BCS preview: Notre Dame's title shot finally comes into focus

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BCS preview: Notre Dame's title shot finally comes into focus

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Braxston Cave grew up a rabid Notre Dame fan, describing himself as the kind of guy who would throw his remote at the TV when things weren't going right for the Irish. The center was born two years after Notre Dame won its last National Championship, and was too young to remember the brushes with history of the early 1990's.

Cave is like every other member of Notre Dame nation. He's been waiting for this shot at a championship his whole life. Only on Monday, he'll get to have a hand in it.

"I don't think I can put that into words," Cave said. "Been waiting a long time. Not just Notre Dame, but the entire Notre Dame nation, the South Bend community, it'd be huge."

This Notre Dame team wasn't supposed to have a chance to win the school's ninth title. Nobody saw this opportunity coming, from the school's athletic director to its starting quarterback.

But here the Irish sit, one win away from the kind of glory that's eluded the program for the last quarter century. The last time this team won a title, it was Tony Rice taking snaps with the weight of Notre Dame nation on his shoulder.

"A championship for Notre Dame means you bring home the tradition," Rice said. "It's one of those things that it's hard to do, and being in an elite group of people that's done that -- shoot, you could say you did it."

For a program that lost its compass after Lou Holtz left, a win would mark a return to the "glory days," so to speak. While most Notre Dame players -- save team historian Louis Nix -- aren't aware of the specifics of their school's football past, there's a desire among these players to "get Notre Dame back to where it belongs."

That's a line that's been uttered by plenty of players over the last few weeks. Beat Alabama on Monday, and that goal will be accomplished. A win would solidify this group of players -- some hailing from the Charlie Weis era, others from Brian Kelly's early years -- as one of the best in school history.

"When you're a champion at other schools, you're a champion," Manti Te'o opined, "but when you're a champion at Notre Dame, you become a legend."

Will experience matter?

Notre Dame may have a history of championships, but not a single player on its roster was alive for the team's last title. Plenty of these players have seen pressure in high school along with a handful of games with Notre Dame. None of them have seen pressure like the BCS Championship.

For Alabama, Monday will mark the team's third appearance in a BCS Championship game in the last four years. Offensive lineman Barrett Jones played in the first two, which saw Alabama beat Texas in Pasadena and LSU in New Orleans.

"I think that's probably a little overplayed to be honest," Jones said of the experience factor. "I think certainly if it helps at all its probably from a preparation standpoint. The coaching staff has a very good idea on the best way of how to prepare with a long layoff. As far as the actual experience, once you get there, its about who plays a better game, not even who the better team is, just who plays a better game. I think thats a little overdone.

But having past championship games upon which to draw certainly won't hurt Alabama, especially if Notre Dame starts playing tight. For Notre Dame to win, they can't be overwhelmed by the moment -- which is something that's not of much concern for Alabama.

How Alabama could win

The Tide have advantages on offense and special teams over Notre Dame, while there are arguments to be made in favor of both Notre Dame and Alabama's defense as being superior.

If there's an Achilles' heel for Notre Dame, it's special teams. Even if the Irish defense shuts down running backs Eddie Lacy and T.J. Yeldon, it may not matter if Alabama starts flipping the field through good punt or kickoff returns. It's much easier for those two backs -- and quarterback A.J. McCarron, too -- to lead Alabama to points on a 50-yard field than a 75 or 80-yard one.

For Alabama, the formula is simple: Create holes for Lacy and Yeldon and strike early. If Alabama sets the tone early with a dominant first-quarter drive, the floodgates could very well open. And if that happens, the game may be decided in the first 15 minutes.

"If you're going to play in the National Championship, you'd better start fast," Te'o said. "It's not, OK, you guys, we've got to start fast -- it's a must, especially since we're going up against a team that's really, really good."

The Jones-Nix matchup is the key to Monday's trench battle. If Jones can't handle Nix on his own, Alabama may have to double-team him, leaving Prince Shembo or Stephon Tuitt with better opportunities to get to McCarron in the backfield. Plus, if Alabama can't handle Nix, it probably means Notre Dame's doing a good job stopping the run, too.

If those holes aren't plugged up, though, Notre Dame's defense will be in trouble.

"People were talking about how do you bring down Lacy, how do you bring down those backs. You don't," Kelly said. "If there's big holes, I don't know about you guys, we ain't tackling them. We're not going to get them on the ground."

Defensively, Alabama's goal is to turn quarterback Everett Golson into a one-dimensional quarterback. If Alabama is successful in those efforts, he'll be forced to take on the Tide's secondary without the option to scramble.

"That's when he gets slowed down," safety Vinnie Sunseri explained. "He's a great athlete, a great quarterback when he's able to be mobile and get out of the pocket. If you can keep him in the pocket, that really limits him."

