Brian Kelly’s problem is one that he shares with the rest of the country: Alabama or Clemson has won the national title five of the last six seasons. Either Alabama or Clemson has also finished runner-up four times.
Notre Dame — coming off a 10–2 season and the winner of the ACC regular-season title in a truly unusual 2020 — is back to being an independent and is coming off two College Football Playoff appearances the last three seasons with an 11-victory season mixed in between. Alabama tread on the Irish in the Rose Bowl, 31–14, before manhandling Ohio State in the championship game.
"Big games! Big games! You mean when we play Alabama and Clemson?" Kelly snapped when asked to comment on his program’s propensity to come up short in major bowls/playoff appearances. "Those are elite, talented teams that have elite players. I don’t have a unique problem at Notre Dame. Everybody’s got the same issue."
A few issues that are unique to the Irish this season: significant losses on offense and the offseason departure of defensive coordinator Clark Lea, now the head coach at Vanderbilt.
Previewing Notre Dame’s Offense for 2021
Kelly’s 2021 concerns are a bit more acute this season with the loss of nine starters on offense, including four veteran offensive linemen and a 30-game winner in quarterback Ian Book, who led the Irish to two undefeated regular seasons.
Now Book is gone, and Wisconsin graduate transfer Jack Coan has been tasked with leading the 2021 offense behind an inexperienced line. Coan completed nearly 70 percent of his attempts with the Badgers in 2019 with a heavy dose of short-to-intermediate passes.
The Irish offense became a ground-oriented attack under first-year offensive coordinator Tommy Rees. Running back Kyren Williams had a breakthrough redshirt freshman season with 1,125 yards and 13 rushing touchdowns. This year, though, Rees won’t be able to rely on an offensive line that carved out space for 33 rushing touchdowns in 12 games. He’ll still want to get the ball in the hands of Williams and sophomore running back Chris Tyree, who’s the speedier of the pair. A young but promising wide receiver corps is bolstered by an All-America-caliber tight end in sophomore Michael Mayer.
The Irish need to stretch the field more than they did in ’20 with wideout Kevin Austin Jr. and fifth-year senior slot receiver Avery Davis. Big-play wideout Braden Lenzy has had difficulty staying healthy the last two seasons, but he’s explosive when at his best.
The lone returning starter up front is Jarrett Patterson, who’s moving from center to left tackle and is coming off November foot surgery.
Previewing Notre Dame’s Defense for 2021
How do you compensate for the loss of Lea, who strung together three top-level seasons as defensive coordinator? Hire an equally talented replacement — Marcus Freeman from Cincinnati — who is trending toward a head-coaching spot.
Freeman will continue to use Lea’s scheme that held 27 of 38 opponents to 21 points or fewer. But he’s also had great success against the pass with a 3-3-5 look. He will be without Lea’s best defensive player — OLB Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah — and the starting defensive ends. The Irish are three-deep in experienced players at the two interior line spots.
Linebacker Drew White, the defense’s leader the last two years, will be joined by mostly experienced Bo Bauer, Marist Liufau and Shayne Simon at inside linebacker.
The shining star of the defense is junior safety Kyle Hamilton. Hamilton played injured (ankle) most of the 2020 season and had offseason surgery, but he still led the Irish in tackles and roamed sideline-to-sideline for the nation’s 14th-ranked scoring defense. Hamilton needs a safety running mate after the loss of sixth-year senior Shaun Crawford. The Irish are also unsettled at cornerback outside of 2020 freshman surprise Clarence Lewis.
Previewing Notre Dame’s Specialists for 2021
Kicker Jonathan Doerer missed 5-of-9 field goals over the final five games. But he converted 29 of his first 35 attempts with the Irish.
Punter Jay Bramblett can be a bit inconsistent with his distance. But he improved to 42.7 yards per punt last year and limited opponents to just one return (for 3.6 yards) every four punts.
Tyree looks to be a breakaway threat on kick returns, although he never shook loose in ’20. The Irish went with sure-handed Matt Salerno to return punts in ’20, but could go back to Lawrence Keys III or turn to freshman Lorenzo Styles Jr.
The Irish don’t face an imposing slate based upon last year’s records, and they have the fifth-best winning percentage (.843) in the FBS since 2017. But for a team in transition, Kelly’s streak of 32 consecutive victories against unranked opponents and 24 straight in Notre Dame Stadium could be in jeopardy.
Notre Dame might be a year away from another trip to the College Football Playoff after a significant siphoning of talent, as the nation’s No. 9 recruiting class will need some time to get acclimated. A New Year’s Six bowl appears more likely.
National Ranking: 12
Podcast: Top 25 Breakdown and Predictions