Fighting Irish Prize Independence at New College Dawn
Realignment chaos in college football puts Notre Dame in an unprecedented position. In today’s blog, I focus on how they’re set under second year head coach Marcus Freeman, and preview the 2023 season with Irish beat reporter Mike Berardino from the South Bend Tribune.
The Marcus Freeman Effect When the gym room doors opened in December 2021, new Notre Dame coach Marcus Freeman bolted towards his adoring players and celebrated with them. Freeman, up to that point the defensive coordinator, was unveiled as successor to the departing Brian Kelly, the coach with the most wins in school history. Convinced that he’d found the right cultural fit and leader within the organisation after the shock of losing Kelly, Athletics Director Jack Swarbrick had his man. Freeman brought immediate energy and enthusiasm to the program, which everyone associated with Notre Dame - especially the fan base - could tap into. What followed was an up and down 2022 season, with frustrating losses to teams that Notre Dame would normally sweep aside in their sleep. On the eve of the Fighting Irish’s game in Dublin to kick off the 2023 college season, I preview the season with South Bend Tribune beat writer and Notre Dame Insider, Mike Berardino.
Gleams Thy Gold and Blue Expect Notre Dame under Marcus Freeman to bounce back from the tough losses they sustained in 2022 against Marshall and Stanford. This time he knows what to expect. A school and athletics program that is the epitome of the football establishment doesn’t let games slip to inferior teams if it wants to contend. This year, they start with a No. 13 ranking in the national Associated Press poll and with a schedule laced with difficult games.
I asked Mike Berardino for his thoughts on year two for Marcus Freeman: “In addition to a fresh round of motivational mantras – “Clarity equals velocity” anyone? – the 37-year-old Freeman seems to be more self-assured than he was as a rookie head coach. He has been more demonstrative at practice, even going semi-viral with an R-rated pep talk in full view of the assembled media. In-game look for Freeman to trust his gut instinct more often this season rather than fall back on the “two-point conversion chart” or other analytics that would determine suitable risk/reward behavior, especially on fourth down.”
Notre Dame’s Independence
While the Pac-12 conference has been imploding and the Big Ten growing fat having lured Oregon and Washington, the coveted last candidate standing at the dance is Notre Dame, which is aligned with the ACC Conference for athletics but independent in football. Notre Dame appears comfortable with its position and confident that it will get market value in its next television deal in 2024, which might entail more games against Big Ten teams on NBC’s platform and on its streaming service, Peacock. The prestige of adding the Irish will make whichever conference acquires them more money but that’s unlikely to happen soon.
Speaking recently on ESPN, Marcus Freeman addressed the matter of Notre Dame’s independence: “You know what, maybe at some point we will be forced to join a conference. But I think right now we are extremely happy with our position of independence and our relationship with the ACC.”
There’s plenty of new faces appearing this fall at South Bend, Indiana and coaching turnover. Offensive coordinator Tommy Rees left for Alabama, with Gerad Parker being promoted to his seat.
Mike Berardino describes the situation as a ‘work in progress’. “Former NBC Sports president and incoming AD Pete Bevacqua, who will remove the training wheels sometime next spring, isn’t the only one getting used to his new workplace. Just two holdovers remain as assistants from Brian Kelly’s 2021 coaching staff: Mike Mickens (cornerbacks) and Chris O’Leary (safeties). That doesn’t count Freeman, of course, who was defensive coordinator for one season in South Bend (Kelly’s last).”
Offense Primed for Tough Schedule
The last time the Irish had a quarterback as statistically accomplished as incoming transfer Sam Hartman from Wake Forest, was Brady Quinn in 2003. They’re counting on Hartman to be the leader who allows their offense to break out this season. I asked Berardino if he thought expectations were too high for Sam Hartman. “Depends on who is setting them. I’ve seen the over/under for season passing yards at 2,900 for Hartman, at least according to DraftKings. That seems light when talking about the nation’s active leader in career passing yards with nearly 13,000 and touchdown passes with 110. As for the Heisman Trophy, Hartman’s odds have improved from 35/1 to around 16/1 since the spring. Even though Hartman has yet to receive a single Heisman vote through five college seasons, that seems like solid value.” Notre Dame’s schedule, in particular home games against Ohio State and USC, provide a path, albeit a tricky one, to push for a playoff spot. If you consider difficult road games against Clemson and NC State that’s a tough schedule. 10-2 is realistic and would constitute a successful season. Berardino agrees: “Feels like the Irish split those two nighttime visits from potential top-five foes. With a rebuilt offensive line and a new QB in Columbus, I’d lean toward Notre Dame clipping the Buckeyes but again struggling to outscore the Trojans. Winning at Clemson will be a huge ask, especially after the second-half beatdown the Tigers absorbed last November at Notre Dame Stadium.”
Here Come the Irish
College football’s Week Zero is upon us. And like last fall, that means the season is kicking off in the Aviva Stadium, Dublin. Although international college football games are not following the NFL’s hectic overseas expansion pace, Dublin for now can justifiably call itself the sport’s safe European home, with another Notre Dame date expected to be announced in the coming years.
Amidst a wave of traditions being removed from the sport, Notre Dame remains the establishment outlier. Grounded, storied and for now unmoved. With the prospect of a new television deal being struck in 2024 and a young, charismatic head coach driving the bus, Notre Dame is looking to thrive with the times. As teams with dominant defensive lines are winning national titles, something they don’t possess, they’ll need their offense to explode. Here come the Irish? We’ll soon find out.