your optimism, and I do feel the team views this game much differently than much of its fan base. For them, it's an opportunity they relish and cherish and are determined to make the best of. That doesn't mean the outcome will be of their liking, but it's something to build upon. If they were intimidated, worried about getting blown out, etc., then they'd have no chance.

Tom from Downers Grove, Ill.: Considering next year's down schedule compared to this season and the '22 and '23 seasons, should the coaching staff consider getting Tyler Buchner and young receivers game experience over transfer QBs and relying on veterans whose ceilings aren't that high? Granted we've used young guys for experience at tight end, running back, cornerback, and defensive line this year. I guess the point I'm making is that our talent in recruiting these last couple of cycles seems like it will peak around the '22 and '23 seasons, so should we be building more toward those years?

Eric Hansen: I'm not sure the 2021 schedule is all that soft. There's a five-game stretch of Wisconsin, Cincinnati, Virginia Tech, USC and North Carolina that looks pretty formidable. But yes, compared to playing Clemson AND Ohio State in regular-season games in 2022 and 2023, I get your point. I wouldn't write off 2021 to be the training wheels, though, for those next two seasons. If Tyler Buchner is good enough to start in 2021, start him. If not, keep developing him and start Drew Pyne, Brendon Clark or a grad transfer. The rebuild aspect of 2021 isn't as daunting as you might think. QB, yes. O-Line, yes. Two biggies. But better at WR, RB, TE and really good on defense.

Jordan from Nashville: Hi Eric, would you share your thoughts on how this year's team is preparing for a marquee bowl game compared to previous years under Brian Kelly? Anything new or different stand out to you? Certainly the quick turnaround from the ACC Championship Game to the College Football Playoff comes to mind.

Eric Hansen: Yes. Jordan, that quick turnaround is really interesting. Thirteen days compared to five weeks or so. Brian Kelly tried to strike a balance between rest/mental break and staying sharp. So today (Wednesday) will be practice No. 5. ND won't spend much time on site, either. They fly down this afternoon and I believe have a walkthrough Thursday. There's not all the running around to various activities and such that are usually parts of bowl trips. All business.

Cederick Walker from Saginaw, Mich.: How many recruits do you see playing as true freshmen next year and how much playing time for Braden Lenzy in the Rose Bowl?

Eric Hansen: I've been waiting for Braden Lenzy like the Great Pumpkin. I did ask Brian Kelly about Lenzy earlier in the week, and he indicated Lenzy was available and could help. We'll see. He didn't play a snap against Clemson. ... As to 2021 recruits who could get an opportunity for earlier playing time, I'd say QB Tyler Buchner, WR/PR Lorenzo Styles Jr., and OG Rocco Spindler. On defense, I think they'll want to take a good look at safeties Khari Gee and Justin Walters, CB Phillip Riley, LB Prince Kollie at rover and perhaps DT Gabriel Rubio for D-line rotation/depth.

Guy from Lakeside Park, Ky.: Hi Eric. Very excited about this Yellow Rose Bowl playoff game vs. mighty Alabama. I think it's safe to say ND has had red zone challenges most of the year. Wouldn't Michael Mayer create the most favorable matchup on that part of the field? Seems as though he has been under-utilized near the end zone with just two touchdowns on the year.

Eric Hansen: No argument here. If he's so good on third down (and he is), why not more red zone?

Tony from Virginia Beach: Happy New Year! Is there any more clarity on who will be the next defensive coordinator and who on the staff may follow Clark Lea to Vandy?

Eric Hansen: No, there really isn't. And wouldn't it be disappointing if there were? Brian Kelly has an opportunity to play for a national championship, and there's plenty of time after the season, so multitasking during this time should be minimal. Now, after the season, I expect things to heat up quickly. ... Clark Lea too has put everything on hold to make Notre Dame is singular focus until the season ends.

