2016 brought about a maddening season for this football team. An NFL-level quarterback struggled as a season of promise ended in disappointment. They lost a close game in the national televised opener, had to play a game in a hurricane, which caused their offense to sputter, and suffered a loss to Duke and Virginia Tech. A win against Miami was a highlight but ultimately they sputtered to the finish and saw their quarterback leave for the draft a year earlier than expected.
Sounds familiar, right? While you could read that paragraph and think I was taking a pessimistic view of UNC’s 2016 season, this was in fact the story of Notre Dame. The records didn’t quite match as the Irish struggled to a 4-8 finish, and didn’t have the great stories of comeback wins that North Carolina had.
In fact, a big reason for their record was just how poorly they did in close games. Of their eight losses, seven were by one possession, Miami being that lone win. The frustration led to DeShone Kizer to leave for the NFL, eventually drafted to be the 1,342,873rd quarterback of the future by the Cleveland Browns.
As we’ll see, their storylines for 2017 could be a carbon copy of Carolina’s as well.
Also, a big thanks to Tim Murray of SB Nation AM, 6-10 AM every Monday through Friday. He took a few minutes from his newborn to answer some questions and helped fill in the gaps. I could have written 2,000 words with the knowledge he has about the Irish.
As Matt mentioned earlier, Notre Dame has a slight lead in the all-time series, 17-2. This game is the home half of the new agreement Notre Dame signed to be a sort-of ACC member. The first game in 2014 saw the Heels lose a defensive battle 50-43.
This is Brian Kelly’s eighth season in South Bend, but after their 4-8 season, Kelly has cleaned house. More on this below, but between the new quarterback and the complete overhaul of the coaching staff, fans and media alike aren’t quite sure what to expect out of the Irish this season.
That said, their new offensive coordinator signals that Kelly will continue using the up-tempo offense, but perhaps tweaking it to make more use of the tight ends and running backs. By the time this team rolls into Chapel Hill, their identity should be more fully formed.
Notable departures and additions:
With Notre Dame, it might be more appropriate to ask: Who ISN’T new? Kelly has eight new coaches on the staff, giving the team the feel of a new regime while keeping the head coach.
On defense, Kelly raided the ACC and hired Wake Forest’s Mike Elko as coordinator. With Wake finishing in the top 20 in defense last year, it’s quite a coup for the staff. For offense, Kelly grabbed Chip Long from Memphis as the OC. Kelly has made it clear he’s going to run the team more as a CEO, meaning that Elko and Long will have carte blanche to install their systems.
As for the players, Brandon Wimbush will take over the keys to the offense at quarterback, but he’ll be pretty much the only real new face on that side of the ball. There are questions as to WHO will actually step up, but Notre Dame returns a lot on offense that will be figuring out their place in this new scheme.
What was thought to be a strong defensive line loses Daniel Cage, who is still recovering from his injuries last year. The defense also adds a new position—the rover—thanks to Elko, and it’s thought Drue Tranquill will be perfectly suited for that role.
If there is any matchup on the schedule that is difficult to peg here in August, it’s this one. The issues UNC has coming into 2017 are well known by us all, but Notre Dame is starting from scratch in a lot of ways with new coaches.
The offense for Notre Dame has a chance to be a strength. Long brings a pedigree that includes scoring a lot of points using sets that stress multiple tight ends and running backs. Look for guys like Alize Mack to get a lot of playing time. The buzz on Wimbush is that he is a strong-armed passer, meaning if he gels quickly, Notre Dame will be off to the races quickly.
But that’s a lot of ifs. The receiver core, while deep, isn’t a sure thing. Equanimeous St. Brown is probably the only sure-fire bet that they have lining up, meanwhile several others will be stepping up to get catches. If a couple don’t step up immediately, then they could still be figuring things out by the time they get to Chapel Hill, and it could create a great opportunity for a strong UNC secondary.
The defense of Notre Dame will also be transitioning, specifically safety and the interior of the defensive line will be under fire early and often. If UNC’s O-Line gels with their additions, and Harris picks up early, UNC has a real opportunity to rack up some points against this group.
The opposite side of the coin is in play, too. If Carolina is struggling, and Notre Dame hits their stride early, it could be an ugly game. Notre Dame isn’t exactly weak at running back, bringing back Josh Adams, and there are two guys—Dexter Williams and Tony Jones—working hard to earn snaps as well. With Carolina’s historically weak run defense, it may be difficult for the line to get any sort of pressure on Wimbush.
Final Prediction: UNC 50-ND 43
When you look at the schedule, this particular game is one UNC will need to have in order to have a successful season. The crowd will be electric, it WILL be on national TV thanks to Notre Dame’s cache, and it’s also the last real nationally prominent game Carolina plays in Chapel Hill in 2017. I think UNC steps up here to get revenge for their last meeting.