As always, ballots were blind, and panelists include Jack Freeman, Tim Prister, Pete Sampson, Anna Hickey, Steve Hare, Jake Brown, and myself.
1. Pick a player that will noticeably elevate his performance over the last five games:
-- Sampson: Aliz’e Jones – Tight end has been a non-factor this season and the coaching staff clearly prefers Jones
-- Hare: DeShone Kizer – Now has a half-season of play under his belt. His confidence and level of play should continue to rise.
-- O’Malley: Cole Luke – I considered Joe Schmidt here as well.
-- Freeman: Corey Robinson – He’ll focus on being a red zone threat
-- Brown: Joe Schmidt – He’s been getting a bit of a bad rap anyway. He’ll be clean down the stretch.
-- Hickey: KeiVarae Russell
-- Prister: Torii Hunter, Jr.
2. What aspect of the team must improve for Notre Dame to finish without another loss (including bowl season)?
-- Sampson: Trick Play Defense. Is this a thing? Because Notre Dame has turned it into a thing. It needs to not be a thing.
-- O’Malley: Goal-to-go offense. If Notre Dame can convert in close, they’ll win the next four going away and earn a win on The Farm…and maybe on New Year’s Eve as well.
-- Prister: Safety play
-- Freeman: The eye discipline of the secondary
-- Hickey: The defense limiting plays for long gains
-- Brown: The D-Line. Notre Dame is what it is with this unit to some degree, but more is needed from Romeo Okwara, Andrew Trumbetti, etc.
-- Hare: Consistency on both sides of the ball. Can’t afford lapses on offense or defense.
3. Notre Dame’s Most Valuable Player to date is?
-- Sampson: Sheldon Day, no drama, professional defensive lineman having the best season of his career while helping Jerry Tillery over-achieved.
-- Freeman: C.J. Prosise, give him a torch and let him burn the boats
-- O’Malley: C.J. Prosise, but it will eventually be Sheldon Day
-- Hickey: Will Fuller but it will eventually be C.J. Prosise
-- Prister: C.J. Prosise on offense; Sheldon Day on defense
-- Hare: C.J. Prosise, without a running game it would be bad news for Kizer.
-- Brown: Will Fuller to date; Sheldon Day the rest of the way
4. What’s your pleasant surprise to date? (Team, player, coach, position, press box food, recruiting story, interview, etc.)
-- Prister: Among players, DeShone Kizer. For the team, the special teams/Tyler Newsome
-- Sampson: Chris Brown – You don’t root for individuals in this job, but it’s nice to see
-- Freeman: Brown – I thought he’d never get close to his potential and he’s proving me wrong. And I’m okay with that…
-- Hare: Special teams, especially C.J. Sanders and Justin Yoon’s instant impact
-- O’Malley: The Irish special teams
-- Hickey: C.J. Prosise
-- Brown: Tyler Newsome
5. What’s your biggest disappointment?
-- O’Malley: The first quarter face plant at Clemson. Could prove to be the difference between a playoff appearance and the 2015 season ranking as a mere footnote in Irish lore.
-- Prister: Max Redfield’s inability to adapt to schemes
-- Sampson: Max Redfield and the most bizarre storyline of the season.
-- Freeman: The chicken sandwich in the press box. I’m not even sure it’s chicken.
-- Hare: Aliz’e Jones hasn’t delivered as I thought he would…at least not yet. I thought he’d be a superstar.
-- Hickey: Seeing Drue Tranquill go down to injury
-- Brown: Corey Robinson’s season in total…not so great
6. Consider Stanford a peer and thus exempt. You must choose one foe: Notre Dame will suffer an upset loss to…?
-- O’Malley: Boston College, I believe the only way ND is upset in November is if multiple injuries occur. This allows ample time for multiple injuries to occur. Also, like all ND 1995 grads, I’m scarred for life…
-- Sampson: Pittsburgh, I don’t see anyone else worth mentioning
-- Brown: Pittsburgh, don’t expect it to happen, but the recipe is there
-- Hare: Pittsburgh, a road game vs. an opponent easy to overlook
-- Prister: Boston College
-- Freeman: Pittsburgh
-- Hickey: Pittsburgh
7. What will Notre Dame’s record be on January 12?
-- Prister: 11-2
-- Sampson: 11-2 with a Fiesta Bowl win
-- Freeman: 11-2
-- O’Malley: 11-2 with a loss on Dec. 31
-- Hickey: 11-2
-- Brown: 11-2
-- Hare: 11-2
8. Player that cannot be lost to injury if the Irish are to finish November 11-1?
-- Prister: Offense – DeShone Kizer; Defense – Sheldon Day
-- Sampson: KeiVarae Russell, Notre Dame has capable bodies on the DL, at LB, and even RB. It does not at CB.
-- Freeman: Will Fuller, runner-up Sheldon Day
-- O’Malley: Ronnie Stanley. The defenses on tap in November are no joke, and at least one would wreak havoc up front without Stanley at LT
-- Hickey: Sheldon Day
-- Brown: Either Sheldon Day or Isaac Rochell
-- Hare: DeShone Kizer
9. Opposing player that will give ND the most trouble going forward?
-- Freeman: Pittsburgh head coach Pat Narduzzi is the human that will give the Irish the most trouble.
-- O’Malley: Mark my words: a no-name, formerly University wait-listed defensive player from Boston College will prove to be a thorn in Notre Dame’s side on Nov. 21.
-- Sampson: Austin Hooper, Stanford’s next really good tight end in case you haven’t been watching Pac-12 football.
-- Prister: Stanford QB Kevin Hogan
-- Hickey: Stanford RB Christian McCaffery
-- Brown: Stanford RB Christian McCaffery
-- Hare: Stanford QB Kevin Hogan
10. In your opinion, what would be an “unacceptable” record at season’s end? (Not “unacceptable” in the ridiculous “fire someone” sense, but not acceptable by reasonable football minds.)
-- Hare: 10-3. I expect the Irish to win out and play in an upper tier bowl game. One more loss would be acceptable provided it’s to Stanford or top tier bowl opponent. Losing to any of the other four would be disappointing.
-- Sampson: 9-3 would be a major bust at this point, even with injuries. 10-2 would be a great season. Anything better and Kelly is Coach of the Year.
-- Freeman: 9-3 is not good enough, and remember: Tradition Never Graduates.
-- O’Malley: 9-3 with the requisite new tag line: “It’s better than 8-5!”
-- Prister: 9-3
-- Hickey: Losing to any team other than Stanford would be unacceptable
-- Brown: I’d consider 8-4 a complete disaster