2018 was a successful year, by and large, for Head Coach Brian Kelly and the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, as the team reserved a spot in the College Football Playoff for the first time in program history, thanks to an undefeated regular season record. Though their schedule was a little less daunting than usual a season ago, the team still faced four Top 25 opponents in their twelve contests, and won those games by an average margin of over 20 points. Despite this, Notre Dame, being a school that boasts 11 national championships, wanted more than just the gratification of getting to sit at the big-boy table. The 30-3 drudging that Clemson handed them in late December, then, proved last season to be more of a reminder, if anything, that the Irish are still a long way from college football’s zenith.
Last Year: 12-1
Led by junior quarterback Brian Wimbush, Notre Dame, ranked only 12th in the preseason polls, got things going with a big win over then-No. 14 Michigan in South Bend, 21-14. From there, the Irish eeked by lesser opponents in Ball State and Vanderbilt, both times by just one-score, leading to Coach Kelly’s decision to start sophomore Ian Book in place of Wimbush at QB. The change paid off, it seems, as Book caught fire immediately, throwing for at least 270 yards in three easy wins over Wake Forest, Stanford, and Virginia Tech. Following a close one against Pittsburgh in which the Irish needed a fourth-quarter comeback to prevail, Notre Dame didn’t play another one-score contest until USC in the regular season finale, when the Trojans added a last-minute touchdown to make it a seven-point game. The team’s unblemished record heading into postseason play, however, ended abruptly, as mentioned, to the eventual national champion Clemson Tigers.
Last Time: Notre Dame 34, UVA 27 (2015)
This was a tough loss for the Virginia Cavaliers faithful to swallow - particularly for this one fan - as No. 9 Notre Dame, behind a 39 yard throw from then-back up DeShone Kizer to Will Fuller, rallied from one point down in the final minute to beat the Cavaliers in Scott Stadium. In what looked like was going to be one of the biggest upsets in the Mike London-era, quarterback Matt Johns went 26-38 with two scores, while Quin Blanding, Mike Moore, and Kelvin Rainey tied for the team-lead in tackles with eight a piece.
Comings and Goings
Notre Dame lost their starting tight end Alize Mack and biggest down-field threat Miles Boykin to the NFL, but did retain a few other important pieces on the offensive side. Besides Ian Book, who looks to be QB1 for the forseeable future in South Bend, Chase Claypool, Chris Finke, and Cole Kmet return after combining for 114 catches in 2018. Most of the offensive line is also back, though starting running back, Dexter Williams, has moved on to the Green Bay Packers.
On the other side of the ball, the Irish maintain most of their secondary core, apart from fourth-round draft pick Julian Love, that was fundamental to their Top 10 finish in the final S&P+ defensive rankings. They do, however, lose most of their playmakers up front in linebackers Te’Von Coney and Drue Tranquill - two of the three team-leaders in tackles - as well as lineman Jerry Tillery, so run-stoppage could be a problem, at least early on.
Running back Jafar Armstrong is the player that could elevate Notre Dame’s offense to new heights in 2019.
As a sophomore, Armstrong carried the ball 72 times for 383 yards with seven scores, while, perhaps more notably, gaining 159 yards on 14 catches. In coupling the versatility he showed with the departure of top running back and receiver by yardage in Williams and Boykin, then, expect offensive coordinator Chip Long to deploy Armstrong in a variety of situations throughout the season.
This Time: UVA @ Notre Dame (9/28)
Playing Notre Dame in South Bend is never an easy task. In their last two seasons, the Fighting Irish have only lost one time in their home stadium: a one-point barn-burner to eventual national runner-up Georgia. Still, if Bryce Perkins can make some plays, most likely on the ground, and UVA’s secondary can find a way to keep the Cavaliers in it late into the second-half - something they’ll need to do, no doubt, a few times in 2019 - then this one could be closer than the opening spread will probably suggest.