It’s amazing how much the perception of a college football team can fluctuate over a short period of time. Once the enormous surprise of the 2012 college football season, Notre Dame has seen nearly every major bit of news since kickoff of the BCS National Championship in January turn awful:
- Alabama 42, Notre Dame 14
- Star linebacker Manti Te’o and his fake girlfriend
- Star 2012 QB recruit Gunner Kiel transfers to Cincinnati
Add another: Late Saturday night, it was reported that starting quarterback Everett Golson (a redshirt-sophomore-to-be) is no longer enrolled at the university. Brian Hamilton of the Chicago Tribune reports that it is because of some sort of academic violation, and it is unknown if or when he can return, and the belief is that he will not play in 2013.
Bad suddenly became even worse.
So, three months from kickoff of the 2013 season, what does the latest shocker mean for the Fighting Irish?
The optimistic view: Why did Notre Dame go undefeated last regular season? A little bit of luck mixed with a whole lot of great defense. Remember, over a four-game period early last season against BCS conference opponents – Michigan, Michigan State, Miami and Stanford – Notre Dame’s defense did not give up one offensive touchdown. Not one. Manti Te’o may be gone, yes, but the defense has the ability to be just as good, with Stephon Tuitt and Louis Nix anchoring the line, Prince Shembo and Dan Fox back at linebacker and Bennett Jackson at cornerback.
On offense, presumed new starting quarterback Tommy Rees is far from a stranger to taking key snaps for Notre Dame. He’s started 18 games and played in 33 over three years for the Irish, including a 2,871-yard season as the primary starter as a sophomore, with 4,413 yards, 34 touchdowns and 24 interceptions over his career. The Fighting Irish won 12 games last year despite ranking 78th nationally in scoring offense (25.8 points per game); it will be difficult for that number to get much worse, if it all, with Rees back behind center. In fact, behind Rees in 2011, they ranked 49th in scoring offense (29.2 points per game, in an 8-5 season). George Atkinson III is ready to emerge as the featured runner, and Davaris Daniels and TJ Jones give Rees a pair of promising targets out wide. There are plenty of questions, but there’s also plenty of talent to work with.
A more pessimistic view: It’s impossible to talk about Tommy Rees, starting Notre Dame quarterback, without talking about turnovers. He threw 14 interceptions in 2011, in addition to losing five fumbles. Golson, a freshman, threw only six picks last season, although he also struggled with fumbles. But one skill that gave Golson an overwhelming advantage was his mobility, as he added another dimension to the Notre Dame offense, rushing for 298 yards and six touchdowns. Rees has rushed for -71 yards (yes, negative) and one touchdown in his college career. Clearly running is not an option, and Rees’ arm strength is also more limited than Golson’s. It won’t help that Notre Dame’s best receiver (tight end Tyler Eifert) and top two rushers (Theo Riddick and Cierre Wood) are all gone.
Reality: Ultimately, the conversation about Golson’s departure shouldn’t be framed around last season. It should be framed around the future and the fact that his potential was enormous, considering how he developed over the course of his freshman season. The Irish are essentially back to square one on offense, a place that also does not include another QB of the future in Gunner Kiel, the former five-star recruit who bailed before spring practice and went to Cincinnati. (Technically, he could return to Notre Dame, as John Infante explains, but that would require both parties deciding this would be a reasonable action to take. This will not happen, although we are talking about a 19-year-old who has committed to Indiana, committed to LSU, signed with Notre Dame and transferred to Cincinnati in less than two years, and many unpredictable things have been happening in South Bend lately.)
Who’s left? Rees, Andrew Hendrix (junior eligibility with 44 pass attempts in his career) and true freshman Malik Zaire, a four-star recruit who enrolled in the spring. Given Rees’ history, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Zaire eventually push him, but the early reaction has to be that Rees will be under center when Notre Dame opens with Temple on Aug. 31.
Not that anyone really thought this, but Notre Dame wasn’t going to go 12-0 again this season anyway. Obviously, we all saw what Alabama did to the Irish in the title game, and while that game exaggerated Notre Dame’s problems, in most seasons that was probably, say, a 10-2 team. After so many breaks and so many close wins, Notre Dame was bound to regress back toward the mean in the win column in 2013, regardless of who’s playing QB. The Fighting Irish can win with Tommy Rees. But the offense will not be able to develop as much as Brian Kelly would like, thanks to the loss of Golson’s strong arm and mobility, meaning we can expect many more 20-17 Notre Dame games this season, because they will surely be more conservative with Rees as opposed to operating at a faster pace with Golson.
Kelly’s a great coach, and they’ll recover and can still compete for a BCS bowl bid. He’s won with much less elsewhere, although elsewhere did not include Michigan, Michigan State, Oklahoma, Arizona State, USC, Stanford, etc. on the schedule. A possible top-10 team looks more like a top-20 team, and 10-2 looks more like 9-3 … or even 8-4. All hope may not be lost, but the good breaks of last season sure have swung the opposite way in a hurry. One lost quarterback won’t come anywhere close to sending Notre Dame back to Willinghamian levels, but 12-0 wasn’t Notre Dame’s new normal either.