The college football season is upon us and so is our annual Top 25. This year Yahoo Sports revealed the teams from No. 11 to 25 at once before we publish each of our top 10 in separate posts in the days leading up to Week 1. That continues with No. 8 Notre Dame.
No. 8 Notre Dame
2021 record: 11-2
National title odds: +4000
Over/under: 8.5 wins
Over his 12 seasons at Notre Dame, Brian Kelly coached the Fighting Irish to two College Football Playoff appearances, one BCS title game appearance and seven seasons with double-digit wins.
Five of those double-digit win seasons have come in the last five years, but Kelly decided to exit South Bend for the lure of LSU and the SEC. Kelly’s shocking departure came even with the Irish still a potential playoff team last fall, but the move opened the door for the school to promote from within.
The choice to succeed Kelly was Marcus Freeman, who impressed the Notre Dame brass during his lone season as defensive coordinator. Just 36, Freeman had risen quickly through the coaching ranks, including a four-year run as the DC at Cincinnati. Now he’s been handed the reins at one of the biggest jobs in college football. Is he up for the task?
Though there was some turnover on the coaching staff, support for Freeman has been staunch among the Notre Dame administration. There were also very few transfers after Kelly’s departure.
During the time Freeman has been in charge, the Irish have seen a substantial uptick in recruiting. According to Rivals, Notre Dame’s 2022 class finished No. 6 in the nation. Better yet, the Irish currently rank No. 1 in both the 2023 and 2024 team rankings.
Notre Dame came close to a national championship multiple times under Kelly, but the Irish’s talent level did not quite compare with the elite teams in the country. With this level of recruiting, Freeman is trying to clear that final hurdle.
While those promising prospects won’t arrive for a few more years, Freeman still inherits a pretty strong roster. How strong? We'll find out when the Irish are put to a significant test when they face Ohio State in Columbus to open the season.
Tyler Buchner takes over at QB, but WR is a concern
Wisconsin transfer Jack Coan took the reins from longtime starting quarterback Ian Book in 2021, but Notre Dame also worked in promising freshman Tyler Buchner. Though Buchner was mainly used on designed runs, it allowed the athletic four-star prospect to get his feet wet on a big stage.
Now Buchner has been named the Irish’s starting quarterback. He beat out Drew Pyne about halfway through preseason camp and will continue working with offensive coordinator Tommy Rees, who stuck around with Freeman following Kelly’s departure.
Last fall, Buchner was 21-of-35 for 298 yards, three touchdowns and three interceptions as a passer and rushed for 336 yards and six touchdowns on 46 carries. With his athleticism, he could allow for a much more creative game-planning and play-calling approach from Rees.
Buchner has the benefit of playing behind a stout offensive line that returns all five starters. The Irish threw several young linemen into the fire last fall and those experiences should pay off in 2022 and in the years to come.
At the skill positions, tight end Michael Mayer is one of the best in the country at his position. The Irish also have intriguing options at running back (Chris Tyree, Logan Diggs, Audric Estime) to replace Kyren Williams.
Receiver, though, is the biggest question mark on the team. The position was already underwhelming before Avery Davis, the starter in the slot, went down with a season-ending injury. Without Davis, sophomore Lorenzo Styles is hoping to build off a breakout performance in the bowl game. The coaches are also hoping veteran Braden Lenzy (50 catches in three seasons) continues to progress. Beyond those two, there isn’t much else.
Mayer, on the heels of a 71-catch season, could be in line for an even heavier dose of targets.
Could the Notre Dame pass rush be even better?
While the offense will be relying on some unproven commodities, the Irish’s defense should be quite strong once again.
With Freeman moving into the big chair, he hired former Miami head coach Al Golden to oversee the defense after several seasons as a position coach in the NFL. Golden has a lot to work with, including star pass rusher Isaiah Foskey.
Foskey, who is nine sacks shy of Justin Tuck’s program record, will be complemented on the defensive line by twin brothers Jayson and Justin Ademilola. While Jayson is a stalwart on the interior, Justin will likely line up opposite Foskey on the edge.
The Irish accounted for 41 sacks last fall and could have a similarly strong pass rush in 2022. The linebacker group is also a major strength with JD Bertrand, Bo Bauer, Jack Kiser and Marist Liufau all in their fourth or fifth season with the program.
The best player on last year’s defense was safety Kyle Hamilton, who went in the first round to the Baltimore Ravens. To fill the void Hamilton left behind, the Irish added Brandon Joseph from Northwestern. Joseph, an All-American in 2020, should be a big boost to a secondary looking for more consistency among its cornerbacks.
Biggest game: Nov. 5 vs. Clemson
Notre Dame will play in one of the marquee games of Week 1 when it travels to face Ohio State in Columbus. There are a few other notable road games on the schedule, including a potentially tricky trip to North Carolina and the regular season finale at USC. But the biggest game here is a visit from Clemson on Nov. 5.
Clemson is expected to have one of the best defenses in the country yet again. If the Tigers show some improvement on offense, they could be firmly in the CFP race at that point in the season. The same goes for the Irish even if they drop the Ohio State game.
The last time Clemson visited South Bend was a double-overtime thriller in 2020. Could we see a similarly epic game in 2022?
Impact player: TE Michael Mayer
The receiver group is a big concern. Beyond Davis’ season-ending knee injury, Joe Wilkins and Deion Colzie have also missed time this summer. Styles and Lenzy are going to be heavily counted on and even former walk-on Matt Salerno is in the mix for a role.
With that said, Mayer is going to have to carry a heavy load for this passing game. Through two seasons on campus, Mayer has combined for 113 catches, 1,290 yards and nine touchdowns. That includes 71 catches for 840 yards and seven scores last fall.
Mayer is almost certainly NFL-bound after this season. To get the Irish back to the playoff, he’ll need to be even better.
Pick: Over 8.5 (-150)
The Irish are currently 14.5-point underdogs in Week 1 at Ohio State and I’m not expecting them to pull an upset. That means Notre Dame would have to go 9-2 the rest of the way to hit the over. I think it can happen.
There are definitely some tough games on the schedule, but I can rattle off seven of them where the Irish will be significant favorites. I’d label North Carolina on the road, BYU at home, Clemson at home and USC on the road as toss-up games. If the Irish split those four, they can get to 9-3.
I feel good about those prospects.