Welcome to the first of a 10-part series that Irish Illustrated calls First Rate, our annual ranking that attempts to evaluate the talent level from top to bottom of Notre Dame and the 12 teams on its schedule.
We break down each position/area – quarterback, running back, receiver, offensive line, defensive line, linebacker, secondary and special teams -- and also factor in coaching staffs and schedule.
We rank Notre Dame and its 12 opponents in each category one through 13, the lower the number the better. As we add a new position to the evaluation, we keep a running tab as to how the teams rank in talent/coaching/schedule.
By the end of the 10-part ranking, we should have a pretty good idea how the teams rate in talent, which generally gives us an accurate projection of their final records.
Last year, it was no surprise that Florida State (13-1) finished first on the First Rate chart. USC (9-4) was second, followed by Stanford (8-5), Notre Dame (8-5) and Louisville (9-4). We had Arizona State No. 6 on the list, but the Sun Devils overcame a significant loss of personnel defensively to finish 10-3.
The bottom seven in the pre-season rankings were North Carolina (6-7), Northwestern (5-7), Michigan, (5-7), Syracuse (3-9), Navy (8-5), Rice (8-5) and Purdue (3-9). Navy, led by quarterback Keenan Reynolds, overcame its typical shortage of pure talent while Rice rebounded from a 0-3 start.
At this point, we don’t know what the tally of the talent rankings will produce upon the conclusion of the evaluation of 10 categories. Right now, the focus is on quarterbacks with just four – USC’s Cody Kessler, Navy’s Reynolds, Stanford’s Kevin Hogan and Massachusetts’ Blake Frohnapfel -- the only seniors of the bunch.
13) Darius Wade/Elijah Robinson/Troy Flutie (Boston College)
Former Temple HC and Notre Dame/Urban Meyer assistant Steve Addazio has toughened up the Eagles into a competitive, we-can-beat-anybody program that tries to match everyone it plays physically. Addazio spread out the offense in ’14 to take advantage of QB Tyler Murphy’s dual-threat skills (1,623 yards passing, 13 TDs; 1,184 yards rushing, 11 TDs). But Murphy’s gone, and the most likely heir apparent – Wade – has thrown eight passes on the collegiate level. Wade and Flutie, Doug’s nephew, are sophomores, and Robinson is a freshman.
12) Matt Johns/Greyson Lambert (Virginia)
Hot-seat HC Mike London chose Johns, the 6-foot-5, 210-pound backup to Lambert last year, to lead the charge in ‘15. Johns is more mobile, although he completed just 54.9 percent of his passes with eight TDs and five interceptions. Lambert threw for 1,632 yards, but had a 10-to-11 TD-to-interception ratio. It wouldn’t be a surprise if London went with the hot hand throughout the season.
11) P.J. Walker (Temple)
Walker’s TD-to-interception ratio went from 20-to-8 as a freshman in ’13 to 13-to-15 last year while his completion rate plummeted from 60.8 to 53.3. He provides the running element to Temple’s game with 324 yards and three TDs last year. Look for Walker’s numbers to be more reflective of ’13 as capable HC Matt Rhule took the Owls from 2-10 to 6-6.
10) Tyrone Swoopes/Jerrod Heard (Texas)
Second-year Longhorns head coach Charlie Strong, who has taken the Texas offense from a pro-style attack to a no-huddle, up-tempo approach, has opened the door for Heard to compete with Swoopes, the 6-foot-4, 248-pounder who threw for 2,409 yards and 13 TDs in ’14, but was intercepted 11 times. From a skill-level standpoint, one or both of these QBs could jump ahead of the next two on the list.
9) John Wolford (Wake Forest)
As a freshman, Wolford threw for 2,037 yards, 12 TDs and a 58.3 completion percentage behind a very shaky offensive line, which is the main reason the Demon Deacons were last in the FBS in yards per game. Wolford also was intercepted 14 times. He can only be as good as the unit around him, which managed an incredibly low four rushing TDs. Wolford, who is not a running threat, is better than his surrounding cast, but it may be difficult to tell.
8) Blake Frohnapfel (UMass)
The transfer from Marshall was one of the few bright spots for the Minutemen in ’14, which gives them a fighting chance to make a decent improvement over last year’s 3-9 mark in its final season in the MAC. Frohnapfel threw for 3,345 yards and 23 TDs for an offensive unit that improved by 11.7 points and 281 yards per game over ’13. Heading into the season, Frohnapfel looks to be the second best QB in the conference behind Western Michigan’s Zach Terrell.
