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Fact-checking: Just how important is Michael Floyd to Notre Dame?

Michael Floyd is one of the leading receivers in the nation, owner of every major Notre Dame receiving record and likely bound for the first round of the NFL Draft. His surprising return for a senior season was one of the reasons the Fighting Irish were widely pegged for the top ten by the summer pundits. His eligibility was the subject of a months-long vigil that dominated the Irish's offseason right up to the start of preseason practice. After Floyd caught just one pass over the final three quarters of last Saturday's ugly, 15-12 win at Pittsburgh, coach Brian Kelly reemphasized this week that he wants to get the ball to his best player as often as possible.

So when we encounter the suggestion today by CBS Sports' Tom Fornelli that Notre Dame should actually be working to reduce Floyd's touches

While Michael Floyd is the most prolific receiver in Notre Dame history, there's an alarming trend for the Irish and Floyd when he's making so many receptions. In his four years in South Bend, Floyd has caught 10 or more passes in a game six times. In those six games Notre Dame has gone 1-5, the lone win coming against USC last season when Floyd had 11 receptions for 86 yards.
While it may not sound right, the numbers show that Notre Dame may be better off not relying so heavily on their biggest playmaker.

…we can dismiss it as a bit of tongue-in-cheek, counterintuitive trolling, right?

Fact-checking: Just how important is Michael Floyd to Notre Dame?Not so fast, my friend. Fornelli's basic premise — Notre Dame is more successful when Floyd accounts for a smaller share of the offense — is overwhelmingly correct: The Irish are 3-8 since 2009 when Floyd goes over 100 yards receiving, and 13-5 when he doesn't. They're 4-2 in that span when he doesn't play at all.

This is not because they've been conservative when things are going well and forced into must-pass mode when they're not: In 13 Irish losses since '09, all but two have been tight, one-score defeats that were still in doubt deep into the fourth quarter, and Floyd didn't even play in one of those two. (Over the course of his career, according to cfbstats.com, Floyd has consistently been at his least productive in the fourth quarter, and he's been about equally productive when the Irish are winning as when they're behind.) It's not because the running game has picked up the slack: Rushing numbers are nearly identical when Floyd goes over 100 yards as when he doesn't. It's not because he's called on more often in shootouts: The defense has only allowed 3.7 points and 15 yards per game more when he goes over 100 yards as when he doesn't.

There's no way here to measure Floyd's effect on defenses who overcompensate to take him out of the game, thus opening things up for the rest of the offense. (Though again, the numbers for the offense as a whole have tended to be better when Floyd's are better; when he's not as heavily involved, his production isn't being fully replaced by a long shot.) But in any macro sense, Michael Floyd's success in any given game has no correlation with Notre Dame winning or losing. In fact, there's no correlation with the success of the entire offense and Notre Dame winning or losing: For the second year in a row, the Irish are averaging significantly more total yards in losses than in wins, and the difference was almost negligible in 2009.

The factors that have consistently made a difference in Notre Dame winning or losing are a) The defense and b) Turnovers. Handful of flops notwithstanding, the offense has moved the ball on a fairly consistent basis dating back to the end of the Charlie Weis era. But the Irish have lost 12 straight games when giving up more than 21 points, compared to 12 straight wins when yielding 20 or less; during the late turnaround in 2010, it was the defense that carried the day with four straight gems to close the season opposite a very pedestrian offense. Before Saturday's win over Pitt (in which the Irish were —2 in turnover margin), they'd dropped eight of nine when finishing —2 or worse, including each of the first two in their 0-2 start this year.

Not that it doesn't help to have a future first-rounder who represents a one-on-one mismatch against virtually every cornerback he faces. But forcing a presence for Floyd isn't going to get the Irish nearly as far as improving the areas that will actually make that production count.

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Matt Hinton is on Facebook and Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.

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