The Notre Dame Fighting Irish haven't won a national championship since 1988, but the 2015 team could be a major contender with a whopping 19 starters back. The Irish are +3500 at sportsbooks to win the next College Football Playoff.
Recapping Last Season
The 2014 season can be divided into three parts for Coach Brian Kelly's team. The first was when the Irish started the season 6-0. That included a 31-0 destruction of Michigan in the final scheduled meeting between the former rivals and a 17-14 home win over No. 14 Stanford when Notre Dame QB Everett Golson hit tight end Ben Koyack for the game-winning touchdown pass on fourth-and-11 from the Cardinal 23. Somehow Koyack was wide open in the back of the end zone.
So with six wins to start the year, the Irish rose to No. 5 in the polls and Golson was a legitimate Heisman Trophy contender at sportsbooks as Notre Dame visited unbeaten and No. 2 Florida State on Oct. 18. The Irish nearly pulled out their biggest win in years when Golson threw an apparent game-winning 2-yard touchdown pass to Corey Robinson with just 13 seconds left. However, the Irish were called for offensive pass interference on what was essentially a pick play. It was technically the right call but more often than not it's ignored by officials.
That loss seemed to take all the wind out of Notre Dame's sails. Yes, the Irish won their next game against Navy but didn't play great. Then they lost their final four-regular season games with the defense getting torched each week: 55 points allowed at Arizona State, 43 against Northwestern, 31 against Louisville and 49 in the regular-season finale, a 35-point loss at USC.
The defense wasn't solely to blame as Golson kept turning the ball over. Because of that and also because backup Malik Zaire played relatively well in relief of Golson against the Trojans, Kelly announced that both quarterbacks would play in the Music City Bowl against LSU. But in a moderate surprise, it was the redshirt freshman Zaire who got the start against the Tigers. The Irish upset LSU 31-28 with Zaire completing 12 of 15 passes for 96 yards and a touchdown while leading the team with 22 carries for 96 yards and another score. Golson finished 6-for-11 for 90 yards and rushed once for six yards. Zaire was predominantly used on rushing plays while Golson was utilized more heavily in passing plays. For example, Zaire had 17 designed rush attempts; Golson had never had more than nine attempts in his career.
Notre Dame finished the season at 8-5.
Looking Toward 2015
In the wake of Zaire's strong performance in the bowl game, Kelly said the quarterback job would be up for grabs this spring. Golson perhaps could read between the lines as there are reports he is looking to transfer, maybe even to LSU. Golson would be eligible to play immediately as he already has graduated. As many as two dozen schools have expressed possible interest in Golson.
So technically Notre Dame will get 19 starters back whether Golson returns or not because Zaire did start that one game. Nine of those returning starters are on offense, which only is expected to lose Koyack, the tight end, and offensive tackle/guard Christian Lombard. Offensive tackle Ronnie Stanley thought about declaring for the draft but didn't. It should thus be a terrific offense. Starting tailback Tarean Folston rushed for 889 yards and six scores last year, while top receiver William Fuller caught 76 passes for 1,094 yards and 15 touchdowns.
The defense brings back 10 guys, with only cornerback Cody Riggs leaving. The 10 returning starters don't include cornerback KeiVarae Russell, a starter in 2012 and 2013 before missing the 2014 season due to suspension. Defensive end Ishaq Williams also is expected back from suspension.
The 19 starters back are the most of any major program. The only school with more is little Appalachian State of the Sun Belt Conference.
As for the Irish schedule, it's not too bad. They are set to open on Sept. 5 against Texas, which is still rebuilding. The two toughest home games should be Sept. 19 against ACC runner-up Georgia Tech and Oct. 17 against Southern Cal. On the road, the Irish visit Virginia, Clemson, Temple, Pittsburgh, Boston College (Fenway Park) and Stanford. The Tigers and Cardinal both will be tough to beat.
NCAAF Free Pick: Because Notre Dame can't win a conference title it probably can afford just one loss to reach the 2015 College Football Playoff. It's not an impossible chore with that schedule, but I can see a home loss to the Trojans and either a defeat at Clemson or Stanford. Maybe both. No national title next season.