Another point, too: With so much time to prepare, Alabama is going to throw plenty of blitzes at Golson he's never seen on film. While Golson showed plenty of poise in the latter half of the season, if he's getting drilled or failing to check out of plays thanks to blitz packages he's totally unfamiliar with, the redshirt freshman very well could get rattled. Last time that happened, Golson threw two interceptions and was yanked in the second quarter against Michigan.

How Notre Dame could win

First and foremost, Notre Dame has to throw the initial haymaker. Cierre Wood did it against Oklahoma, gouging the Sooners' defense for a 62-yard touchdown in the first quarter.

"That takes the air out of you, when a guy splits your defense and runs for a touchdown like that coming out of the backfield, no doubt about it," Alabama defensive end Damion Square said.

Texas A&M got out to a 20-0 first-quarter lead in its upset win over Alabama in November. Notre Dame doesn't need that level of success, but a lead after 15 minutes would do wonders for the team's confidence.

From there, if Notre Dame's offense is to have any success, it'll be because Wood and Theo Riddick are able to carve out some solid gains on the ground. That way, even if Alabama contains Golson in the pocket, he'll at least have the threat of play action to throw off the Tide's secondary.

That's something far easier said than done, though.

"They don't get moved," Riddick said of Alabama's defensive line. "That's a huge problem if you can't move the front four and create holes. You just cannot become one-dimensional against this team."

Notre Dame isn't likely to win this game in a blowout. But one thing working in the team's favor is all the close games that turned into wins throughout the 2012 season -- and that creates a we've-been-here-before mentality. It's not like Alabama hasn't won close games, either (see wins vs. LSU and Georgia) but Notre Dame is more battle-tested, even if those battles were often fought against lesser competition.

If Notre Dame can stay within striking distance, they may be in good shape for a late knockdown. Coming back from a two-touchdown deficit may have worked against Pittsburgh, but chances are it won't against Alabama.

"I don't know if we're good enough to beat Alabama," offensive coordinator Chuck Martin explained, "but if we're good enough to beat Alabama, I think our kids have shown that they're a pretty resilient bunch, and they're pretty battle tested whether it be home or away."

So that's the formula: Run the ball, keep it close on defense and see if Golson can make a big play or two to turn things in Notre Dame's favor.

If Notre Dame can do that, as Nix said, "it could be a game for the ages."

Two views of Notre Dame's 2017 signing day class

Two views of Notre Dame's 2017 signing day class

After a handful of late additions sent in their national letters of intent to the Guglielmino Athletics Complex, Notre Dame on Wednesday announced its 21-player recruiting class of 2017. There are a couple of ways to view the end of what was a volatile recruiting period for the Irish:

The glass-half-full take:

Two and a half months after wrapping up an embarrassing 4-8 season, Notre Dame's 2017 recruiting class ranks 11th by 247 Sports, 13th by Rivals, 13th by Scout and 16th by ESPN. In fact, Notre Dame actually ranks higher this year in 247 Sports' composite rankings (11th) than it did in 2016 (15th), when the Irish were coming off a 10-win season and a Fiesta Bowl berth. 

Nearly scraping together a top-10 class after going 4-8 and losing four assistant coaches in Mike Sanford, Mike Denbrock, Scott Booker and Keith Gilmore is an impressive feat (Greg Hudson was only an interim defensive coordinator, and Brian VanGorder was far from a reliable recruiter). Plenty of kudos should be extended the way of recruiting coordinator/defensive line coach Mike Elston for heading up the program's efforts to keep what began as a pretty strong class from disintegrating. 

Additionally, coach Brian Kelly pointed to the work of the 15 verbally-committed players who stuck with their pledges even as Notre Dame sustained a string of confounding losses and significant coaching turnover. 

"We couldn't be where we are today unless we had 15 student-athletes that were committed to Notre Dame from the start to the finish," Kelly said. "Really during a very difficult season, this group of 15 really had to endure the things that would occur out there in recruiting during a very difficult season. Other schools reminding them about a very difficult season that we had. Then there was them sticking together because of why they wanted to come to Notre Dame."

Five of those players enrolled early — tight end Brock Wright, offensive linemen Robert Gainsay and Aaron Banks, running back C.J. Holmes and safety Isaiah Robertson, all of whom 247 sports rated as four-star recruits — and guys like tight end Cole Kmet, quarterback Avery Davis and offensive linemen Joshua Lugg never wavered, too. 

That those players stuck together helped Notre Dame maintain a good base after the NCAA-mandated dead period lifted after the College Football Playoff title game last month, and new coaches Brian Polian, Mike Elko, Clark Lea, Chip Long and DelVaughn Alexander were able to bring in six late additions to the class: safety Jordan Genmark Heath, wide receiver Jafar Armstrong, kicker Jonathan Doerer, defensive lineman Myron Tagovailoa, linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah and defensive lineman Kofi Wardlow. 