7) Malik Zaire (Notre Dame)
Zaire can’t boast the statistics of most of the QBs on Notre Dame’s 2015 schedule, but that should change fairly quickly once he gets a chance to build upon his starting debut against LSU in the Music City Bowl when he completed 12-of-15 passes for 96 yards and a TD to go along with his 22 carries for 96 yards and a TD. He’ll likely never be as capable as Everett Golson was slinging it, but the Irish need a leader who complements the passing game with running prowess and a “follow me” attitude. He should grow quickly.
6) Chad Voytik (Pittsburgh)
The Panthers were spinning their wheels under HC Paul Chryst, who was 19-20 in three years at Pittsburgh. Chryst got the call from home-state Wisconsin, which in turn ushered in the Pat Narduzzi era in the Steel City. Narduzzi inherits a capable QB in Voytik, who put together a solid sophomore season in his first year at the helm. Voytik threw for 2,233 yards with 16 TDs and seven interceptions. He adds the running element to the position with 466 yards on the ground. Narduzzi – a long-time defensive coordinator – likely will favor a ground-based attack with the indomitable James Conner taking the pressure off Voytik.
5) Kevin Hogan (Stanford)
Without a go-to running back and a ground game to lighten the load in the passing game, Hogan and the Cardinal lost five games for the first time since 2009 after a 46-8 run in the previous four seasons (the last year of the Jim Harbaugh era and the first three of the David Shaw regime). At 6-foot-4, 225 pounds, Hogan’s “toolbox” isn’t as full as many QBs in the country. But he’s won 24 games as a starter (and lost eight). Can Stanford improve upon its No. 77 scoring offense (27.2 ppg.) and No. 75 total offense (388.6 ypg.)? Hogan will need some help.
4) Deshaun Watson (Clemson)
With a healthy sophomore season, there’s no telling how high Watson can be on this chart. Injuries put a crimp in what was shaping up to be a quality rookie season with Watson throwing for nearly 1,500 yards and 14 TDs, just two interceptions and a 67.9 completion percentage in eight games. The Tigers still managed to win nine of their last 10, including a resounding 40-6 victory over Oklahoma in the Russell Athletic Bowl with Cliff Stoudt, now gone, at the controls.
3) Keenan Reynolds (Navy)
Is this guy still around? Yes, and as Navy enters the American Athletic Conference, the Midshipmen are well equipped to build upon last year’s 31.8-point scoring average, thanks mainly to Reynolds, who enters the ’14 campaign with 64 career TDs – fourth all-time in NCAA football. While his completion percentage was well under 50 percent last year, he kept defenses honest with 843 yards passing to maximize his running prowess (1,191 yards, 23 TDs). This is his last year, Irish fans. Promise.
2) Justin Thomas (Georgia Tech)
The QB who led Georgia Tech to an 11-3 record, including a decisive victory over Mississippi State in the Orange Bowl and a narrow 37-35 loss to Florida State in the ACC championship game, gets the nod over Navy’s Reynolds because of the passing complement to his game. In addition to his 1,086 yards rushing and 8 TDs, Thomas threw for 1,719 yards with 18 TDs and six interceptions. And he’s only a junior, which gives HC Paul Johnson more time to fine-tune the spread-option attack with Thomas at the controls.
1) Cody Kessler (USC)
Those who saw Kessler play early in the ’13 season wouldn’t recognize the 6-foot-1, 215-pounder who came into his own last season when he threw for 3,862 yards and 39 touchdowns while completing 69.7 percent with just five interceptions. WR Nelson Agholor is gone, but the next wave of young Trojan receivers is ready to benefit from Kessler’s growth as a QB, despite his less-than-ideal stature.
Here is the running tally through one position/category:
1. USC (1--QB 1st)
2. Georgia Tech (2 -- QB 2nd)
3. Navy (3 -- QB 3rd)
4. Clemson (4 -- QB 4th)
5. Stanford (5 -- QB 5th)
6. Pittsburgh (6 -- QB 6th)
7. Notre Dame (7 -- QB 7th)
8. UMass (8 -- QB 8th)
9. Wake Forest (9 -- QB 9th)
10. Texas (10 -- QB 10th)
11. Temple (11 -- QB 11th)
12. Virginia (12 -- QB 12th)
13. Boston College (13 -- QB 13th)