Jim from Albuquerque: Hi Eric! Happy New Year to you and yours! I believe that for the Irish to compete in the Rose Bowl they must control the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball. I also think our tight ends can be a big factor in this game. Florida couldn’t run against Alabama, but we should be able to. Your thoughts? And thanks for hosting!

Eric Hansen: Jim. Happy New Year. If Notre Dame can't win the line of scrimmage in this game — as it did in Clemson I and didn't in Clemson II — it has no chance. So yes, we agree there. Agree having tight ends play a large role. And agree ND needs to run the ball. All those things, and winning the turnover battle, have to happen for there to be a path to a score that's going to be favorable.

Steve from Las Vegas: Is ND a big enough underdog against the Bama scoring machine that they should do something unique like use Navy's triple-option offense? This will shorten the game and emphasize ND's run game (including Ian Book). Seriously, though, do you think ND's only chance to win is to control the clock through a slow-moving, ball-control offense? Is that possible against the talented Bama D?

Eric Hansen: Steve, you scared me there for a sec and made me think you had violated the no-drinking rule. I do think you want to limit possessions and clock, but ND is going to have to take some shots down the field. In the three games where Alabama was tested on defense (Ole Miss, Georgia, Florida), Ole Miss and Georgia used their running games well, but they did not slow the tempo. There were long drives, but not clock-eating drives. So Alabama's offense was on the field a lot —71 plays vs. Ole Miss, 76 vs. Georgia, which led at the half, 24-20. Three picks hurt the Bulldogs bad. Florida didn't try to run and couldn't anyway and just decided to get into a track meet. Alabama ran 83 plays. ND's best chance is if Alabama runs 60 plays or fewer. You can't outscore them in a fast-paced game. Think the North Carolina game as a template.

John from Tarpon Springs, Fla.: How will Notre Dame's defense be able to put pressure on Mac Jones with the large offensive line that Alabama has?

Eric Hansen: Well, Alabama is the best O-Line ND will have faced this year and best at pass protection. So Clark Lea is going to have to get creative and also take some chances. Look for some blitzes from Kyle Hamilton and Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah on occasion.

Jeff from Schererville, Ind.: Eric, thank you so much for doing these chats all season long and for the great work you and the rest of the SBT crew do throughout the year to keep us all informed. If we wish to read full postgame coverage in the print edition of the SBT, should we look for it on Saturday or Sunday? I'm guessing the late afternoon kickoff might be cutting it close to the deadline for Saturday's paper. Enjoy the game, safe travels if you're going, and keep up the good work!

Eric Hansen: Hi Jeff and thanks for the kind words. We will have a "running" game story with no quotes and the scoring summary in Saturday's print edition, then full coverage in Sunday's print. So yes, please check out our coverage online ( Saturday night. Thanks again.

Mike H from Arlington Va.: I just think these chats are great! I have not missed reading one in years, and this is my first time posting. I do not have a question, but I just wanted to wish everyone a Happy and Safe New Year and be nice to one another please!!! And I hope everyone that’s infected with this virus gets healthy! My prayers to each and every one of you. And my New Year's resolution is for one day going forward the Irish can put it all together (recruiting, coaching, on-field play) and win ONE big game! God Bless all of you!

Eric Hansen: Mike, thanks for following the chats and for piping up today.

Jim Tal from Valley Center, Calif.: Hi Eric. Wishing you the very best during the upcoming new year. And a most sincere thank you for all that you've done to keep the Irish faithful informed in the midst of these unprecedented times. Do you consider this pivotal game against Alabama to be any sort of a referendum about the Irish? Should they pull off what many would consider to be a monumental upset, the year would have to be classified as a truly memorable one regardless of what might happen in the championship game. Should they fall to Bama, but are highly competitive in a close loss, I believe the season would still be considered a very successful one. However, should ND get blown out and offer very little resistance and not show legitimate fight, then I think it would cast a pall over the entire season and genuinely detract from all that had been accomplished prior to the debacle that was Clemson 2. I would value your thoughts in this regard. Thank you.

