SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) — Most seasons at Notre Dame, expectations include questions about contending for a championship. This year, there are questions about two.
One of the most unusual seasons in the history of college sports is about to begin and it includes a pandemic-prompted wrinkle for the 10th-ranked Fighting Irish: They are taking a one-year sabbatical from their treasured independence to join the Atlantic Coast Conference race, a step that guaranteed Notre Dame a slate of opponents when dozens of programs aren't playing at all.
Notre Dame opens the season Sept. 12 at home against Duke.
“I know our players are excited about playing for a conference championship,” said coach Brian Kelly, now in his 11th season at Notre Dame.
Those odds could be long. Indeed, they might need to beat No. 1 Clemson twice – on Nov. 7 in Notre Dame Stadium and in the ACC championship game in December – to even receive a College Football Playoff berth and possibly three times to break their 32-year national title curse.
Kelly’s tenure ties him with Hall of Fame predecessors Frank Leahy, Ara Parseghian and Lou Holtz, all just two years behind Knute Rockne. The other four have national championships on their resumes and statues in their honor outside the house that Rockne built.
Notre Dame’s last national championship came in 1988 under Holtz, and Kelly’s Irish have come up empty against the dominant teams of the last decade (Alabama and Clemson).
Notre Dame will have an experienced quarterback under center in Ian Book, who has thrown for 6,118 yards and 57 touchdowns, rushed for another 1,033 yards and eight scores, and is 20-3 as a starter entering his fifth season.
Book will have a veteran offensive line in front of him along with junior tight end Tommy Tremble, speedy outside receivers Braden Lenzy and Lawrence Keys III and grad transfer Ben Skowronek. Senior Jafar Armstrong returns to a crowded backfield after two injury-plagued seasons.
“There’s nothing better than putting in that work and working on chemistry,” Book said.
Kelly said he has seen growth in the 6-foot, 208-pound Book since quarterbacks coach Tom Rees became the team’s new offensive coordinator prior to the team’s 33-9 bowl victory over Iowa State.
“He’s developed a single-minded focus in terms of what he wants this team to accomplish,” Kelly said. “It’s a championship or bust.”
In this bizarre season, make that two championships.
STRENGTH UP FRONT
Left tackle Liam Eichenberg heads a veteran offensive front for line coach Jeff Quinn and is projected to be the next Irish lineman to go in the NFL draft’s first round.
“It’s something we take pride in,” said the 6-foot-6, 305-pound Eichenberg, who is joined on the line by left guard Aaron Banks, center Jarrett Patterson, right guard Tommy Kraemer and right tackle Robert Hainsey. Patterson is a junior and the others are seniors are graduate students.
Clark Lea, the 38-year-old defensive coordinator, could be a head coach-in-waiting. Last season, his 4-2-5 defense finished 12th in scoring (17.9 points allowed per game) and 18th in total yardage (321.6 allowed).
Despite losing seven players with starting experience to the NFL, an abundance of talent returns in linemen Daelin Hayes, Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, Kurt Hinish and Adetokunbo Ogundeji; linebacker Drew White; rover Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, and secondary stalwarts Kyle Hamilton, TaRiq Bracy and Shaun Crawford, back for a sixth year.
NEW FACES, (SOME) NEW PLACES
Two freshmen tight ends in Michael Mayer and Kevin Bauman will add depth and ease the loss of Cole Kmet to the NFL. True freshman Chris Tyree and redshirt freshman Kyren Willliams have impressed at running back. Two other transfers – corner Nick McCloud (N.C. State) and safety Isaiah Pryor (Ohio State) – are expected to see extensive playing time.
Notre Dame began fall classes Aug. 10 and saw a spike in COVID-19 positive tests that forced President Rev. John Jenkins to shut down in-person classes beginning Aug. 19. Because of the spike, the Irish did not resume practice until Aug. 23. Since beginning testing June 18, the staff and players have undergone more than 1,000 tests with 11 positive cases..
For the first time since 1927, Navy is not on the schedule as Notre Dame went with a slate of 10 ACC games and one non-conference matchup, against South Florida on Sept. 19. The Irish could face Book’s former backup ,Phil Jurkovec, when they visit Boston College on Nov. 14.