The offseason is knocking on the door of the "100 days until football" mark. And that means the 2016 Syracuse Orange season is almost within shouting distance now (relatively, anyway). Lately, we've been previewing our opponents, which are... yup, still incredibly difficult. Each week (roughly), we'll take a look at a team on Syracuse's 2016 schedule. Today, we continue with the:
School: University of Notre Dame
Mascot: Fighting Irish
#BRAND Slogan: "A Force for Good"
Alternate #BRAND Slogan Suggestions: "Have You Seen Rudy?" "#BRAND"
Recommended Blog: One Foot Down
ACC NONE, AND YOU CAN'T MAKE THEM JOIN, YOU HEATHENS
Coach: Brian Kelly, 7th year. You may recall Kelly from our various run-ins with his Cincinnati Bearcats back in the Big East. Since 2010, however, he's been the head man at Notre Dame, where he's gone 3-3 in bowls but 0-2 bowls that really matter to Fighting Irish fans. Since leading the Irish to the BCS National Championship Game following the 2012 season, his teams have dealt with tons of injury misfortune and falling short of expectations. Still, he's gone 27-12 in that stretch, so... far from terrible.
2015 Record: (10-3) (N/A)
Recapping Last Season:
As SB Nation's Bill Connelly rightfully points out, last year a healthy Notre Dame could've been a title contender. Starting QB Malik Zaire looked the part as a dangerous dual-threat, but a season-ending ankle injury in week two derailed his spot atop the depth chart. His replacement, DeShone Kizer did very well in his stead, throwing for nearly 2,900 yards and 21 touchdowns along with another 650 yards on the ground and 10 more scores. From an offensive perspective, the team barely missed a beat inserting the younger Kizer to take over for elder statesman Zaire.
Defensively, Notre Dame was a team that seemed to play bend-but-don't-break, but broke a bit too often. Since Bob Diaco's departure to Connecticut, there's been a downgrade on this side of the ball, and it was very apparent last season in games against faster opponents. Still, the Irish were very good against the pass (26th in the nation), and managed to keep teams at about 24 points per game (39th in FBS). The issues came about when opponents would run against Notre Dame, as they finished 72nd in the country while allowing nearly 176 yards per game on the ground.
Still, despite the injuries and aforementioned defensive questions, the Fighting Irish were a top team in 2015 just the same. Two of its losses came by a combined four points to national runner-up Clemson and Stanford, respectively. Its showing against Ohio State was the game they'd like to forget on defense -- but even then, a 16-point loss to the preseason national title favorite. While it's tough to tell if Kizer was "better" than Zaire, his offense was a top-40 unit in terms of both total yards and scoring. That output kept Notre Dame involved in every single game.
2016 Season Outlook:
Notre Dame brings back plenty from last year's talented group, but face the usual gauntlet of a schedule this fall, casting doubts on whether or not they're in contention for a national title. Health has been a concern in past years, and a slate like this -- featuring powers like Michigan State, Stanford, USC and more -- does a team no favors keeping everyone on the field for 12 games. Still, Kelly's dealt with too many injuries since 2012 for this to be a recurring theme. At some point, the injury luck has to go his way.
Over on the offensive side, the group's biggest challenge will be determining its starting QB. Both Zaire and Kizer are back, and there's little indication of who gets the starting gig yet. Whoever it is will come with high expectations of meeting last year's dynamic attack -- a rarity at Notre Dame, but likely to become the norm given where college football is headed. The Irish lose their leading rusher, C.J. Prosise, but bring back the rest of a talented backfield. Trouble could lie in the passing game, however, with the team's top three receivers all gone. Just two returning players, Torii Hunter Jr. and Corey Robinson, caught 20 or more balls last season. The O-line also replaces three of five starters, meaning the veteran presence that kept Kizer upright is not there to fall back on should he grab the starting role again.
Defensively, that run defense might not improve, and could actually get a bit worse, depending on how you look at losing two starters from 2015. Still, Isaac Rochell is a stud talent at the defensive end spot, and if anyone can help ND stop the run, it's him. Notre Dame loses its top two linebackers, Jaylon Smith and Joe Schmidt, further adding to the concern around whether or not last year's "decent" defense can improve, or if they're due for a backslide. The secondary, not necessarily adept at forcing turnovers, also lost two starters. They'll hope for further progress from budding 5-star talent Max Redfield at free safety to lead that group.
Syracuse Game Date: October 1
Location:MetLife Stadium, East Rutherford, N.J.
Odds of Orange Victory: 15 percent
Very Early Outlook:
I've painted a mixed picture above, and that's by design. While the Fighting Irish lose plenty, the benefit of elite recruiting is that you replace four- and five-stars with four- and five-stars. There's also a lot to be said for stability at the quarterback position, which this team will have in some shape or form, no matter who takes the reins. Portions of this Notre Dame squad are young, and the same could be said about the Orange. While we might like some of the inexperience they'll throw at us in the trenches, we have some of our own too. Eric Dungey may be able to take advantage of a young secondary, but unfortunately they'll do the same, with some better talent. Syracuse will make a game of this on pace alone, but we're likely to fall just short yet again.