As we countdown to kickoff in September, we’re going to be doing a team-by-team preview each week over the summer. Syracuse will finish its 2020 regular season schedule on December 5 against Notre Dame.
NOTRE DAME JOINS A CONFERENCE, FINALLY
COVID-19 has changed many things in the college sports landscape. Some conferences (Pac-12, Big 10) have cancelled their football seasons. Others, like the ACC and Big 12 are forging ahead, planning on playing in empty stadiums.
And then there is the case of Notre Dame, who for the first time in school history will have its football program affiliated with a conference. In late July, the Fighting Irish and the ACC announced Notre Dame would be playing a 10-game conference schedule and be eligible to compete in the 2020 ACC Championship Game (they are a member of the ACC for all other sports).
In exchange, the Irish agreed to split all television revenue for the 2020 season with the other ACC schools, including Notre Dame’s home games broadcast by NBC.
The change in conference affiliation will allow Notre Dame to continue their quest for a national championship, something that has eluded head coach Brian Kelly in now his 10th season in South Bend.
In many respects, Kelly has been wildly successful at Notre Dame. Since 2010, he’s gone 92-37 (that total includes 2012 and 13 wins which were vacated), with only one losing season. Since that losing season (4-8 in 2016), Notre Dame has mostly dominated its competition, going 33-6, with wins in the Citrus and Camping World Bowl.
For most schools, that would vault a coach to legend status, but this is Notre Dame, and with each season that passes, the expectations grow even higher. To date, Kelly has only appeared in one national title game (2012) and has appeared in the College Football Playoff once (2018), losing each time.
Kelly predicted he would have a special team at the end of the 2019 season, and with several key players returning (more on that below), he may be right.
BOOK IS BACK
Kelly scored a big win in the offseason, with quarterback Ian Book returning for his redshirt senior year. Book started slow in 2019, and drew plenty of criticism for his 8-for-25, 73-yard performance in a 45-14 demolition at the hands of Michigan. But he was sharp after that, throwing 19 touchdowns to just four interceptions over his final six games to finish with 3,034 yards and 34 touchdowns.
Though his top three receivers from last season have departed, Notre Dame has some intriguing rising underclassmen. The Irish were hoping to lean on Kevin Austin, but the redshirt sophomore is out with no timetable for his return after he suffered a foot injury.
Still, the Irish are high on wide receivers Braden Lenzy (11 receptions, 254 yards in 2019) and Lawrence Keys III (13, 134), and tight end Tommy Tremble (16, 183).
And the offensive line will be one of the most experienced units in the ACC, with senior starters Robert Hainsey, Tommy Kraemer and Liam Eichenberg all back.
RELOADING THE DEFENSE
Syracuse fans might remember Notre Dame defensive coordinator Clark Lea, who was a linebackers coach during the Scott Shafer era. He now runs a stout Irish defense that allowed just 18.7 points per game last year, and was in the final running for the Boston College head coaching position.
Lea will first need to reload a star-studded defensive line that included Jamir Jones, Julian Okwara, and Khalid Kareem, all now playing in the NFL. Senior Adetokunbo Ogundeji is poised for a breakout final season, while the defense is hoping that Daelin Hayes is fully recovered from a shoulder injury.
Linebackers Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah and Drew White are back after combining for 160 tackles last season. The battle for the third linebacker spot is an interesting one, with sophomore Jack Lamb and junior Jordan Genmark-Heath in the running.
The secondary loses Alohi Gilman, Jalen Elliott and Troy Pride Jr., but they also gain Ohio State transfer Isaiah Pryor, a former Top 100 recruit who is eligible this season, NC State cornerback grad transfer Nick McCloud, and sixth-year DB Shaun Crawford.
CHAMPIONSHIP OR BUST
Nothing short of a trip to the ACC Championship is going to appease the Irish fan base this season. Notre Dame has the tools in place to topple ACC power Clemson, and with the reworked schedule, the Irish won’t face off against USC or Wisconsin.
While they do face a rising power in the ACC in UNC, they otherwise avoid the second tier of conference teams (Miami, NC State, Virginia and Virginia Tech), giving them an inside track for the championship game.