Armstrong, Tagovailoa and Wardlow all filled red-line positions of need, while adding more players to increase the pool of talent available to Elko is hardly a bad thing. 

But the optimistic viewpoint here is the deck was stacked against Notre Dame in recruiting, and they actually turned out a pretty good hand thanks to a complete effort from everyone in the athletic department. 

"Every weekend, Jack Swarbrick, our athletic director, met with our recruits," Kelly said. "That's unusual. I don't think that happens everywhere that your athletic director makes himself able to meet with recruits.

"In a lot of instances he had to be there to support our football program and talk to recruits about where this program is and where it's going. There are questions when a family comes on campus. He reminded them about the investment we were making in staff and what we were doing for the present and for the future. So having Jack's involvement in this was absolutely crucial to get to where we are."

Now, for the glass-half-empty take:

Notre Dame had six players decommit, five of whom were at positions of need (defensive line, cornerback, wide receiver). Only four-star defensive end Robert Beal jumped ship before Notre Dame's fall tailspin was underway, and four of those six decommitting players were four-star recruits. 

Notre Dame wound up replacing them with six late commitments, but five of those late-deciding players were three-star recruits and one (Doerner) was a two-star player. That's a good recipe for slipping from having a top-10 class to one on the outside looking in. 

A common lament among fans is that Notre Dame has struggled to sign five-star recruits lately, and while it's true the Irish haven't done that since 2013 — Jaylon Smith and Max Redfield, as rated by 247 Sports — that's not as big an issue as it may seem. Just look at the disparity in college success between Smith and Redfield as a front-and-center example of how a five-star rating doesn't guarantee success in college. Signing more four/five-star recruits than two/three-star ones is far more important (more on that in a bit). 

But the bigger issue with Notre Dame's 2017 class perhaps has more to do with its 2016 class. Notre Dame lost ace recruiters Tony Alford and Kerry Cooks after the 2014 season and re-worked its entire recruiting operation in response, which led to little oomph in a 2016 class that, based on the prior season, should've been much better than it was. 

Last year's group could ultimately build a legacy as a less-heralded crop of recruits that went on to success — the strong debuts of 247 Sports three-stars in cornerback Julian Love and wide receiver Kevin Stepherson were good starts — but there's a long way to go there. 

If 2016 was supposed to be a more transitional recruiting class, though, then 2017 represents a massive missed opportunity. Going 4-8 with all the right recruiting machinations in place is a glaring shortcoming for the future of the program — even a nine-win season could've allowed Notre Dame to hang on to some of those four-star players it lost and earn a top-10 class ranking. 

More importantly than a top-10 class, though, is pulling in more four- and five-star recruits than two and-three star ones. Notre Dame didn't do that in 2017 (10 four-star recruits out of 21) or 2016 (10 four-star recruits out of 23) after hitting that benchmark each of the last three recruiting cycles. That's a worrying trend given the correlation between signing a majority of four- and five-star recruits and winning a championship

The last two recruiting cycles have been, in that context, significant disappointment. While strong classes in 2014 and 2015 could prop up a playoff run as soon as this fall, the future of the program may not be on solid footing even if the Irish engineer a major turnaround in 2017. Next year's class likely will be critical to the long-term success of the program under Kelly, presuming he's still around to usher in the next group of recruits in February of 2018. 

Brian Kelly rides into pivotal 2017 with plenty of new faces on coaching staff

Brian Kelly rides into pivotal 2017 with plenty of new faces on coaching staff

Brian Kelly raised a few eyebrows earlier this month when, in announcing the hiring of offensive coordinator Chip Long, said he would not be calling plays for Notre Dame's offense in 2017.

Instead, the 33-year-old Long — who spent 2016 as Memphis' offensive coordinator — will handle play calling duties for a Notre Dame team desperately needing to reverse course after last year's disastrous 4-8 record. Kelly's decision to hand over play-calling duties to someone with whom he's never worked — something he'd never done at Notre Dame — is perhaps the most interesting development in a hectic two-month stretch for the Irish coaching staff. 

In announcing Notre Dame's 2017 coaching staff on Monday, Kelly explained why he won't be calling plays in a pivotal year for the veteran coach's legacy. In conducting exit interviews with 96 players in the days after Notre Dame's season-ending loss to USC, Kelly noticed a common theme: The defensive players said they liked having him work on that side of the ball, which Kelly did after firing defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder four games into the season. 

