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College football takeaways: Is Notre Dame actually underrated this season?

Pete Thamel
·14-min read

Notre Dame is annually among the most overrated, over-analyzed and over-exposed teams in America. Its ubiquity has long been the root of its divisiveness, as it ranks with the Yankees, Cowboys and Lakers among legacy brands that artificially manufacture attention.

That’s why it’s surprising that Notre Dame finds itself quietly having ascended to the top of the rankings this season. The Irish are ranked No. 4 in the country, well positioned for a playoff spot and poised for an epic showdown with No. 1 Clemson on Nov. 7 that will give one of those programs an inside shot at a College Football Playoff bid.

“They should be way more hyped,” said an opposing coach who has studied the Irish. It may be the first time in recorded history those words have been spoken about Notre Dame.

Notre Dame should be ranked No. 3 come Monday after its 12-7 victory over Louisville, with the assumption that the Irish leap Georgia after the Bulldogs lost 41-24 to No. 2 Alabama. (That ranking may be adjusted once Big Ten and Pac-12 teams start playing and garner more votes.)

But it’s perhaps revealing that we still don’t know if this Notre Dame team resembles a College Football Playoff-caliber team. “It’s really early,” Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said after the game that bumped the Irish to 4-0. He added: “It’s almost Game 2 for us in a sense because of our stop and restart. It’s pretty early in the season for us. We’re going to be a better football team as we continue to grow and develop.”

Notre Dame Fighting Irish head coach Brian Kelly looks on during warmups before the Camping World Bowl against Iowa State on Dec. 28, 2019. (Joe Petro/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Notre Dame Fighting Irish head coach Brian Kelly looks on during warmups before the Camping World Bowl against Iowa State on Dec. 28, 2019. (Joe Petro/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

The recipe is a familiar one for the Irish. They have one of the country’s most dominant offensive lines, a capable quarterback in fifth-year senior Ian Book and a sound defense that appears to be growing up under well-regarded coordinator Clark Lea.

While the Irish have the run game, the Louisville game exposed some deficiencies in the pass game. Kelly attributed some of that to 30-mph minds. But Notre Dame’s offense stalled in the red zone, including three first half trips resulting in just six points after a questionable fake field goal attempt late in the half.

If there’s a singular player Notre Dame needs to emerge, it’s junior receiver Kevin Austin. He missed the first two games with an injury and had a touchdown taken away on the final drive of the half when officials ruled he failed to keep his foot in bounds. He can potentially add an element of dynamism the Irish have lacked.

“This team is nowhere near where it can be and I think it will be,” Kelly said. “We know that we’re going to have to improve in certain areas.”

Mullets taking over ‘Merica

They have more than a half-dozen players with mullets, including a middle linebacker with his flow dyed blond. They brag about having the shortest offensive line in college football, with 5-foot-9 Sam Thompson anchoring the line at center. They play on teal turf in a touristy beach town where suddenly there’s high-end football to complement the golf courses.

After Coastal Carolina beat No. 21 Louisiana, 30-27, on Wednesday night, the program went to 4-0 and is poised to be ranked for the first in school history. Picked to finish last in the Sun Belt this season, Coastal Carolina has emerged as one of the nation’s best stories. The Chanticleers may or may not get ranked, but there’s no program in college football that exudes fun more than them.

“For us, it would be a big deal,” second-year coach Jamey Chadwell told Yahoo Sports about the chance to get ranked. “For us, maybe more important, we’ve never been to a bowl game. That’d be huge for our players and our university.”

This is Chadwell’s second season as full-time head coach, as he took over for business mogul Joe Moglia full time last season. Coastal’s transition up from FCS had endured the requisite bumps, as it’d gone 5-7 in 2018 and in Chadwell’s debut in 2019.

Coastal Carolina Chanticleers tight end Isaiah Likely (4) takes a 2-yard pass while quarterback Grayson McCall (10) signals touchdown during their win over Kansas on Sept. 12, 2020. (Scott Winters/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Coastal Carolina Chanticleers tight end Isaiah Likely (4) takes a 2-yard pass while quarterback Grayson McCall (10) signals touchdown during their win over Kansas on Sept. 12, 2020. (Scott Winters/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

That modest success brought dimmed expectations, which were transformed when Coastal Carolina throttled Kansas, 38-23, on Sept. 12, in the only game that night. It was the only late game on television that night, giving college football starved America a rousing introduction to the Chanticleers.

It also marked the debut of redshirt freshman quarterback Grayson McCall, who Chadwell recruited from the Charlotte area while the program’s offensive coordinator. He played in a similar style offense in high school, as Coastal often plays in two-back sets, which are becoming rare in college and high school football. McCall is 6-foot-3, 200 pounds and has played so efficiently that he’s got just one turnover in four games, which is impressive considering the amount of spread option that Coastal Carolina runs.