Eric Hansen: Jim, thanks for your nice comments ... truly humbling. Your question is more complicated then it might seem, even though you kind of gave me a multiple-choice set of answers. I think how I perceive it and how others might is going to be very different. For me, this is the forever team whatever happens Friday. This is a team that sacrificed and played through some incredibly difficult circumstances to give us a college football season when, at times, that was presented as being impossible. Not only did they do that, but they became a much better version of themselves than was thought possible, along the way. You can discount the win over No. 1 Clemson all you want, but that's a heck of a team without Trevor Lawrence and James Skalski. And ND did it without Kevin Austin and Braden Lenzy. ... not on the same level, but important pieces on a team with much less margin for error.

Notre Dame has made it to the playoff for a second time. There are five teams that can claim that and 125 others that can't. I made this point in the big Sunday piece I did: Analysis: Notre Dame, the gap between the Irish and playoff ogres, and the chase ... that Brian Kelly has no intention of getting to the playoff being the program peak. And that he's working to make that next incremental step on all fronts, including recruiting. That should be comforting if not applauded. I was covering Notre Dame football when its coach, Bob Davie, felt like the Irish has peaked as a program that was good-ish. He even expressed the notion that ND needed to play "more directional schools" to soften the schedule.

If Notre Dame doesn't show any fight, then that is a problem and way out of character for this group. But losing to one of the best Alabama teams to come along in a long string of great ones should be looked at as a great opportunity. Alabama, OSU and Clemson are monsters. They're at a different level right now from everybody. Breaking through to that level is going to be a process — and a difficult one — if a team can do it, and not an event.

Dwight from Arkansas: The final score of the UA-UND game is not expected to be kind to the Irish. I still maintain that the only two defeats by ND (assuming they lose) is to the two elite programs in NCAA D1. I don't know that anyone else would fare any better. In my opinion, the Irish should not drop out of the top 5 even with two defeats. I know Bama and Clemson have top recruiting classes annually, but other schools have great classes, too. It was pointed out that FSU has recruited elite talent but their record doesn't indicate it. Are their coaching staffs so superior that they make up the difference in comparison to other top programs? I just don't quite understand why they are so much better, given that other programs have excellent recruiting classes as well.

Eric Hansen: Let's start with Florida State and what it lacks. Program continuity, consistent player development, elite offensive linemen (through recruiting and player development). There's lot of attrition in that program as well from a player standpoint. ... Flip it to Alabama, OSU and Clemson. Elite coaches (Ryan Day is off to a good start, but Urban Meyer was great), elite player development, elite culture. For example, Najee Harris didn't transfer when he didn't play early. The No. 1 prospect in the 2017 class nationally sat and waited his turn. The Tide has a lot of those kind of guys who accept the wait.

Here's the best way I can illustrate what happened in the "close the gap" chase since Notre Dame played Alabama in the 2012/13 national championship. ND is the kid who runs a 4.7 in 40-yard dash in 2012. Loses weight, does speed drills, gets stronger and now can run the 4.5 that Alabama ran in 2012. But Alabama got better, too, way better and now runs a 4.2. That's not only what ND faces, but the rest of college football that's not Ohio State or Clemson.

Double Domer Jim from Morganton, N.C.: Eric - respect your insight and knowledge. So many keys to this game, from Ian Book to speed on the outside to physicality to flying to the ball to deep coverage. Thing that concerns me most is line play on both sides. Any hope the ACC Championship was an aberration vs. an unmasking? Thanks.

Eric Hansen: Jim, I think for Notre Dame on offense, it was more aberration than unmasking. Tough day for the offensive coordinator and an offensive line still grappling to regain its chemistry. ... Defensively, Trevor Lawrence in the running game was a strategic nightmare, and ND compounded it by its best players trying to overcompensate and getting outside their structure and assignments. ND has to be at its best in all areas — and an early lead — to take this game into the second half still holding the audience's attention.

