After a 10-3 season where the Fighting Irish toyed with a College Football Playoff berth, expectations were high in South Bend, as they usually are, entering the 2016 season. Were those expectations too high? Possibly.
In 2015, the Irish lost their starting quarterback Malik Zaire in Week 2. They then proceeded to finish 10-2 in the regular season. The only losses were a pair of two-point defeats to national runner-up Clemson and No. 9 Stanford. A win in either of those games may have been enough to put Notre Dame into the CFP, but we will never know.
What we do know is that is that 15 starters from last year’s team either graduated, left early for the NFL, or simply are no longer with the program. Head coach Brian Kelly returned just three starters on offense and five on defense. College football rosters experience turnover year in and year out, but trying to play a Notre Dame schedule with inexperienced, young players is a challenge, to say the least.
There are many young players in Kelly’s offense, but guys like Torii Hunter Jr., Equanimeous St. Brown, and C.J. Sanders at least had some game experience. Remember that QB DeShone Kizer is just a sophomore, but he did start 11 games last season. The Fighting Irish offense, which is averaging nearly 37 points per game, is not the problem in 2016. It is the defense.
After Notre Dame’s second straight loss last weekend, this one to Duke, Kelly fired defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder. It was a bold move, but something had to change. The Irish defense has given up 50 points to Texas, 36 to Michigan State, and 38 last Saturday to the Blue Devils. However, anyone who looked at the Irish defense at the beginning of the season could have seen something like this coming, although maybe not quite as bad.
Notre Dame said goodbye to linebackers Joe Schmidt and Jaylon Smith, defensive linemen Romeo Okwara and Sheldon Day, and defensive backs Elijah Shumate and KeiVarae Russell. When the Irish opened the season against Texas, 10 of the 22 spots on the two-deep defensive depth chart were held by freshman or sophomores. Yes, Notre Dame has plenty of talent, but what they do not have are players with serious game experience. That will change as the season moves along.
Is it the end of the world for Kelly, Notre Dame, and its fans? Hardly. The Fighting Irish will attempt to salvage their season by taking on Syracuse and N.C. State in their next two games. A date with Stanford looms that could help Notre Dame make a statement about its 2016 season. They will face 14th-ranked Miami, another signature win-type game, and then close the season with very winnable games against Army, Navy, Virginia Tech, and USC. A 9-3 finish is surely possible – the Irish must figure out how to play defense – but Notre Dame fans should not expect it this year.