Notre Dame notebook: Wrapping up the week in South Florida

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Notre Dame notebook: Wrapping up the week in South Florida

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- It's taken what feels like eons, but Notre Dame will play its first football game since Nov. 24 tonight. Wrapping up a few notes from the week in South Florida:
How much progress has Golson made?
Everett Golson has the respect of an Alabama defense that knows what it's like to be stung by a mobile quarterback. He's nowhere near the level of Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel, but from a basic standpoint Alabama wants to do to him what they couldn't do against the eventual Heisman Trophy winner.
The unknown here, at least for those outside of Notre Dame's players and coaches, is how much Golson has improved in these last six weeks. After guiding Notre Dame to a win at Oklahoma in late October, Golson's confidence -- and his team's confidence in him -- took off. It didn't hurt, either, that he faced a string of below-average defenses after OU.
At the least, Golson's done a good job taking care of the football this year. But he'll have to do more than that against Alabama, and may even be tasked with winning the game for Notre Dame.
Whatever improvements Golson has made -- namely, in the ability to run an expanded playbook, with plenty of looks Alabama hasn't seen on tape -- may be key if Notre Dame has a shot at winning tonight.
A chance to show off for Wood
Cierre Wood's goal is to score a touchdown every time he touches the ball, since he hardly gets the consistent carries he's pined for all season. If this is Wood's final game in a Notre Dame uniform -- he said he'll decide whether to enter the NFL Draft after the BCS Championship -- he could certainly help his stock with a few gouging runs against Alabama's defense.
This is as prominent of a stage as he'll get. And not only could he show off for NFL teams, he could leave plenty of analysts scratching their heads as to why Wood didn't get more carries during the season.
Wood's a confident guy, whose swagger only grows every time he touches the ball. This is the same Wood who said of Manti Te'o earlier in the season: "He thinks he can guard me, but he cant. I dont care how good he is, he cant guard me."
Against Alabama, that same level of bravado could be a mental edge for whenever he touches the ball.
"I believe there isnt nobody out there that can tackle me, there isnt nobody out there that I havent faced that Im not better than," Wood previously boasted. "So with that being said, I go into every run that I get or every play, period, thinking that Im the baddest."
One last hurrah for Te'o
Te'o graduated last month and has one more game left in his collegiate career before his next journey begins. He's been as transcendent a player as Notre Dame has seen in a long time, someone whose tenure in South Bend will be remembered fondly whether or not the Irish win tonight.
Back in August on the outset of the 2012 season, coach Brian Kelly said Te'o "has unfinished business as it relates to this football team." Nobody figured that unfinished business would've been a trip to South Florida for the National Championship, but here we are. A Notre Dame win tonight would cement Te'o among the most legendary players in program history, a legacy few have had the chance to attain.
"I hope my legacy is just a guy who gave Notre Dame his all, a guy who really committed himself to the school, and I really feel fortunate to play under the Golden Dome and receive an education there," Te'o said Friday, selling himself short. "Just one who really gave everything he had."
A final thought
Notre Dame's secondary has done a fine job of limiting big plays this year, but it hasn't been all by their own doing. Consider this: The first -- and maybe only, save one deep ball to Marqise Lee -- team to really gouge Notre Dame's secondary was Miami. The problem was Philip Dorsett dropped two sure-fire touchdowns, setting the tone for a sloppy effort by the 'Canes in a 41-6 loss.
If A.J. McCarron and, say, Amari Cooper get the same chance Stephen Morris and Dorsett did, Notre Dame may not be so lucky. The Irish have successfully turned most every opposing offense they've faced into a one-dimensional unit, and this is a defense good enough to stop the run or pass as long as the threat of the other isn't there.
On the flip side, Alabama's defense looked beatable against two elite offenses in Georgia and Texas A&M. Those games have received plenty of focus in the last few weeks, but it's worth noting Alabama shut down two other solid offenses in Tennessee (13 points) and Michigan (14 points). Notre Dame is closer to those two offenses than Georgia and Texas A&M, although the Irish offense may need to play as well as the Bulldogs or Aggies to have a chance tonight.