Gene from Wyckoff, N.J.: As field goals are not going to do it, would it be fair to expect that once inside the red zone, the mindset has to be four downs until touchdowns, or zero points? As soon as we accept three points inside the 20, I'm thinking the Godfather marathon on AMC comes into play. Your thoughts?

Eric Hansen: I'm not sure I'd go far enough to swear off all field goals and make it all or nothing, but yeah Notre Dame has to take advantage of those red-zone opportunities AND play with the lead. Getting behind two scores kind of blows up the ball-control game plan.

Jake D. from Whereabouts Unknown: Do you have any idea if we will see any of the freshman wide receivers on Friday?

Eric Hansen: Beyond the sideline? I would be stunned if we did unless they were in the game during mop-up time.

Tyler from Cleveland: Hi Eric thanks for the time! Any news on starting center? Zeke Correll seems much more suited for the position than Josh Lugg does. I thought Correll played well given a sprained ankle against North Carolina. Also any plans on Kyle Hamilton covering DeVonta Smith? Would be a scout's dream scenario and one I think ND has to have in order to have a shot. Crawford, while filling in admirably, is not a safety and often susceptible to double moves, which is a staple move for Smith. Thanks again and go Irish!

Eric Hansen: We get another shot of Brian Kelly Thursday. So unless he feels that mystery will give him a competitive advantage, we'll know then on the starting center. ... If you're talking about Kyle Hamilton covering Smith 1-on-1, I wouldn't anticipate that? Hamilton is going to have to wear a lot of hats in this game — center fielder, blitzer, run-stuffer, but playing 1-on-1 coverage on that nation's best receiver would not be part of the game plan. He's a handful to cover with two people. ... It's not an either/or Hamilton and Crawford at safety. They play at the same time. And yes he did bite on a double move against Clemson, but he's had a pretty good year overall and he made it through it healthy for the first time in six years.

Mike from Quakertown,  Pa.: Hi Eric. I hope you are having a good holiday season with your family. I want to thank you for all of your hard work and great articles during 2020, and thanks for holding these chats. Your work provided relief and enjoyment from a perpetually difficult situation. I very much enjoyed your recent article on the recruiting gap between Notre Dame and Alabama, Ohio state, and Clemson, and Notre Dame's attempt to close that gap. You pointed out the those schools get the lion's share of top 100 and top 50 talent, but you also pointed out that Georgia does, too. Notre Dame essentially turns three- and four-star talent into five-star players during the three to five years those players are in the program. Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah was a three-star, and now he may be a first-rounder. Drew White was a two-star, and he plays way above that now. Notre Dame outperforms a school like Georgia when it comes to talent development. Do you think that Notre Dame can continue with itsr current trajectory, which is a top 10 team that makes the playoffs every few years, but eventually breaks through and win one? Oor do they need help in the way of a bad recruiting year by Clemson and Alabama? Sorry for the length.

Eric Hansen: I think it's certainly possible to play to that level. I mean, at least they're committed to it and have a plan and continue to refine and tweak that plan. And they've made significant steps. When I was doing some book research, I came across an Op-Ed editorial that, in absolute terms, spelled out that Notre Dame would never again be a better-than-average program again, much less elite. The schedule was too ambitious, the academic bar too high, etc, Sound familiar? That was 1963. Then came Ara. I read a similar story in Sports Illustrated during the Faust Era, and we heard that chorus intermittently during the Davie, Willingham and Weis regimes. Look, Notre Dame's path is more difficult. But it's not blocked. And the Irish have a coach who believes it can happen and is working hard to show that he's right about that.

George from El Segundo, Calif.: Hi Eric. Hope you and yours remain safe and well. Does Don Brown get a look for the ND defensive coordinator job?

Eric Hansen: George, thank you, and you as well. ... Don Brown, recently purged at Michigan, used to be one of the best, if not the best. But football is an evolutionary game, and I don't think he's kept up. Besides it looks like he's going to end up at Arizona.

