Matt Cashore / IrishIllustrated.com

Prister’s Thursday Thoughts

When all is said and done in 2016, Notre Dame’s talent will match up with anyone’s on its schedule. But quality coaching, potential upset specials lurk.

FIRST-RATE UPDATE

With just two categories remaining – coaching and schedule – Irish Illustrated’s annual 10-part First-Rate series is coming to a close.

Not surprisingly, we have Notre Dame No. 2 on the chart in terms of pure football talent, trailing only USC. Stanford and Michigan State are in a near dead-heat with the Irish. No surprise.

Each season, the Trojans sit atop our position-by-position analysis, and yet USC has lost 20 times the last four seasons. Is our talent analysis off? Are we overrating the Trojans’ talent base? Or is USC underachieving, due in part to past transgressions?

The turmoil that probation thrust upon the Trojans following the Pete Carroll regime certainly put a crimp in their depth. But the talent USC has signed in recent years remains very strong.

The combination of Lane Kiffin, Ed Orgeron, Steve Sarkisian and Clay Helton as head coaches and/or interim head coaches since 2010 has been chaotic. Still, the physical talent continues to roll in.

Ultimately, when our First-Rate series comes to a close next week, Notre Dame will emerge ahead of the Trojans in the 10-part series. Why? It won’t be a physical talent advantage, although Brian Kelly has done a marvelous job of narrowing the gap and providing the Irish with much more depth than at any time since the Lou Holtz era.

Simply put, USC’s schedule is treacherous, and until Helton and his staff can escape from the five-losses-per-season trend, they’ll likely succumb at least a few times to the battering ram that is the Trojan slate.

USC’s non-conference games -- Alabama in Arlington, Texas, Utah State from the Mountain West Conference, which won 36 games the last four years, and Notre Dame to conclude the regular season -- are highly challenging.

Conference road games include at Stanford, at Rich Rodriguez’s Arizona squad, at Pac 12 North Division favorite Washington and at UCLA. The home games are a bit lighter, but still include Arizona State, Oregon and the Irish.

Once again, it will be interesting to see if USC can finally break out of the four-to-six-loss-per-year rut the Trojans currently find themselves in.

COACHING ACUMEN

Where will Notre Dame’s coaching staff rank among its 12 opponents in 2016?

Clearly, Brian Kelly is among the top 15 head coaches in America.

Wherever Kelly has gone, he has won. From a wildly successful run at Division II Grand Valley State (118-35-2) to a noteworthy 19-16 mark at Central Michigan to an eye-opening 34-6 mark at Cincinnati to an average of nine victories per season at Notre Dame (55-23), Kelly wins a majority of the time.

Since 2006, Kelly’s teams have won 9, 10, 11, 12, 8, 8, 12, 9, 8 and 10 games. Not elite level compared to Nick Saban and Urban Meyer, but a level of consistency that cannot be discounted, particularly since the Irish were 35-25 under Bob Davie, 21-16 under Tyrone Willingham, and 35-27 under Charlie Weis in the 13 years prior to his arrival.

And yet Kelly and his staff will square off against a formidable group of head coaches/coordinators this fall, led by Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio and Stanford head coach David Shaw.

Under Dantonio, the Spartans have won 36 games the last three years and 65 over the last six. Shaw has had the burden of establishing his own legacy post-Jim Harbaugh. Now in his sixth season on The Farm, Shaw’s 54 victories in five campaigns – including two wins in three Rose Bowl appearances – is an emphatic statement.

Notre Dame plays against a host of noteworthy head coaches this fall. In addition to Dantonio and Shaw, the Irish will take on: Miami’s Mark Richt, Duke’s David Cutcliffe, Navy’s Ken Niumatalolo, Virginia Tech’s up-and-coming young star Justin Fuente, and Syracuse’s offensive guru, Dino Babers.

It also should be noted that Texas head coach Charlie Strong, who has much work to do in order to earn his keep in Austin, won 23 games in 2012-13 at Louisville and that N.C. State’s Dave Doeren won 23 games in 2011-12 at Northern Illinois.

