Can Notre Dame make a playoff run?
One of the most discussed college football topics every preseason is how good Notre Dame will be. And with the news over the weekend that one of their best defenders, lineman Jarron Jones, will miss the season due to a torn ACL, we decided to take a deep dive into our data to see whether the Fighting Irish have enough pieces to make a run at the College Football Playoff this season.
They’ve lost high-profile quarterback Everett Golson to Florida State via transfer, and Golson is one of the better QBs in the country, according to our numbers, but new starter Malik Zaire had pretty much passed Golson on the depth chart already, anyway. Zaire lacks experience, as a sophomore with only 21 completed passes to his name, but he flashed potential in 2014 and is a dynamic run threat. Provided Zaire settles into the role well, he has enough talent around him to give the Irish an edge.
The offensive line lacks great experience overall, but will be led by LT Ronnie Stanley and C/G Nick Martin, who impressed with their respective 97.6 and 98.2 pass-blocking efficiency scores in 2014. Receiver William Fuller ranked second in the nation with a 134.5 WR rating against Power 5 opponents, while Tarean Folston was the highest-graded running back on the team in 2014, and should again shoulder the load.
On defense, the loss of Jones is definitely a blow. His 83.7 run-defense grade was easily the best mark among the team’s interior defenders in 2014, and allowed Sheldon Day to focus on doing what he does best: getting after the passer. Jones’ injury leaves the Irish thin up front.
Aside from the injury to Jones, corner Cody Riggs is the only other major departure on defense. The Irish can once again call upon the athletic gifts of Jaylon Smith at linebacker, who led the team with 30 stops against the run last season.
With a midseason home game against USC, and trips to Clemson and Stanford, Notre Dame have enough meat on its schedule to be a factor in the College Football Playoff race — if it catches a couple of breaks along the way. After the Jones injury, the Irish can ill-afford to lose another difference-maker, and they also need some young players to star immediately — most notably Zaire.