Lee from Lancaster, S.C.: Eric, is it more uncomfortable to ask a tough question to a coach that you cover on a regular basis and have a good relationship with, such as Brian Kelly, than one that you may only talk to once at a playoff or bowl game?

Eric Hansen: I'm not uncomfortable with either scenario. It's part of the job, but the question might be received better by someone you cover regularly and who kind of knows who you are and what motivates you.

Mark from Orange County, Calif.: Hi Eric, Happy New Year. Thank you for all that you do in covering the Irish. College football, especially ND's great season, has been one of the most positive parts of this crazy year. What has been the greatest challenge for you this season in covering ND football? It seems to me not seeing any practices in person, and interviews through Zoom must have provided some unique challenges. Even with these challenges, you have continued to provide us with exceptional coverage. Thank you for all that you have done to provide us fans with your fantastic, objective reporting

Eric Hansen: Mark, Happy New Year to you ... and thank you. Let me say this, the upside is you can throw a load of laundry in the washing machine during a timeout while covering a game. I've never been able to do that in my career. ... The downside, and this is not to blame anyone but the virus, it's hard to follow up on questions. It's hard to get a rhythm in an interview. It's hard to form relationships with players. To earn their trust. You're just a disembodied voice on a computer. Michael Mayer doesn't know me. ... But the time I spent with Louis Nix in college, when I sent him a message earlier this month after he had been shot in the chest, the guy called me from his hospital bed to fill me in on the details. ... I hope to get back to that kind of reporting/relationship building, etc., next year. Yet I'm grateful we even had a season this year and for the access we did have.

Max from San Diego: Hi Eric. If Kelly doesn't promote Mike Elston for the defensive coordinator job, do you think Clark Lea takes him to Vandy to be DC there? Personally, I feel Kelly has to give Marcus Freeman a real interview (unlike the other OC "interviews" last year).

Eric Hansen: I think Marcus Freeman will get an interview. I don't think DC at Vandy would be a step up for Elston, to be quite honest. I know Bob Diaco wanted to bring him to UConn after the 2013 season, and Elston turned it down (good move too).

John from Charlotte: Hi Eric. I distinctly remember in 2012, Nick Saban just running straight at an undersized Prince Shembo over and over again. There seems to be a clear weakness in this team in the secondary, with an inexperienced Clarence Lewis and Shaun Crawford's tendency to give up big plays. How can Clark Lea protect them on Friday? I'm extremely concerned if we cant get pressure on the QB, which allows Smith and Co. to run deep.

Eric Hansen: If Notre Dame can't get pressure, you will need to go buy more beer. ... The good news is Alabama hasn't faced a top 50 team in pass-efficiency defense this season. Notre Dame is 19th. So for all their apparent shortcomings, they're one of the better pass defenses nationally and have faced two quarterbacks in the top 12 nationally in pass efficiency (Trevor Lawrence and Sam Howell).

Tim from Pleasant Prairie, Wis.: Why is OSU continually lumped in with Alabama and Clemson as being part of the Big Three? They are a respectable but not remarkable 2-2 in the playoffs and haven't won a national champioship since 2014. I would submit that in reality there is a Big Two, and everybody else, including OSU.

Eric Hansen: No national championships since WAY BACK in 2014? Look, they've been to the playoff four times. They've recruited at a higher level than Clemson. I'm not giving you this one, and neither is just about anyone else who doesn't live in Michigan.

Charles from Whereabouts Unknown: Hi Eric Happy New Year!

Eric Hansen: Happy New Year, Charles. ... My easiest response of the day!

Steve from Las Vegas: Great chat! What solution should Lea use for covering the speed that Bama uses in the slot? Shaun Crawford has had a good year, but has been beat multiple times this year in coverage. After all of his injuries, it looks like he is a step slower than he was when he was younger. Who else on the D would be good to cover the slot?

Eric Hansen: I'd use Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah there in certain situations. Otherwise, Crawford. I don't think there's another viable alternative.

