Notre Dame heads into its bye week with records of 7-0 straight-up and 4-3 against the spread. Let’s recap their season so far and explore betting strategies for their return to action.
Notre Dame’s Roller-Coaster Offense
The offense was Notre Dame’s biggest question mark heading into the season. The offensive line missed two players to the first round of the NFL draft and its position coach, star running back Josh Adams went to the NFL and backup running back Dexter Williams missed the first four games due to suspension. Most critically, quarterback Brandon Wimbush was viewed with skepticism because of his accuracy and decision-making.
The season opener masked Notre Dame’s issues. Wimbush connected in the first quarter with two amazing deep passes, one of which was caught for a touchdown by Chris Finke because of his amazing effort that prevented an interception. Excepting that touchdown, Wimbush was 11-for-21 for 127 yards and an interception. He was the same old Wimbush: he accomplished a couple deep passes but was, overall, very inconsistent and lacked the speed to make a meaningful difference without his legs.
Wimbush was a liability who held his offense and his entire team back. Against Ball State, Wimbush was visibly frustrated because coach Brian Kelly disallowed him from scrambling and he couldn’t make simple throws even against a pass defense that was bottom-ranked last year. He threw for a lot of yards, but also threw three interceptions in instances where the talent of his receivers couldn’t compensate for his poor ball placement. Notre Dame’s offense was relatively aggressive in the first quarter and started off with the lead thanks to the success of its scripted plays. This early success composed Notre Dame’s tendency with Wimbush: draw up scripted plays that he could succeed with and then risk as little as possible offensively to win.
In other words, as long as Wimbush was quarterback, Notre Dame’s defense won its games, not its offense. Notre Dame’s defense saw an immense number of snaps — for instance, 97 against Ball State. Still, Notre Dame allowed 17 or 16 points in each of its first three games. Against Michigan and in its third game against Vanderbilt, the defense finished the game on the field, holding the opponent from the end zone in order to secure the win. Against Ball State, Notre Dame recovered an onside kick. Because the offense was so limited, Notre Dame failed to cover as heavy favorites against Ball State and Vanderbilt.
Enter Ian Book. With Book, Notre Dame finally had an option at quarterback who it could trust to sustain drives, not lose games, and push the ball downfield. Book, who last season had been confined to mop-up duty until he rescued Notre Dame in its bowl game, somehow failed to beat out Wimbush for the starting job. Nevertheless, he was a totally different quarterback. He actually had similar numbers to Wimbush without having quite the same mobility. But this season, his completion percentage is 75.1, he has thrown for 1,151 yards in four games and 11 touchdowns to three interceptions. Book is accurate and he takes what the defense gives him. The return of Dexter Williams helps him out. Williams ran for 161 yards against Stanford and then 178 with three touchdowns against Virginia Tech. With Book, the Irish scored 56 points against Wake Forest. With him and Williams, they achieved 38 points against Stanford and 45 against Virginia Tech. Notre Dame covered all three of those games.
One of the Best Defenses
Notre Dame’s defense has always been rock solid. It ranks 25th in opposing yards per carry, ninth in opposing passer rating, and 18th in opposing points per game. One of its top players is linebacker Te’von Coney, who leads the team with 48 tackles. His speed and reaction skills give him great range in pursuit against the run while his athleticism makes him a viable help against the pass. Cornerback Julian Love leads the secondary with 11 passes defensed thanks to his awareness, ball skills and reaction to opposing routes.
Defensive tackle Jerry Tillery is a physical monster with surprising agility. He leads the line with six sacks. An honorable mention that doesn’t light up the stat sheet is defensive end Julian Okwara, whose brother plays for the New York Giants. Okwara is an electric pass rusher whose speed off the edge forces opposing offenses to devote extra attention to him.
A Small Letdown
One game I avoided mentioning is Notre Dame's last one, an ugly 19-14 win over Pittsburgh. Because the Irish depended on Book for its final touchdown, it’s fair to say they would have lost with Wimbush. This game isn’t worth talking about because an ugly performance happens to every top team. One letdown — this one came after back-to-back primetime victories and on the verge of midterm week, which is an extra big deal at Notre Dame — doesn’t mean Notre Dame isn’t great.
Consider the following examples: Georgia, eventual national runner-up who took Alabama to overtime, got blown out by Auburn 40-17 during the regular season. Clemson, who made the playoffs, lost to lowly Syracuse. Alabama, eventual champion, nearly lost at Mississippi State and lost to Auburn. The list goes on. Notre Dame looked ugly last week, but it happens.
Notre Dame was +3000 (tied for 14th) before the season to win it all. Now they sit at +1000. I still wouldn’t invest too much into them as long as Alabama’s star quarterback, Tua Tagovailoa, is healthy. But, with the hardest part of its schedule behind them, it looks on paper like the Irish could very well make it to the national championship game, in which instance bettors could hedge by betting on Alabama (if Alabama does make it). They should be favored in every game after the bye week. They’ll have this extra week to prepare for Navy’s option attack. Their elite pass defense will get a Northwestern team whose offense is spearheaded by its pass attack. Notre Dame then hosts the catastrophic mess that is Florida State, then a Syracuse squad that has been very overrated. For its finale, Notre Dame travels to USC, whose freshman quarterback, J.T. Daniels, is finding a groove on the college level by learning how to be more accurate down the field and to avoid staring down his receivers. By the end of the season, USC will probably be Notre Dame’s most formidable opponent left.
But history instructs us that we should stay away from betting on the Notre Dame future. Under Kelly, Notre Dame is 1-7 ATS in its last two seasons and 3-14 ATS in its last four seasons in November. Kelly’s Irish tend to fizzle out later in the regular season. So if we do decide to bet on Notre Dame in the playoffs — if they make it — let’s wait until we get more attractive odds.
This is my first time betting on every single game of a team. The advantage of doing this is that I know Notre Dame very well. Nevertheless, at 2-5, this has been a tough experience. After starting 2-0, I was always a step behind. I bet on Notre Dame against Vanderbilt, not realizing how vanilla the offensive play-calling was with a lead (I had interpreted the Ball State game as a letdown spot). I then faded Notre Dame against Wake Forest before knowing that Book was announced as the starter. I then bet against Notre Dame against Stanford and Virginia Tech, failing to understand that Book was a transformed quarterback, while overvaluing both Stanford and Virginia Tech on defense. After realizing Book was the real deal, I eagerly bet on Notre Dame against Pittsburgh, which was a mistake given the situation. In sum, I’m relieved to get a break from betting on Notre Dame games and, refreshed with clearer mind, I hope to turn things around.