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Notre Dame Fighting Irish football preview: a playoff breakthrough?


Attention to detail. Laser focus. Smart decisions. Gritty play.

According to a sign that hangs in the auditorium of the Guglielmo Athletics Complex, those are the “traits necessary to complete Notre Dame’s football mission.”

What is the mission? “To graduate all of our student-athletes and win a national championship.” By the way, that little part after the “and” (no big deal, right?) hasn’t happened in 30 years.

Much has changed in terms of annual expectations since Lou Holtz’s 1988 squad went 12-0, but Year 9 of the Brian Kelly era could re-establish the Irish as major players on the national scene. Some would argue the Irish are at that level already, considering their 10-win campaigns in 2015 and 2017. A 4-8 disaster in between, though, led to a major reset that’s still playing out in South Bend.

Notre Dame quarterback Brandon Wimbush scores a touchdown against Wake Forest in 2017. | Nam Y. Huh/AP

What it’s really going to take for the Irish to erase lingering doubts about the program is a debut appearance in the four-team playoff. They got close in 2015. They were squarely in the hunt into November last season. And now?

Kelly is talking big.

“This is a very good roster from 1 through 85, and there’s depth in this roster,” he said. “And the one thing I can tell you is that they’re all very, very competitive. We don’t have guys that are slackers. They want to be great.”

THREE KEYS IN 2018

1. Quarterback efficiency: Brandon Wimbush completed a hair under half of his passes as a junior, which isn’t nearly good enough. There’s no reason that number shouldn’t be closer to 60 percent given the tremendous size and skill of the team’s tight ends and wide receivers.

Last time we saw Wimbush in a game situation, though, he was being pulled for Ian Book in the Citrus Bowl. Book — not nearly the runner Wimbush is, but clearly a more talented thrower — was outstanding in that victory over LSU and remains a viable alternative as a full-time guy.

2. The pass rush: The Irish had 24 sacks, tied for 70th nationally, last year and — hard to believe — haven’t outsacked their opponents over the course of a season since 2013. Ends Daelin Hayes and Khalid Kareem, among others have to crank up the pressure. The good news: Kelly believes the Irish have the starters and backups at end to be highly productive.

“It has been a while since we’ve had four guys that we feel [can] go out there and compete with anybody,” he said.

3. Kickstarter: Senior Justin Yoon has been a high-percentage field-goal converter throughout his time in South Bend, but a stepped-up weight-training program in the offseason helped him add as many as 10 yards to range.

“Justin Yoon is pounding the football,” Kelly said. “I mean pounding. When I use that word, I mean, he’s gone from a guy that, you know, his cliff was probably 45 [yards]; now his cliff is 52, 55.”

ONE GAME AT A TIME

September 1 vs. Michigan: Win. Good or bad, it’ll be a huge tone-setter.

September 8 vs. Ball State: Win. But you knew that already.

September 15 vs. Vanderbilt: Win. The Commodores have an experienced offense that could be pretty pesky.

September 22 at Wake Forest: Win. It’s a dangerous one, though — don’t forget the Demon Deacons showed tons of character in last year’s matchup, putting up 37 points in defeat.

September 29 vs. Stanford: Win. It’s a good chance for the Irish to flex their increasing toughness.

October 6 at Virginia Tech: Loss. Lane Stadium will be a tinderbox.

October 13 vs. Pittsburgh: Win. Nothing wrong with a 6-1 record going into a bye week.

October 27 vs. Navy (San Diego): Win. It’ll be a bowl-like environment, especially for the Middies.

November 3 at Northwestern: Win. The Wildcats will be motivated to the max, but which team will have more crowd support?

November 10 vs. Florida State: Win. Now 9-1, the Irish should be right on the border of the playoff committee’s top four.

November 17 vs. Syracuse (Bronx, N.Y.): Win. Yankee Stadium is an underrated football setting.

November 24 at USC: Loss. Holy heartbreak, man — Irish fall by a single score, their playoff dream deferred again.

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