Terry from Honolulu: Eric, I am having a tough time figuring which would be a better hire for defensive coordinator. Would Notre Dame be better off hiring a long-term coordinator who does not have head coaching aspirations, that would keep the ND defense in the 15th-25th-best defenses range, or go for a young stud that could catapult them into a top 10 defense, but will probably move on in a few years?

Eric Hansen: Terry. I think continuity tops the list. So if Kelly makes an outside hire, he'd want someone willing to essentially run the Elko/Lea defensive structure. Otherwise, I'd go for the best candidate, whether young, old, head coaching aspirations or not. Who gives you the best chance to win in 2021, 2022?

Bob from Huntersville N.C.: Hi Eric, formerly from Valpo. Went to every home game for over 30 years until I moved. Considering how Clemson schemed Ian Book, I would like to see more bootlegs and designed runs for him. Also, would like to see more two-back sets and getting our backs more involved in the passing game. Was disappointed in how little Chris Tyree was used against Clemson. Your thoughts?

Eric Hansen: Bob, I like the thought about bootlegs and getting Book on the perimeter. Not sure I'm digging the two backs in this game, but throwing to the backs I like a lot. Tyree didn't play much in either Clemson game. Against a fast, physical defense, I think Kyren's game plays better. Not against 5-6 touches for Tyree, but I'm rolling with Kyren Williams.

Jeff from Morgantown, W.Va.: Hey Eric, thanks for all the great work on the chats. What is an offensive wrinkle you could see ND break out against Alabama to give them a different look?

Eric Hansen: Misdirection plays.

Bob from Fairport, N.Y.: From my perspective, it appears that ND has difficulty pivoting its offense to what the defense is doing. All too often when the run is struggling, then the insistence is on the deep sideline passes. Would be nice to see some slants, screens and mid-range tight end across the middle. We rarely exploit that. When we face-top notch DBs, you need to be more flexible in play selection.

Eric Hansen: Bob, I think you may be extrapolating the second Clemson game disproportionally one what happened the rest of the season, or at least since late October,

Tom from Kennesaw, Ga.: Hi Eric. Hope you had a nice Christmas and best wishes for a great 2021!! Did any of Alabama's opponents have any success controlling the line of scrimmage? Offensive line or defensive line? Given the success of Florida in the passing game, maybe we should have been developing Jordan Johnson more throughout the season. His skills might be useful against Bama. Here's hoping we pay to our best ability, regardless of the outcome. Go Irish!!!

Eric Hansen: No one did it on both sides of the ball. Georgia maybe for a half and maybe could have extended it beyond halftime had there been a better quarterback option used in that game. Ole Miss did a real good job on offense, 268 yards rushing, 4.7 per carry, gave up two sacks. Their front seven was a disaster on defense, however. Florida didn't offer much resistance on D either. It allowed five sacks and didn't even try to run the ball much. But they were really good on third down (8 of 11). Thanks, I had an "interesting" Christmas. Looking forward to a normal one in 2021.

Matt from SugarLand, Texas: Hello Eric. I am excited that ND still has a chance and can leave it all on the field. I do not think offensive/defensive coordinators can have a worse day than the last Clemson game. Also have some optimism that ND can pressure Alabama's QB. Do you think that ND's offensive line can improve from the recent Clemson game as a unit with a backup center?

Eric Hansen: I think they can and must improve from the Clemson game, but I don't think we'll see them play at the level they were with Jarrett Patterson in the first Clemson game.

Matt from Augusta, N.J.: I know Brian Kelly has said he wants to keep the 4-2-5 defense, which I agree with. Does Mike Elston only having a background with the 4-2 for the last few years scare you at all? I know he can coach the D-line, but the back 7 is another thing. Also what defense does Cincinnati run? Is it a 4-2?