McCall credited co-offensive coordinator and quarterback coach Willy Korn, the former Clemson quarterback, who has “allowed him to play free and calm.” Korn credits Chadwell for fostering an environment where backups scoring in the scout team scrimmage on Fridays is greeted by the starters with celebrations like they just won the Super Bowl. “That’s a great picture of the culture coach Chadwell has created here and the culture in our locker room,” Korn said. “Players love to compete and they love each other.”

And America is falling for the Chanticleers. Linebacker Teddy Gallagher has a bleach-blond mullet that ESPN’s Marty Smith nicknamed the Chanticleer Chandelier, as he’s one of eight or nine players flashing the flow. The graphic touting the offensive line’s height challenges on ESPN on Wednesday led to line coach Bill Durkin getting 100 emails about under-sized prospects.

“I think the hardest thing is when we went FBS, a lot of the top players didn’t know much about us,” Chadwell said. “We weren’t on TV as much. Now that we’re building it, a lot more people are getting to know us.”

So far among this sun-kissed Coastal season, we're having a blast getting to know them.

Orange in a squeeze

Syracuse’s Dino Babers made his name as a head coach for being a nemesis to Clemson at a time when few in the ACC could muster much resistance.

In 2017, Syracuse stunned No. 2 Clemson in the Carrier Dome on a Friday night, Clemson’s last ACC loss. In 2018, Syracuse nearly pulled an upset at No. 3 Clemson, as Tigers backup Chase Brice needed a 94-yard scoring drive to win the game in the final minute. That Syracuse team went on to win 10 games, the lone winning season in Babers’ five years in Syracuse.

This week, Syracuse heads to Clemson with its program in the fetal position. Beset by opt-outs and injuries and fresh off a blowout home loss to Liberty, Syracuse is bracing for an ugly Saturday on the road against the No. 1 team in the country next week.

Syracuse’s season has been a perfect storm of misery. The Orange are down to seven scholarship offensive linemen, including a converted fullback, and is playing its fifth-string tailback and backup quarterback. The Orange’s best defensive player, Andre Cisco, got injured in warmups before the Georgia Tech game and has opted out for the season.

Don’t expect Babers’ job to be in jeopardy. He has at least four full years remaining on his contract this year, and the most conservative estimates of his buyout are that he’d be owed at least $17 million if he was fired after this season. That number would scare a well-heeled SEC athletic department, and Syracuse is decidedly not one of those.

What can Syracuse do? Support Babers’ weaknesses. One of the issues at Syracuse is that athletic director John Wildhack has no experience overseeing a major college football program, so there’s no leadership with an idea about structure, staffing and how to out-maneuver conference peers in more ideal recruiting bases.

Recruiting has never been the heartbeat of Babers’ coaching arsenal. While he has the charisma and charm to connect, coaches and analysts in the Northeast would not rate Babers’ recruiting metabolism with coaches like BC’s Jeff Hafley, Rutgers’ Greg Schiano or Penn State’s James Franklin.

Syracuse’s recruiting staff is one of the least sophisticated in the ACC, as Babers’ longtime assistant Roy Wittke is the new director of player personnel. Places like BC, Wake Forest and Rutgers – the schools Syracuse needs to beat — have invested in sophisticated operations. The Orange are lagging behind.

The most glaring evidence of the recruiting deficiencies is the lack of talent in Syracuse’s quarterback room, as Babers has yet to recruit and develop a proven ACC-level starter, and the lack of depth in that room has always been glaringly thin. He inherited Eric Dungey, and injured redshirt junior quarterback Tommy DeVito has yet to live up to his billing.

Babers is speeding toward his fourth losing seasons in five years. There’s a clear talent deficiency that’s glaring. Syracuse and Babers are contractually in lockstep for a while. To compete in the ACC, they need to start recruiting like an ACC school.

Arkansas coach Sam Pittman directs his team during warmups before a game against the Georgia Bulldogs at Razorback Stadium on Sept. 26. (Wesley Hitt/Getty Images)
Arkansas coach Sam Pittman directs his team during warmups before a game against the Georgia Bulldogs at Razorback Stadium on Sept. 26. (Wesley Hitt/Getty Images)

Hogs showing out early this season

The early candidate for SEC coach of the year is Sam Pittman, who has risen Arkansas from the sewers of the SEC West and instantly transformed the Hogs into a formidable foe.

Arkansas is 2-2 so far this season, and it is a blown call away from being 3-1 after an officiating mistake at Auburn. On Saturday, Arkansas put forth its most impressive effort of the season, shutting down Lane Kiffin’s frenetic offense in a 33-21 victory.

Arkansas picked off Ole Miss quarterback Matt Corral six times, two of which were returned for touchdowns. Corral entered the game as one of the SEC’s breakout stars after leading Ole Miss to 647 yards against Alabama last week. He’d thrown just one interception heading into the game.

It has been interesting watching Pittman handle Arkansas’ success. He’s not reacting with the same shock as the rest of the country, which remembers an Arkansas team that lost 19 straight SEC games heading into the season. “We’re talented,” Pittman said, as if to deflect the notion of surprise. “We’ve got a talented group.”