"Most of the time I'm on the offensive side of the ball," Kelly said. "So it really sent a message to me that I needed to be more involved in both sides, offensive, defensive and special teams. The only way to do that is to have somebody calling plays. If you're calling plays, you have to spend so much time on one side of the ball, and so after making the decision that I would not have the influence on a day-to-day basis, it was simply easy for me to know what I was looking for offensively and that was a play caller."

All of Notre Dame's assistant coaches had previously been announced by the program, but a refresher of who's who on the staff:

Offensive coordinator: Chip Long
Quarterbacks: Tom Rees (who will be a graduate assistant until, as Notre Dame expects, the NCAA allows for a 10th full-time assistant coach)
Running backs: Autry Denson
Wide receivers: DelVaughn Alexander
Tight Ends: Chip Long
Offensive line: Harry Hiestand
Defensive coordinator: Mike Elko
Defensive line: Mike Elston
Linebackers: Clark Lea
Defensive backs: Todd Lyght
Special teams: Brian Polian
Strength & conditioning: Matt Balis

Only Denson, Hiestand, Elston and Lyght are back from last year's coaching staff, with no surprises on any. Denson is an ace recruiter with strong contacts in talent-rich Florida; Hiestand has a sparkling reputation as a recruiter and developer of offensive linemen; Elston also serves as the team's recruiting coordinator; and Lyght, while inexperienced as a coach, presided over promising development from a number of Notre Dame's freshmen defensive backs last year. 

Longtime Kelly lieutenants Mike Denbrock (now the offensive coordinator at Cincinnati) and Paul Longo (who, Kelly said, was unable to fulfill his dues as strength coordinator due to a long-term disability) are no longer around. Mike Sanford cashed in on his up-and-coming coaching stock and accepted the head coaching position at Western Kentucky, where he got his first assistant job. Scott Booker (tight ends/special teams), Keith Gilmore (defensive line) and Greg Hudson (interim defensive coordinator) were all relieved of their duties, though Kelly said he'd like Hudson to still have a role in the program. Hudson was a defensive analyst last year before being promoted to defensive coordinator after VanGorder was jettisoned.

From a player standpoint, there's not the same level of drastic turnover that hit Kelly's coaching staff. DeShone Kizer is gone for the NFL, but redshirt sophomore Brandon Wimbush has a tantalizingly high ceiling and both the mental and physical attributes to be an excellent quarterback. Torii Hunter Jr. and Tarean Folston are the only other key offensive players to not return in 2017, but the injection of receiver/tight end hybrid Alize Jones (who was ineligible in 2016) and running back Dexter Williams (who flashed potential in limited use last year) should cover for those losses. 

On defense, losing defensive linemen Jarron Jones and Isaac Rochell, linebacker James Onwualu and cornerback Cole Luke create holes, but perhaps a more teachable defensive scheme implemented by Elko will help shore up a group that's been a weakness since Bob Diaco left for UConn. 

"Mike Elko does a lot of things that are hard to decipher, but easily taught," Kelly said. "And his experiences in college and coaching and teaching and communicating; and he does an incredibly efficient job at communicating what he's teaching. And we're teachers. He's a really good teacher at the end of the day."

The weakest link for Notre Dame last year was special teams, though, but Kelly was able to convince a former head coach and Irish assistant under Charlie Weis to return to South Bend to solely focus on that unit. The hiring of Polian may ultimately be the most important hire Kelly made after the 2016 season: the Irish ranked 36th in offensive S&P+, 28th in defensive S&P+ (though that's skewed by facing two option teams and playing in a hurricane) and 80th in special teams S&P+ in 2016. Even a modest improvement in special teams could've got Notre Dame at least six, maybe more, wins last year. 

"To have somebody with his experience, with his knowledge, with his background coaching our special teams and focusing primarily on that, without another position to pull his focus away," Kelly said, "I think it's just an upgrade and allows us to really think about excelling and gaining an advantage in that area."

So this is the coaching staff Kelly will ride with in 2017, as the pressure to win swells with every day that someone remembers the team went 4-8 last year. That lack of success is unacceptable in South Bend, and not significantly improving off it is a fireable offense. 

Notre Dame couldn't stand pat after last year. Whether this new mix of coaches buoys a nine- or 10-win season (at the least) remains to be seen, but make no mistake: The buck stops with Kelly, who will sink or swim with this coaching staff.

But for now, with kickoff of the 2017 season still over seven months away, Kelly isn't viewing this as a make-or-break year. Instead, he's content to paraphrase Shakespeare and focus on the more immediate future. 

"I know there's more scrutiny on this year because of last year's poor performance, but I am focused on the present," Kelly said. "And I know that there's going to be a ton of talk about that, and I get that. That comes with this.

"But I think every year that I've gone into this position that it's about excellence. It's about championships. And if you fall short of that, it's the slings and arrows of outrageous misfortune."