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Early odds for most of Notre Dame’s 2021 games are out. There is an early over/under win total. Preseason top 25s are trickling in.

The start of talking season is in the air. With it, the national outlook on Notre Dame is coming into focus.

DraftKings set the Irish’s over/under for wins at nine. South Point sportsbook in Las Vegas released point spreads for nine Notre Dame games, and only one was greater than a touchdown. Those nine didn’t include Georgia Tech, Navy and Toledo, against whom Notre Dame should be favored by double-digits. The Irish are an underdog only to Wisconsin.

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Quarterback Jack Coan and Notre Dame have an early over/under win total of nine for 2021.
Quarterback Jack Coan and Notre Dame have an early over/under win total of nine for 2021. (Notre Dame Athletics)

Elsewhere, FanDuel sportsbook has Notre Dame -23 against Navy and -9 against Florida State.

Yes, these are spreads for games three, four and five months away. They will change. We’ll learn a lot more about Notre Dame and North Carolina, for instance, in their first seven games before they meet Oct. 30. Maybe the current pick ‘em line on that game will look silly in hindsight.

But we’re still in talking season. And right now, there’s a bit of caution around Notre Dame predictions. It’s not a forecast of a cliff-drop, but an acknowledgement of some challenges that are fair to point out.

First, there’s some internal work to do. Notre Dame is 123rd out of 127 teams in ESPN’s Bill Connelly’s returning production rankings. Most notably, the Irish are replacing a three-year starting quarterback, 80 percent of their offensive line and the Butkus Award winner.

Second, the opponents aren’t pushovers even if there’s no Clemson on the schedule. Four opponents (Wisconsin, Cincinnati, USC, North Carolina) that are in most preseason top-20s.

Those teams have three of the six top quarterbacks in ESPN NFL Draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr.’s early 2022 position rankings (No. 2, UNC’s Sam Howell, No. 5, Cincinnati’s Desmond Ridder, No. 6, USC’s Kedon Slovis). Kiper has two of them in his top 25 big board. Wisconsin quarterback Graham Mertz is intriguing too. He’s a former top-50 recruit who was up-and-down last season but flashed big-play ability.

Notre Dame’s rebuilding offensive line will face two edge rushers in Kiper’s top 25: USC’s Drake Jackson and Purdue’s George Karlaftis. Cincinnati’s Myjai Sanders is his No. 6 ranked rusher.

Point spreads say those are games Notre Dame should win, or at minimum, have a good chance to win. The Irish are certainly capable of beating each of those teams. They confounded Howell a season ago and kept Slovis at bay for three quarters in 2019, after all.

Can Notre Dame do the job four times while continuing to avoid upset losses to unranked teams? That’s harder to say with confidence. Injuries and weird things happen over the course of a season. But if the Irish finish the season ranked around 10th, that should be enough to clear the nine-win mark.

To me, taking the over is the safest pick among all these early odds. Notre Dame’s turnover can’t be ignored, but there should be some benefit of the doubt given to a program and coaching staff that has proven adept at player development. It has stayed at its 10-win floor because it has passed recent talent replacement tests. There is talent on the current roster too.

That benefit of the doubt is reflected in the preseason top 25s that place Notre Dame between No. 6 and 15. They’re a nod to the high floor.

We look back every year at some positions that were questions that turned into strengths – at Notre Dame or elsewhere – and laugh about our offseason unease. Many star players were first an intriguing but unproven at a position cloaked in unknown.

Sometimes there is disaster or a drop-off. With any team, we never quite know which position that loses impact players and starters will become that and which will remain a strength. Notre Dame’s questions are at highly important positions. It’s enough to warrant a little skepticism. Notre Dame, though, hasn’t seen much disaster lately.

2. Wisconsin

Wisconsin opening as a four-point favorite feels rooted half in Notre Dame’s production replacement questions and half in Wisconsin’s lack thereof.

The Badgers are 34th in returning production and bring back eight starters from a defense that finished 18th in yards per play, fifth in opponent third-down conversion rate and fourth in SP+ last year. Defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard turned down the same job with Green Bay Packers. They have a successful unit with a lot of continuity.

This game may be the most difficult one Notre Dame plays because of its timing. The Sept. 25 meeting at Soldier field is the Irish’s third game of the season.

Will Notre Dame’s new (and possibly very young) offensive line be ready to handle the challenge of an upperclassmen-heavy front seven by then? It’s a game that’s still winnable, but one that would be easier to feel better about in May if it were on the schedule in late October or November.

3. Man Coverage

There were 155 corners who played at least 250 coverage snaps in 2020, per pro Football Focus. Cincinnati’s 2020 starters were 17th and 22nd in highest percentage of snaps in man coverage. Then-Bearcats and current Irish defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman played a man-heavy defense because it was, 1) his preferred scheme, and 2) because he had corners who could handle it.

Opposing quarterbacks had a 43.5 passer rating (NFL) when targeting Bearcats corner Ahmad Gardner in man coverage and a 45.4 mark when throwing at teammate Coby Bryant. Neither allowed catches on more than 50 percent of their man coverage targets.

Notre Dame’s 2020 starting corners, Nick McCloud (boundary) and Clarence Lewis (field), each played fewer than 26 percent of their snaps in man coverage.

Where will the man coverage percentage settle in Freeman’s first Notre Dame defense? It’ll depend on how well the current crop of Irish corners can handle it.

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Lewis, Cam Hart and TaRiq Bracy are Notre Dame’s primary corners right now. Lewis allowed catches on six of the 10 passes thrown at him when he was playing man for 118 yards. Quarterbacks had a 134.6 rating when targeting him in man.

Bracy played only 173 coverage snaps and was targeted only six times in man (two catches allowed). He spent 27.2 percent of his coverage snaps in man. Hart played 88 snaps all season.

Notre Dame did offer Tulsa grad transfer corner Akayleb Evans recently. His 2020 man coverage numbers: 12 targets, four catches allowed for 84 yards, one forced incompletion, 86.8 passer rating against. He spent 37.1 precent of his coverage snaps playing man.

4. Capacity

Notre Dame Stadium plans to have 77,662 people in the stands on Sept. 11 when the Irish host Toledo in the first 2021 home game.

It will be a sight to truly soak in and appreciate. An unexciting game on-paper becomes one to savor just for that first taste of the gameday atmosphere college football fans craved in 2020. The hot dogs at the tailgate and the beers at C.J.’s after the game ought to taste better.

I’m sure sports fans across the country had plenty of moments where the personal life impact and meaning of being at an event became even clearer to them when the opportunity to attend (or the event altogether) was taken away. College football’s unique gameday traditions have to be high on the list of such realizations.

I suspect those morose feelings of last fall will be on the mind of the seven Notre Dame Stadium home crowds this year and make it that much more special to be in the stands at any college football stadium.

5. Anthony Solomon

Notre Dame made the Anthony Solomon hire as Mike Brey’s associate head coach official Thursday after Solomon initially agreed to take the job in early May.

The announcement of it was unlike any I had seen for an assistant basketball coach hiring. The press release was more than 1,400 words, with pictures and bolded quotes from former players. The team’s official Twitter account tweeted three separate graphics with some of those player quotes after the initial announcement.

That’s the type of introduction football programs do for a new a head coach.

I’m not sure how many “home-run hire” assistants with widespread national recognition were gettable. But Notre Dame clearly thinks it landed someone who fits that description in the context of the team’s current situation and Solomon’s history at the school.

It’s hard not to see it as a strong hire even if doesn’t come with the buzz of, say, Freeman’s hiring as the football team’s defensive coordinator. Notre Dame sure is doing its best to try and generate that kind of buzz.


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