Notre Dame Returns to National Title Picture After 20 Year Absence

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D.S. Williamson

December 5th, 2018

In many ways, the history of Notre Dame Football is the history of college football. The Fighting Irish played their first game November 23, 1887, losing to rival Michigan 0-8. Since that inaugural battle, few college football programs have had the type of success like Notre Dame’s had. The Irish have won 11 national titles, including going back-to-back twice in 1929 and 1930 and again in 1946 and 1947.

Among the more famous names in Notre Dame Football lore are Knute Rockne, George Gipp and the Four Horseman, and in the 1980’s, the electrifying “Rocket” Raghib Ismail and the great Tim Brown. The 1980’s also happens to be the last time the Irish won the National Championship, when they toppled West Virginia in the 1989 Fiesta Bowl.

When the Fighting Irish step onto the football field to battle No.2 Clemson in one of two College Football Playoff semifinal games on Dec. 29, they’ll be searching for their first title in two decades.

No. 3 Notre Dame Regular Season Recap

Notre Dame immediately put itself into the CFP discussion with a dynamite 24-17 win over the Michigan Wolverines. A week later,  Notre Dame beat Ball State. Then, they really sent heads turning with a victory over Vanderbilt, a tough SEC team. A 56-27 win against overmatched Wake Forest followed before Notre Dame’s first real test this season after Michigan - a battle with the Stanford Cardinal.

Notre Dame stepped onto the gridiron a -4.5 favorite. The Cardinal hung with the Irish until the start of the 4th quarter where Notre Dame outscored Stanford by 14. The home team beat Stanford 38-17 to easily cover the spread. At the time, Notre Dame ranked 8th while Stanford ranked 7th.

The Irish didn’t look back, beating the rest of their 7 opponents while going 4-2-1 ATS. After the 24-17 win over one of their most hated rivals - the USC Trojans - most college football fans felt the Irish had done enough to secure a spot in the College Football Playoff.

Key Game that Made the Irish Contenders

Even though Notre Dame entered the battle versus ACC squad Syracuse a big -10 favorite, many felt the Orange had a shot to not only cover, but to also beat the Irish on the moneyline.

Up until that Saturday, Syracuse had looked like the second best team in the ACC. They had hung with the Clemson Tigers in a close 23-27 loss, and had won 4 in a row while going 3-1 ATS.

‘Cuse quarterback Eric Dungey had been playing great until facing Notre Dame. In the first quarter, Dungey got hurt on a run play while the Orange drove towards Notre Dame’s end zone. Without Dungey, Syracuse had no shot of pulling off the upset.

Notre Dame won 36-3. After the Syracuse victory, Notre Dame only had to beat a downtrodden USC squad to stamp their ticket to the College Football Playoff.

Notre Dame’s Key Players

The most important player on Notre Dame’s squad is quarterback Ian Book. The Irish’s signal-caller sat on the bench up until the Vanderbilt game. After Brian Kelly pulled starter Brandon Wimbush, Book entered and went 3-for-3 with a TD pass. In the next game versus Wake, Book threw 5 TD passes. Book’s top receiver threat is Myles Boykin, who tallied 803 receiving yards and 8 touchdowns on the year.

Left guard Aaron Banks is also a key player because Banks replaced star Quenton Nelson, who was drafted in the first round of the 2018 NFL Draft. Banks opens up holes for running back Dexter Williams, who averages 6.6 per carry.

On defense, all 3 linebackers are key to Irish success. Te’Von Coney has 59 solo tackles and 107 combined, Drue Tranquill has 58 solo and 75 combined while Alohi Gilman recorded 50 solo and 76 combined. Both Coney and Tranquill had 9 tackles for a loss.

A couple of other players to mention on Notre Dame’s defense are junior defensive ends Khalid Kareem and Julian Okwara. Both sacked quarterbacks 11 times during the regular season.

How They Can Beat Clemson:  Quarterback Pressure

Okwara and Kareem could be the most important Notre Dame players on Dec. 29. Both must have excellent games pressuring Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence. There's no beating around the bush here - Lawrence is a fantastic talent. He completed 80% against Wake, 75% versus South Carolina, and 72.5% in a key victory over Boston College. Lawrence is the real deal, which means Okwara and Kareem, and to a lesser extent Coney and Gilman on blitzes, must prevent Lawrence from getting into a flow. That might be difficult since Lawrence has a Mahomes-esque ability to whip unbelievable passes from impossible angles.

Are the Irish an Underlay or Overlay?

Notre Dame’s a +1400 dog to upset Clemson and then beat either Alabama or Oklahoma for the National Championship. At +1400 , are the Fighting Irish an overlay or underlay?

Notre Dame’s front seven might be as talented as any in the nation save for Clemson’s. Not only that, but since going to Book, Kelly’s team has blossomed. Both those factors give Notre Dame a shot against the Tigers. If the Irish can pull off the upset over Clemson, why couldn’t they pull off the upset over Alabama (or Oklahoma)?

Even with a sprinkle of optimism, +1400 odds in a 4-team tournament suggests that the Irish have no shot at all. That’s just not true. The odds make Notre Dame an overlay, meaning if you have any inclination to back the Irish, you’re getting fair (and extremely profitable) odds.