Eric Hansen: It does not scare me that he has four years of experience with that scheme as well as experience with the 3-4 and the 4-3. He did coordinate ND's defense for eight games in 2016 after Brian VanGorder was fired. In a small sample size, ND held 75% of opponents to fewer points than their season average and 88% to fewer yards, compared to 53% and 43% for BVG in his 30 games at ND. Cincinnati runs a 3-3-5. Oh. and Elston has coached linebackers.

Pat Princeton from Illinois: Hi Eric. How can we scheme the defense to protect our DBs. Any team would struggle to contain Alabama's wideouts. What can Clark Lea do to keep them under 40 points.

Eric Hansen: Get helps from ND's offense and don't give Alabama 14 possessions. Mix up the defensive looks, gamble a bit with pressures, because if you give Mac Jones time, that's the real gamble.

Joey from Westernport, Md.: Eric, Happy Holidays! Do you think Kyle Hamilton will end up being a linebacker in the NFL? His frame looks like he could add another 20 or 30 pounds. Thanks for the chats.

Eric Hansen: I asked Brian Kelly that question about his college career before he arrived. Hamilton is such a pain to game-plan around as a safety, I'd leave him there.

Denis from Niagara Falls, Ontario: Hi Eric. ND clearly must attempt to take recruiting to a higher level to compete with the top-tier programs. This is difficult due to academic constraints since, in my opinion, most five-star recruits don't want to be bothered with academics of the ND high standard (or could not do it). These teams above them would have to come back to the pack a bit to help out. So if we just say Alabama, Ohio State and Clemson for now, could these programs be weakened enough so that the playing field is levelled out a bit when their current coaches leave? But of course, ND must be at a high level if this were to occur. And it would be best if two of these three teams fell off somewhat at the same time. Too much to ask for? No doubt that certainly all the stars must align. Thanks very much.

Eric Hansen: Well. Alabama was 26-23 overall and 13-19 under Mike Shula, the man who preceded Nick Saban. So yes, a falloff is possible when there is coaching turnover. Some feel (and I haven't given it much thought yet) that expanding the playoff field to eight would lessen the grip some at the top by Bama, OSU and Clemson.

Cowboy Mike from Atlanta: Any chance we will see at least five deep-pass plays and or jet sweeps with our speed merchants like Avery Davis, Braden Lenzy, Chris Tyree and maybe a surprise player that you would know about. Thanks. Always enjoy your perspective.

Eric Hansen: Cowboy Mike, I don't see anything wrong with your premise. I'd like to see that too. Surprise player? That happens more when there's 5-6 weeks of bowl prep, not 13 days. But I'll play along, kind of, and pick a defensive player and say Isaiah Foskey.

John from Champaign, Ill.: Eric, a follow-up question to your excellent recruiting article: How many of the top 100 players can Notre Dame actually recruit, given their academic restrictions?

Eric Hansen: I've seen a lot of different answers to that question over the years and probably need to glean a new consensus. Tom Lemming told me 70, but that seems a little high now. I'd probably say 50. And I'm glad you phrased it "academic restrictions," because it's not just admissions. You have to be able to survive in classes where there's nowhere really to hide academically.

Stan from Rockford Ill.: Prediction time:.1) Does ND score more than 20? I'm concerned after giving up 46 to Florida that Bama will want to make a statement on D. 2) Will getting Kyren Williams in space happen more often? 3) Will Ian Book throw more 50/50 passes to Javon McKinley and big No. 11 (Ben Skowronek)? Thanks for these chats. Many of us look forward to them. Best health to you and your loved ones. Go Irish.

Eric Hansen: Stan, thanks. 1. I think 17. .... 2. Yes, more Kyren in space ... 3. Yes, more 50/50 balls, just not at Patrick Surtain. ... Thank you for being part of the chats and best wishes to you and your family.

Eric Hansen: That's going to do it for this week. I have a Pod of Gold podcast with special guest Todd McShay we will be recording soon. Thanks for all the great questions. We'll be back to do it again next Wednesday at noon ET. Happy New Year everybody.

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