Our ranking: No. 21 NOTRE DAME
Coach: Brian Kelly (59-31, entering the eighth season; 230-88-2 overall)
2016 record: 4-8
Look back: Few programs went through as much of a reversal of fortunes as Notre Dame did from 2015 to 2016. The football seemed to bounce away from the Irish, with the team struggling on both offense and defense. The four-win season was the program’s worst since 2007 and led to massive changes on the coaching staff during the offseason.
Offensive starters returning: 8
Offensive starters lost: 3
Defensive starters returning: 7
Key losses: QB DeShone Kizer, QB Malik Zaire, RB Tarean Folston, WR Tori Hunter Jr., LB James Onwualu, DL Isaac Rochell, DB Cole Luke
Top returnees: RB Josh Adams, WR Equanimeous St. Brown, WR Kevin Stephenson, LB Nyles Morgan, LB Drue Tranquill
Strengths: Perhaps the biggest adjustment made during the offseason was when Brian Kelly announced he was relinquishing the offensive play-calling duties to new offensive coordinator Chip Long. The new coordinator will have plenty of experience and athleticism to work with on the offensive side of the football, but much of the team’s success will hinge on the progress of sophomore QB Brandon Wimbush. The signal caller spent last season working out behind DeShone Kizer and Malik Zaire, waiting for his opportunity to lead the offense.
Notre Dame has produced just one 1,000-yard rusher during the past five seasons (C.J. Prosise, 2015), but junior Josh Adams has the skillset to add his name to that list after rushing for 933 yards in 2016. His 6.5 yards per carrying average during the past two seasons makes him an attractive weapon for Long’s offense.
Equanimeous St. Brown should have finished as a 1,000-yard receiver, but his 2016 season was cut short by injury. He’s joined by C.J. Sanders (293 yards) and Kevin Stephenson (462 yards) at a deep position for the Irish.
The majority of the offensive line is back from last season; led by OT Mike McGlinchey and OG Quenton Nelson, who have combined for close to 50 career starts. That experience will be crucial as the offense learns to adjust to Wimbush.
Weaknesses: Kelly hired Wake Forest defensive coordinator Mike Elko, who brings an attacking style of defense that the Irish desperately need. He takes over a unit that finished with just 14 sacks in 2016. The challenge will be rebuilding a defensive front that lacks experience, with junior DT Jerry Tillery (15 career starts) and DE Andrew Trumbetti (11) the top returning players.
Outlook: People aren’t accustomed to seeing Notre Dame football struggle as badly as the Irish did last season. Every aspect of the program was broken down and analyzed by Kelly in the offseason, leading to massive changes throughout the program — including six new faces on the coaching staff. Seven of the team’s eight losses last season were by single digits, with four of those by three or fewer points. Kelly is clearly feeling the heat after leading the program to just two double-digit win seasons during his seven-year tenure.