Notre Dame is just two days away from kicking off the 2020 football season, and they will do it with the school’s first-ever official ACC game. The Irish are expected to make a run to the ACC championship game, and a second College Football Playoff berth.
To get to that level the Notre Dame offense must take a big leap forward. Heading into the season there are five key questions that will dictate Notre Dame being a title winning caliber scoring unit.
1. BIG GAME BOOK?
If you just look at the numbers it’s hard not to be impressed with what Ian Book has done the last two seasons. Notre Dame is 20-3 in games he started, he’s passed for 5,662 yards, rushed for 826 yards and accounted for 61 touchdowns over the last two seasons.
The question, however, is can Book be on top of his game when the games matter the most, and when the defenses are the toughest? Notre Dame has lost its last three games against ranked Power 5 opponents, and Book was average to bad in each of those games. In fact, Notre Dame is just 3-3 in games started by Book against opponents that finished the season ranked.
Last season, 26 of Book’s 34 touchdown passes came against non-Power 5 opponents or Power 5 opponents with a losing record. Book’s statistics last season against Power 5 opponents was below average, with the Irish QB posting just a 123.94 rating against those opponents.
There’s no doubt Book has the tools to be a great quarterback this season, and if he’s on top of his game the Irish are capable of playing with and beating every opponent on the schedule. But to be a playoff team, and beyond that a team that can compete for a title, the Irish need Book to be at his best when it matters most.
2. WILL THE OFFENSIVE LINE BE AS GOOD AS ADVERTISED?
This one is pretty easy, will the Notre Dame offensive line live up to expectations?
Notre Dame had a solid offensive line 2019, and all five starters are back. In fact, Notre Dame returns an astounding 114 starts up front, which includes six from key backup Joshua Lugg. Notre Dame’s tackles could be the nation’s best tandem, and the interior blockers should thrive.
If the offensive line lives up to its full potential it will be good enough to carry the offense to a championship, assuming the rest of the positions hold up their end of the bargain. If the line doesn’t live up to expectations, or if it doesn’t thrive in the big games, Notre Dame will still be really good, but not national title contender good.
3. WHO STEPS UP AS PLAYMAKERS IN THE PASS GAME?
Notre Dame has a loaded depth chart at both wide receiver and tight end. There’s size, there’s speed, there’s playmakers. There are a lot of teams on Notre Dame’s schedule that would love to throw freshmen Jordan Johnson and Xavier Watts out there this season, but the young wideouts won’t see the field for the Irish early in the season.
There are two questions that factor into this point. The first is will the staff properly utilize the talent it does possess, and will the most talented players on the roster step up and become big game playmakers. It doesn’t have to be one player putting together a Chase Claypool-like season. It can be one guy one week, another the next, but playmakers must emerge.
Of course, having at least one player emerge as “the guy” in the pass game is the ideal situation. Like say, I don’t know, Tommy Tremble? Having that kind of player emerge as a game changer then forces the defense to game plan for him, which then makes life easier for the other pass catchers.
There is the talent on the roster to make it happen, but it’s unproven. Will that story change when the games start? We’ll see.
4. CAN THE YOUNG RUNNING BACKS PLAY AT A HIGH LEVEL?
Notre Dame’s run game must be more effective and explosive in 2020. The primary role for making that happen will fall on the young shoulders of sophomore Kyren Williams and freshman Chris Tyree. Yes, veterans like Jafar Armstrong, Jahmir Smith and C’Bo Flemister will get their shots this season, but Williams and Tyree hold the key to the run game being dynamic enough for the offense to play at a truly elite level.
Williams earned the starting role through fall camp, and he’ll get a chance to show his quality all-around skills. The St. Louis native rushed for over 3,000 yards and racked up over 2,000 receiving yards during his prep career, but he saw very little action in his first season. That will change in 2020, as Williams is being given an opportunity to become an every down weapon in the offense.
Tyree is the most explosive player on the roster, by far. He gives the offense a player capable of taking it to the house every time he touches the football as both a runner, receiver and return man. The question is will the staff force the issue with him and figure out ways to get him the football early and often.
Both Williams and Tyree are legitimate weapons in the pass game, which means Notre Dame can get them on the field together or with another back. The talent is there, now they have to do it on Saturdays.
5. HOW QUICKLY CAN TOMMY REES ADAPT?
New offensive coordinator Tommy Rees did a solid job in the bowl win over Iowa State, but let’s be honest, Iowa State had an average defense, a far inferior roster to the Irish and Notre Dame had a month to prepare. If Notre Dame is going to compete for a title he’ll need to be much better than he was in that game.
Rees is a highly intelligent young coach, but he’s being tasked with a job that isn’t given to many 28-year olds for a reason. He’s being asked to go toe-to-toe with some of the nation’s best defensive minds, and he’s being asked to turn Notre Dame into an elite offensive unit in his first season.
Such are the expectations for Rees. Is he prepared to get the job done in 2020? We don’t know. Brian Kelly is extremely confident in Rees, and the young coordinator clearly understands the pressure that comes with being at Notre Dame.
If he proves to be a smart young coach that got this job a year or two too early then the Irish offense will fail to live up to expectations. If he proves his boss’s faith was justified the Irish will have a special season.
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