Notre Dame football is undefeated in 2018. That is something I have not and will not get tired of saying as we approach the start of the College Football Playoff. Before I dive into the matchup against Clemson, I wanted to reflect on the regular season.
Brian Kelly has lead the Notre Dame football team to their second undefeated regular season in the last seven years.
If I were to tell you at the end of the 2016 season that the Irish would be undefeated in two years, you might have called me crazy.
If I told you the same thing this past August, you would probably disagree based on Notre Dame’s strength of schedule according to preseason rankings and their travel schedule in the latter half of the season.
Some of their opponents underperformed in 2018, but the Irish still beat 12 FBS teams, which is no easy feat.
Looking back at the season as a whole, it was far from an ordinary year for the Notre Dame football team. Let us start by viewing things through the lens of the defense.
The year began with the departure of defensive coordinator Mike Elko in January. After just one year in South Bend, Elko jumped ship when Texas A&M offered him a pay raise.
Brian Kelly decided to promote linebackers coach Clark Lea to fill that vacancy. The move allowed the team to have some continuity in their defensive scheme heading into 2018.
The promotion of Clark Lea, the return of ten starters on that side of ball, and the eligibility of safety transfer Alohi Gilman had Irish fans feeling very optimistic about the defense heading into the season.
The losses of defensive back Shaun Crawford (less than a week before the first game) and defensive lineman Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa (in week one) put a dent in that optimism. However, the consensus was that the defense was still the strength of the team.
Clark Lea proved to the college football world that he is more than capable of handling defensive coordinator duties. He had his unit prepared each week and made some astute in-game adjustments throughout the season.
The leadership of older players like Drue Tranquill, Te’von Coney, and Jerry Tillery helped the entire defense gel. Alohi Gilman joined the group and was better than advertised. Time and time again, the Notre Dame defense made impact plays to help the team win games.
Unsuspecting Reader: “With all the moving pieces on the defensive side of the ball, it was probably smooth sailing for the Irish offense in 2018, right?”
Irish Offense: “Hold my beer.”
The offense also had to deal with a significant departure on their coaching staff at the beginning of the year. Offensive line coach Harry Hiestand accepted a job with the Chicago Bears in January. The news came a few weeks after the Notre Dame offensive line was awarded the Joe Moore Award.
The Irish offensive line was already expected to have a drop off in production after losing Quenton Nelson and Mike McGlinchey to the NFL Draft. Losing Hiestand on top of that made that position group one of the greatest question marks on the team heading into the 2018 season.
Brian Kelly undoubtedly knew that hiring a new offensive line coach would be one of the most important decisions he would have to make during the offseason. He ended up promoting Jeff Quinn, an offensive analyst on the staff who had worked as an offensive line coach on Kelly’s staff at three other schools.
Quinn might not have been the best candidate for the job, but I think he was the right candidate. Kelly knew what Quinn brought to the table and what it would be like working with him. Making the decision to promote him gave Kelly a sense of comfort and allowed him to focus on other things.
That was not the last bit of adversity the offensive line would face in 2018. They would have to establish a run game without starting running back Dexter Williams in the lineup for the first four games. On top of that, senior guard Alex Bars suffered a ACL/MCL injury in week five that ended his season.
Quinn was forced to shuffle his line around a bit in the following weeks. The unit overall has shown some growth and improvement over the course of the season.
The offensive line benefitted from the switch to Ian Book at quarterback and return of Dexter Williams, but they are still not considered a strength of the team. I do not think Jeff Quinn is to blame for that. He has done the best job he could.
Despite everything going on with the offensive line, the biggest story for the offense and the team as a whole was the quarterback position.
Brandon Wimbush was the starter heading into 2018. Notre Dame football was 9-3 in games he started the previous season; however, his play had started to decline towards the end of the year.
Irish fans hoped Wimbush would improve over the offseason – specifically in his accuracy. That was not the case. It became evident early on that Wimbush’s problems had not been completely corrected.
After two close wins against inferior opponents, Brian Kelly made the decision to bench Brandon Wimbush and start Ian Book. The move was made the week before Notre Dame’s first road game of the season.
Making a switch at quarterback is always a big decision for a coach. Making that switch when your team is ranked in the top 10, your current starter is 12-3, and your team is preparing for their first road game of the year? Huge.
Despite the strong play of the defense and a 3-0 start, the Notre Dame football team’s ceiling felt like 10-2 with Brandon Wimbush at quarterback. With Ian Book, their ceiling might be an appearance in the national championship game.
Just as impressive as Ian Book’s play was how Brandon Wimbush handled the news of being benched. This year we saw Clemson quarterback Kelly Bryant elect to transfer after losing the starting job. I think people would have understood if Wimbush decided to do the same.
Instead, Wimbush decided to own his new role and stay engaged. Irish fans were glad he did. When Book was sidelined with a rib injury in week eleven, Wimbush led the Irish to a 42-13 victory over Florida State on senior day. You could not have scripted a better story to demonstrate his resilience.
With everything that took place over the past year, it is quite impressive that Notre Dame was able to finish the regular season undefeated. The Irish have dealt with their fair share of adversity this year, and that has prepared them for the test that awaits them in the College Football Playoff.