Justin K. Aller
Been a little while since we've done an actual Q&A, but had the opportunity to do one with Jon over at SB Nation's excellent Notre Dame blog, One Foot Down. If you've not been over there this week, be sure to head over and check them out. I also answered a few questions related to Pitt, so that's clearly a reason to
stay away go over there.
(Cardiac Hill): Brian Kelly seems like he's the perfect fit there. If he continues down the path of success, do you expect to see him wind up in the NFL some day?
(One Foot Down): That's an interesting question and one I never really considered, but Brian Kelly has been coaching college football for so long that I don't see him jumping to the NFL. That's not to say he couldn't be successful coaching there, but he hasn't even so much as been an assistant on an NFL team, so the chances that one will take a flyer on him is unlikely. But now that you mentioned that, I'm going to be sweating bullets this offseason.
It does concern me a little bit since those were teams - at least Purdue and BYU - that ND should have blown out. As a fan, I can do some mental gymnastics to explain those games away: Purdue was Everett Golson's second career game and first home game, BYU featured Tommy Rees as the starting quarterback, and Denard Robinson's turnover bonanza eliminated the need to do anything other than run the ball and kill the clock against Michigan. But it does appear this team plays worse at home than they do on the road. At the same time, this team is starting to peak and the offensive line is starting to work out the kinks it had at the beginning of the season - which was a big contributing factor to the struggles against Purdue - so hopefully the team can finally put together a complete game at home.
Try to avoid answering this as a Notre Dame fan for just a second - if the top five unbeaten teams, Alabama, Oregon, Kansas State, Ohio State, and Notre Dame, all end the season without a blemish, who should play in the championship game?
I think this is pretty easy: Alabama and Oregon. Alabama is clearly the best team in the country and Oregon has a pretty brutal stretch starting this Saturday that would earn them a trip to Miami. Notre Dame probably ends up #3 in that situation, which is very frustrating considering the new playoff system starts NEXT year, but there's not a lot us fans can do expect cheer for LSU or *gulp* USC. I know Kansas State fans would not be happy either, but it would (most likely) result in an epic Fiesta Bowl pitting KSU and ND against each other. A game in which I like Notre Dame's chances, in case you were wondering.
I'm actually ok with this season's schedule. I think it looked especially gruesome prior to this season because Michigan State and Stanford were coming off historic two-year stretches, but I think, in a vacuum, this schedule isn't too bad. Starting the season with Navy is great because the coaches don't need to spend a week in the middle of the season teaching a new defense they'll use once and then never again until next season, and then following that up with Purdue gave the Irish a (relatively) easy tune-up game before playing the Michigan schools. This year was certainly skewed in the difficult direction because of the addition of Oklahoma to go along with traditional powers like Michigan and USC, but I'm fine with that on an occasional basis.
Unfairly or not, Notre Dame has to schedule like this because they do not play in a conference. The national perception makes it ok to schedule FCS and Sun Belt/MAC teams because conference schedules are so brutal, while ignoring the fact that those conferences include the likes of Kentucky, Ole Miss, Duke. Indiana, Colorado, etc. But I like that Notre Dame mostly schedules games against BCS conference teams. It keeps the games interesting on a week-to-week basis and helps the Irish gain at least a little bit of respect from voters and computers.
If Notre Dame does join a conference, it won't be any time soon. Notre Dame's athletic director, Jack Swarbrick, has done a masterful job of guiding the school through the conference realignment phase and had a hand in creating the playoff systems that allowed the Irish to maintain their independence. So for the foreseeable future, I don't expect the Irish to be forced to join a conference.
Of course, I can't see the future so anything is possible. If Notre Dame absolutely had no choice but to join a conference, I expect it would be the ACC. The Big East isn't a viable option - as Pitt fans are well aware - and the Big Ten just isn't a good fit. The ACC is a pretty good cultural fit and has a pretty expansive national footprint, something that is vital to Notre Dame's survival.
I would be lying if I said I wasn't a little nervous about this game. Pitt isn't having a great season, but they always seem to play the Irish tough. They're also talented enough and have the right collection of skill position players on offense to do some damage to the Irish defense. If the Irish come out flat, Pitt has the potential to make things very interesting.
But I also think this is a very good match-up for Notre Dame. Pitt likes to run the ball and Notre Dame is very good at stopping the run. Tino Sunseri is having a good season, but the line has given up a lot of sacks. Aaron Donald worries me, but Pitt's linebackers are on the small side, and Notre Dame has shown the ability to run the ball down the throat of teams that aren't very big on defense.
I suspect Notre Dame will get off to a slow start on offense like they do in every game and things will probably be close at halftime, but I think the defense should be able to shut down the Panther offense and the offense should be able to use the running game to put the game away in the second half. I'll say the Irish take this game 27-10.