SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Notre Dame has bigger problems to worry about than the impact its academic investigation will have on its football team this fall.
That much is clear. The investigation raises serious questions about Notre Dame's self-proclaimed status as a beacon of academics amid more football-focused powerhouses. Given the investigation goes beyond the football program, it raises questions about the school as a whole.
There are plenty of other questions stemming from Friday's bombshell that the university is investigating academic dishonesty from "several" students. But since four of those students are football players, there is a question that is worth answering: How does this affect the immediate future of Notre Dame football?
The initial answer: Notre Dame will have an extremely difficult time labeling the 2014 season as a success. The tarnishing of Notre Dame's academic reputation certainly contributes to that, but so does the on-field outlook.
While wide receiver DaVaris Daniels, defensive end Ishaq Williams, linebacker Kendall Moore and cornerback KeiVarae Russell have yet to be suspended or, at worst, expelled from the university, their involvement in the investigation and removal from preseason practice indicates enough momentum that it'd be a surprise if the four players didn't miss some, if not all, of the 2014 season and beyond. Three of those four players were expected to start this coming fall, giving Notre Dame a trio of potential losses it'll struggle to deal with.
Russell would be the biggest loss for Brian Kelly's squad. The junior has 26 starts under his belt and described himself in December as a "full-blown corner" who finally understands the position two years after first playing it. He and graduate transfer Cody Riggs looked like good fits to succeed in Brian VanGorder's defense, which calls for more press and man coverage instead of Bob Diaco's bend-but-don't-break ethos.
Sophomore Cole Luke likely will slide into a starting role in Russell's absence, though whether he's strong enough and/or technical enough to play the position effectively remains to be seen. Russell had a chance to be a star, and losing him from what appeared to be Notre Dame's best defensive unit would be a massive blow.
If Williams is out, it'll remove a senior from an already-inexperienced Irish front seven that looks shaky as is. While guys like Jaylon Smith and Sheldon Day are both excellent players, Notre Dame was already going to be forced to rely on a number of freshmen to fill holes in the front seven -- and without Williams, those greenhorns will likely be called upon to play bigger roles.
And the more freshmen Notre Dame is forced to play, the more questions there will be about the effectiveness of the team's defense.
Notre Dame has a fairly deep stable of wide receivers at its disposal to replace Daniels, though his 80 catches over the last two years are more than four times the total junior Chris Brown has in the same time span (17). Daniels and quarterback Everett Golson have had a good rapport dating back to their freshmen days on the scout team in 2011 and the Vernon Hills, Ill. native was poised to be a go-to target in an explosive offense this fall.
Instead, Notre Dame likely will have to count on Brown, sophomores Corey Robinson, Will Fuller and Torii Hunter Jr. (if the latter is able to come back from a Grade 3 groin tear) and freshmen Justin Brent and Corey Holmes to make up for the lost targets.
The upshot of all this: Notre Dame's slim chances of cracking into the inaugural College Football Playoff could get a whole lot worse. The sports betting website Bovada already dropped Notre Dame's championship odds to 50/1, the same as Michigan and worse than the likes of Ole Miss (40/1), Wisconsin (33/1) and Florida (33/1). Facing a difficult schedule that includes road games at Florida State, Arizona State and USC as well as home games against Michigan, Stanford, North Carolina and Louisville, there's little chance of Notre Dame making the College Football Playoff, let alone defining the 2014 season as a success.
But again: While it's of some concern, the immediate impact of the investigation isn't the biggest issue Notre Dame has to address. There could be a profound and long-lasting impact to come from this investigation -- which is still in its early stages -- that could change quite a bit about the football program a whole lot more than a six or seven-win season would.