Bowl eligibility no sure thing for Notre Dame, especially with a loss to Syracuse

Bowl eligibility no sure thing for Notre Dame, especially with a loss to Syracuse

Notre Dame hasn’t fallen short of bowl eligibility since 2007, a year that invokes visceral reactions around South Bend. But at 1-3, Notre Dame’s chances of getting to six wins aren't necessarily healthy in 2016. 

S&P+ gives Notre Dame a 21 percent chance of going 6-6, a 9 percent chance of going 7-5 and a 2 percent chance of going 8-4, so added up that’s only a 32 percent chance of becoming bowl eligible. The most likely records, according to S&P+, are 5-7 (30 percent) and 4-8 (25 percent). Notre Dame has a better chance of finishing 2-10 (3 percent) than it does 8-4, by these numbers. 

(For more on S&P+ and the methodology behind it, click here)

The reason behind those, in all honestly, shockingly low numbers: only three games in which S&P+ favors Notre Dame to win going forward. Those are Syracuse (65 percent), Navy (71 percent) and Army (78 percent). Win probabilities for Notre Dame’s other games: 40 percent (N.C. State), 31 percent (Stanford), 28 percent (Miami), 36 percent (Virginia Tech) and 39 percent (USC). 

FEI is more optimistic about Notre Dame’s bowl chances, giving the Irish a better than 60 percent chance to win games against Syracuse, N.C. State, Miami, Navy, Army and Virginia Tech. But FEI also gave Notre Dame a 90.8 percent chance of beating Duke heading into last week, which is less an indictment of the numbers and more an indictment of how poorly the Irish played against the Blue Devils. 

Syracuse, though, looks like it’ll present a difficult challenge for Notre Dame. The Orange rank 36th in offensive S&P+, largely due to their excellent passing game (15th in success rate). Notre Dame ranks 78th in defensive S&P+ and 121st in passing success rate, which certainly looks like a concerning matchup.

Syracuse’s defense is bad, though (101st in S&P+), so Notre Dame’s top-15 offense should be able to put up some points. In short: Expect a shootout if Notre Dame does win on Saturday at MetLife Stadium. 

But if Notre Dame loses to fall to 1-4, sound the alarms. Or start planning your football-less vacation during bowl season. 

Notre Dame needs mistake-free play from receivers

Notre Dame needs mistake-free play from receivers

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Last year, Notre Dame receivers combined to fumble twice in 13 games. Through four weeks in 2016, Irish receivers already have fumbled three times, losing two of them.

Sophomore C.J. Sanders’ fumble against Michigan State sparked the Spartans’ 36-point run, and fellow sophomore Equanimeous St. Brown lost a fumble that stunted Notre Dame’s offense in a three-point loss to Duke. Freshman Kevin Stepherson also fumbled against the Blue Devils, but impressive hustled back to recover it. 

In 2015, only Torii Hunter Jr. and Chris Brown fumbled (Hunter’s came at the goal line against USC; Brown’s came in that rainstorm at Clemson). That was a veteran-heavy receiving corps, while Notre Dame’s 2016 group only has two upperclassmen in it: Hunter, a redshirt junior, and Corey Holmes, a redshirt sophomore (who doesn’t have much playing experience). 

“A lot of young guys out there, a lot of young guys,” coach Brian Kelly said. “It's unacceptable, but a lot of young guys out there.”

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Sanders’ fumble, Kelly said was more careless — he didn’t have three points of pressure on the ball when it was knocked out. St. Brown tried to make a play despite having a second defender converging on him and should’ve gone down before the ball was dislodged. 

Guys like Sanders and St. Brown, who are seeing the first real college action at receiver this year, were probably able to make plenty of defenders miss with ease while in high school. But that’s nowhere near as easy to do now. 

Notre Dame needs its offense to avoid these unforced (yet, technically, forced) errors while its defense remains an ineffective work in progress. There isn’t much room for error as Notre Dame aims to pull out of its 1-3 tailspin and reach a bowl game. 

“At this level everybody is bigger and faster,” Sanders said. “So you have to kind of have that notion in the back of your head, okay, you know if there's three guys in the area and I don't know where to go, get down. We made that mistake which we learned from it, so now we know.”