Much of the credit for Saturday’s win should be directed to defensive coordinator Barry Odom, who was one of the country’s best young defensive coordinators before taking over the head job at Missouri. Odom was uneven during his tenure at Missouri, as he went 25-25 overall and was fired last year.

But he’s been revelatory in his return to coordinating. It’d be difficult to think of a unit that’s been transformed more drastically than Arkansas’ defense. Arkansas is giving up 25.5 points per game, more than 11 points less than last season’s wet paper towel unit that gave up 38.6 points per game.

Pittman complimented how Odom prepared his players for Ole Miss. He mentioned the tendencies Odom taught and formational awareness that translated to allowing 205 fewer yards than Alabama.

“Barry Odom is the real deal,” Pittman said. “I’m happy, he’s a great friend of mine.”

And he best be careful, because a leading coordinator like Odom at an SEC financial have-not like Arkansas is in danger of being plucked away. Perhaps by a program recently torched by Ole Miss.

BYU goes back to its roots

Few stars have seared their way into the spotlight more dramatically than BYU’s Zach Wilson. In a prime-time Friday game against Houston, Wilson led the No. 14. Cougars to a 43-26 victory and added another vintage performance to his scintillating season.

Wilson threw for 400 yards and four touchdowns, and he entered Saturday’s game ranked second in points responsible for (110) and passing yards (1,641).

Wilson was poised to break out last season after leading BYU to upsets of Tennessee and USC. But injuries and some inconsistencies around him got in the way.

The BYU revival is well underway, and Wilson has done it with a mix of flair and football acumen. NFL scouts are quickly becoming infatuated with Wilson, as he’s a natural thrower who can deliver the ball in small windows from a variety of arm angles.

While the highlights are myriad, what’s impressed coaches is his command of the offense. BYU co-coordinator Aaron Roderick, who has overseen Wilson’s development there, said Wilson’s maturity can be seen in how often he’s set the right protection at the line or checked BYU out of a bad play.

Opposing coaches have noticed. Troy coach Chip Lindsey saw plenty to like in BYU’s 48-7 win over Troy earlier this season. “It looks to me like he has a great understanding of what they’re doing and how they go about running their offense,” Lindsey told Yahoo Sports. “He’s in control and an accurate thrower. I didn’t see him put the ball in jeopardy. He’s confident in what he’s doing.”

And we’re confident we’ll be hearing a lot more about BYU and Wilson the rest of the season.

Florida State finally finds moment of glory

Hidden from the glare of Alabama running away from Georgia on Saturday night was No. 5 North Carolina losing one of the most baffling games of the 2020 season.

UNC fell behind 31-7 at halftime to unranked Florida State and then the Seminoles held on for a 31-28 win, thanks to three consecutive drops by UNC in the final minute. (Javonte Williams had the final drop.)

UNC had shown signs of vulnerability this season, nearly squandering a game at Boston College earlier this month. But the Seminoles had been so impotent – even struggling to beat FCS Jacksonville State – that this game hardly seemed imposing.

The beleaguered FSU defense, which was shredded by Miami earlier this season, showed some signs of progress. They finished with eight tackles for loss, held UNC to 2-11 on third down and 0-for-3 on fourth down. They also scored on a pick-six from 6-foot-7 defensive end Joshua Kaindoh. FSU also blocked a pair of punts, providing just enough disruption to outlast the inevitable UNC comeback.

With Mike Norvell getting diagnosed with COVID-19 and three consecutive league losses, FSU had found plenty of adversity. After the game, coach Mike Norvell noted that belief trumped all.

“These guys believe in what we’re doing,” said Norvell, who has a bright spot in his first year at FSU. “Coming off of last week, we saw moments, we saw flashes and we saw a team that was playing harder.”

SMU staying relevant, one win at a time

Perhaps the biggest compliment to SMU coach Sonny Dykes is that his team authoring dramatic wins and getting out to hot starts is no longer a surprise. Actually, it feels routine. And we’re quickly getting used to the idea of SMU competing for conference championships.

SMU jumped out to a 5-0 start by outlasting Tulane on Friday night, 37-34, in overtime, marking the 15th victory in SMU’s past 18 games. For a program that took a long nap after probation decimated it in the early 1980s, Dykes has found the formula to once again maximize the program.

That starts with a philosophy built around using the transfer portal to acquire top talent, which is how SMU ended up with former Texas quarterback Shane Buechele. He’s been the face of SMU’s revival on the field, as he entered Saturday as the nation’s leader in passing yards (1,710).

Against Tulane, an overtime stand by coordinator Kevin Kane’s defense led to the victory. An interception by sophomore corner Brandon Crossley set up a 34-yard field goal by Chris Naggar to seal the win.

SMU will find itself hosting a potential top-20 matchup of what appear to be the two best teams in the AAC. No. 8 Cincinnati heads to No. 17 SMU, potentially the league’s marquee game of the season.

Dykes has maintained that winning conference championships is “why we’re here.” And in his third year at SMU, the Mustangs are in position to put themselves in the driver’s seat in the AAC standings.

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