From a different perspective, Nevada head coach Brian Polian’s motivation to defeat Notre Dame should not be underestimated. The former Irish special teams coordinator fought for a spot on Brian Kelly’s staff when he arrived in December of 2009, ultimately failing to secure a slot.

Polian landed on his feet, first at Stanford and then Texas A&M before taking over as Nevada’s head coach at the age of 38. He is a fiery competitor and one whose motivation will be strong when he enters Notre Dame Stadium for the first time since Notre Dame’s overtime home-finale loss to Connecticut in late-November of 2009.

For the purpose of our First-Rate series, we will take into account not only the acumen of the head coach, but also the coordinators, which compromises Notre Dame’s rating.

The Irish offense has to be more consistent in the red zone. Yet it appears Kelly and his offensive brain trust – coordinator Mike Sanford and associate head coach Mike Denbrock, as well as offensive line coach Harry Hiestand – has become a 35-point-per-game-or-so unit.

Now it’s up to defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder to lift his side of the football up and become a complement to the offense, which has averaged more than 30 points per game in back-to-back seasons for the first time since Charlie Weis’ 2005-06 teams.

UPSET ALERT

In 2010, Brian Kelly’s first year as Irish head coach, Notre Dame lost three times as a favorite: Michigan (minus-three), Navy (minus-six) and Tulsa (minus-eight).

In 2011, 10-point underdog South Florida knocked off the Irish. So, too, did Michigan (minus-three) and USC (minus-nine).

Following Notre Dame’s magical 2012 run, a banged up Notre Dame fell to three-point underdog Pittsburgh on the road in ’13. The last two homes games of the ’14 season went to minus-17 Northwestern and minus-three Louisville.

Last year, the Irish did not lose a game in which they were favored. But they had to pull one out of the fire at 12-point underdog Virginia, at 10-point dog Temple and at 15-point dog Boston College.

Of Brian Kelly’s 23 losses with the Irish, nine have come as the favorite with three more very close calls last year.

So heads up. At least one or two teams are lurking out there as a potential upset special in 2016.

Which are the most likely? Two jump out, in addition to the danger that accompanies any season-opening road game (Texas on Sept. 4).

In terms of “sneaky talent,” look at N.C. State on Oct. 8 and Virginia Tech in the home finale on Nov. 19.

In our First-Rate series, we have the Wolfpack with the best defensive line on the Irish schedule, the second best special teams, and formidable units at receiver and linebacker.

We have the Hokies’ No. 2 at wide receiver and No. 3 at defensive back and special teams. That indicates 1) skill-position talent and 2) a fundamentally sound team in the ever-important “third aspect” of the game.

Ultimately, N.C. State and Virginia Tech may get tattered by their challenging ACC schedule. Both could be five- or six-loss teams during the regular season. But on a given day, particularly against a Notre Dame program that finds itself vulnerable to upsets every season (like most programs), those two teams present a formidable threat.

CELTICS INVEST IN JACKSON

The rollercoaster ride that second-round draft choice Demetrius Jackson has been on since the Boston Celtics tabbed him with the 45th overall selection in the NBA draft has pulled into the station and given the former Irish standout some short-term security and a chance to develop into a NBA-level player.

Earlier this week, Jackson signed a four-year, $5.5 million contract with the first year guaranteed. His average earning salary will be, potentially, $1.38 million, which has been equated to the No. 23 overall pick of the draft – an area many believed Jackson would be selected.

In exchange for first-round money in 2016-17, the Celtics gain some security/control over a more extended period of time should Jackson ultimately crack Boston’s guard rotation. He will battle current front-runners Isaiah Thomas, Terry Rozier and Marcus Smart for playing time/a spot on the roster this winter.

Last year, the Celtics tabbed Marcus Thornton with the 45th overall pick. Thornton spent the season in Australia. Jackson would appear to be more likely to spend his season in the states, either with the Celtics or, perhaps even more likely, the Maine Red Claws of the NBA’s D-League.

Although it’s not what Jackson and his camp expected when he entered his name in the NBA draft – he initially was considered a lottery pick and then a near-certain first-rounder – it’s about as good of a deal as a mid-second round choice could expect.


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