In the last 50 years, Notre Dame’s post-season Associated Press ranking has exceeded its pre-season ranking just 13 times, the most recent in 2012 when Brian Kelly’s third Irish team – unranked prior to the start of the season – went undefeated in the regular season and finished No. 4 in the final AP poll.
Since the end of the Lou Holtz era (1996), Notre Dame has finished higher than its pre-season AP rank just four times out of 18 seasons. Of the eight times Notre Dame has been ranked in the AP pre-season top 25 since 2000, the Irish have finished unranked five times.
With these percentages in mind – as well as the notion that this is the deepest, most talented roster from top to bottom of the Kelly era at Notre Dame -- we assess the 2015 season and rate the final regular-season record in the order of probability.
In the history of Notre Dame football, the Irish have finished with double-digit victories 16 times – three under Knute Rockne, one under Frank Leahy, three under Ara Parseghian, one under Dan Devine, five under Lou Holtz, and one each under Tyrone Willingham, Charlie Weis and Kelly.
That’s 13 times out of 73 seasons since at least 10 regular-season games became the standard in 1942 and 10 times out of 41 seasons since at least 11 regular-season games became the norm.
The 2015 Notre Dame team appears loaded, but winning double-digit games – even when it seems to be a slam-dunk – has not been as easy at Notre Dame as many other places. Stanford and Michigan State have done it four of the last five years. Georgia has done it eight of the last 13 years. Alabama has a streak of seven straight seasons of double-digit victories. Even marginal powers such as South Carolina (three of the last four) and Missouri (five of the last eight) can claim strong double-digit capabilities.
Playing the Notre Dame percentages, accounting for an average of two losses at home per season over the last seven, counting any one of four home games (Texas, Georgia Tech, Navy and USC) that could go against the Irish as well as five dangerous-to-potentially-dangerous road trips (Virginia, Clemson, Pittsburgh, Boston College in Fenway Park and Stanford), we have to go with this record as the most likely scenario.
If 9-3 is the most probable record, this mark is the most popular choice among those analyzing the upcoming Notre Dame season, including Irish Illustrated.
One could subjectively argue that the loss of Jarron Jones in the middle of the defensive line is worth a loss along the way, although that’s pure conjecture, particularly until we see just how effective the physically-gifted Jerry Tillery performs in Jones’ absence.
By the same token, Notre Dame’s depth is the best of the Kelly era, and the Irish likely will be favored in as many as nine-to-12 games (Clemson, USC and Stanford the potential exceptions) if they clear September unscathed and at least hold their own against the Tigers before USC comes to town.
Additionally, if the Irish enter their bye week (Oct. 24) with a 6-1 record – holding serve at home and beating underdog Virginia in Week Two will get them to that mark – the Irish should reach double digits, even with a regular-season-ending loss at Stanford.
In fact, we (I) will go out on a limb right now and say Notre Dame’s two losses will come at Clemson and Stanford, the latter of which is being vastly underrated due to the five losses last year and with capable quarterback Kevin Hogan. The Cardinal aren’t known to have a strong home-field advantage, and yet they’re 40-5 in Stanford Stadium over the last seven years.
It’s a virtual tossup between Notre Dame finishing 8-4 and 11-1, although again, the odds – if not the 2015 indicators -- favor the former. On one hand, projecting 11-1 is not that far-fetched, at least as we see it now. Many prognosticators have been on the Irish bandwagon, including Sports Illustrated, which listed Notre Dame No. 4.
Why would we choose 8-4 as a more likely scenario than 11-1? Well, Kelly has won eight games three times and nine games once in five years, so that has been established as the norm. Notre Dame has failed to exceed seven victories nine of the last 21 seasons while reaching as many as 11 wins just once (2012).
Obviously, this is a year we’d be inclined to anticipate the possibility of 11 wins more than we would another eight-victory season. But with the Irish failing to exceed their pre-season ranking 14 of the last 18 years, we’re conditioned to expect the unexpected.
Ever-so-slight edge to 8-4 over 11-1, although…
Notre Dame certainly is talented enough to win 11 of 12 regular-season games.
No game is unwinnable, including the trip to Clemson, although the Tigers are 26-2 the last four seasons at Clemson Memorial Stadium. Just three starters return on defense for the Tigers and the offensive line is under reconstruction, so this has the makings of Notre Dame’s only loss of the season or a great upset victory with a slipup elsewhere on the slate.
Notre Dame has struggled against triple-option based offenses during the Kelly era, and this year, the Irish must face two such attacks, both of which have been shaped in the image of the game’s top triple-option architect – Paul Johnson – who helped create Navy’s continued success under Ken Niumatalolo and his own current Ramblin’ Wreck at Georgia Tech.
A one-loss season becomes quite feasible if the Irish can reach the bye week at 6-1. Trips to Temple and Pittsburgh (under impressive but still first-year head coach Pat Narduzzi) certainly are winnable, as is a unique setting against a rebuilding Boston College (in Fenway Park) for the Shamrock Series game. If the Irish survive that quartet of games, you have to like their chances with a playoff berth on the line at Stanford.
Consider that the only time Notre Dame has ever won 12 games in back-to-back seasons, it came in 1988-89 when the Irish claimed the national title and put together a 23-game winning streak. Fourteen Irish players were drafted following those two combined seasons, and another 10 followed the year after that.
Now consider that the Irish easily could have a dozen-and-a-half players drafted in 2016-17 from this current team, led by projected first-rounders Jaylon Smith, Ronnie Stanley and Sheldon Day as well as top prospects KeiVarae Russell and Will Fuller.
A team must have star-power talent leading the way in order to compete for a playoff/national title, and much like 2012 when five future first-/second-round draft choices played for the Irish, this squad is loaded with NFL talent.
A team also must have good fortune smile upon it in order to go 12-0 during the regular season. That’s a variable upon which a program can only hope falls their way.
Nothing is impossible, particularly – as we learned last year – if a leader like Joe Schmidt (or Jaylon Smith or Sheldon Day or Isaac Rochell) is missing from the defense. Although DeShone Kizer has looked good throwing the ball in the pre-season, losing the leadership and multiple skills of Malik Zaire would be a huge blow as well.
If someone had bet at halftime of the ’14 Florida State game that the Irish would finish 7-5 during the regular season, he would have cashed a mighty valuable ticket in Vegas.
Yet there’s a reason why we list this as the longest of the long shots (while basically considering a 6-6 mark beyond the realistic realm of possibility). The Irish leadership is as good/deep as you’re ever going to see at Notre Dame. The weapons offensively are multiple. The foundation of this team is a veteran offensive line, which in and of itself helps guard against a disastrous season. The defense should be significantly improved.
A 6-6 season should be virtually impossible. So, too, should 7-5.