It hasn’t been such rosy times in South Bend the past few seasons. After returning to the national elite and making the BCS National Championship in 2012, Notre Dame has gone 17-9. For one of college football’s most decorated programs, those number just won’t get things done for hungry alumni and an itching fan base. What transpired for coach Brian Kelly and the Irish in 2014, however, might have been out of his control. Football isn’t a place for excuses, but the season started with a serious academic investigation resulting in the season-long suspension of two of its most talented defenders, defensive lineman Ishaq Williams and cornerback KeiVarae Russell, who both return this season. The Irish also watched as several prominent members of the defense went down with injuries midway through the season, and the results were devastatingly apparent. Notre Dame lost five of its final seven games, several of which were in its grasp late in the game.
The season began with a blowout win against a respectable Rice team (48-17) and a shutout against rival Michigan (31-0), their most lopsided win in the series and the game’s final chapter. Notre Dame reeled off four more wins, including a gritty 17-14 win against Stanford, before heading into Tallahassee to face Florida State. With the game on the line and only moments left, quarterback Everett Golson hit Corey Robinson for the game winning score. Unfortunately for the Irish, an offensive pass interference call erased both the score and Notre Dame’s hope of winning. It was the beginning of the end for the Irish season. The team regrouped to pull out a 49-39 win against Navy next, but lost starting linebacker Joe Schmidt for the season in the victory. Following losses at Arizona State (55-31) and home against Northwestern (43-40), the Irish hosted a surprisingly good Louisville Cardinal team. Louisville held on for the win (31-28), and Notre Dame lost defensive lineman Jarron Jones and safety Drue Tranquil. The Irish’s top NFL prospect Sheldon Day also missed the Louisville game. With a pieced together defense and a struggling Golson, USC routed the Irish in Los Angeles in the final regular season game of the season. The Irish, however, were able to salvage at least part of the sinking season a month later in Nashville. With several key players returning to the lineup and sophomore quarterback Malik Zaire replacing Golson, the Irish stunned LSU on a 32-yard field goal as time expired.
In our ‘Best Non-Conference Games of 2015’ feature, BYU made the top 25 list four times – their entire September slate. As a guest on Sirius XM’s BYU Radio, I discussed that even a 2-2 September should be applauded, but that the sky is the limit with their dynamic leader: Taysom Hill. Three straight 8-5 seasons have the fan base a bit restless, and understandably so, for a team with such talent and tradition-rich history. Last season was the easier schedule to capitalize on, but a mid-season injury to Hill set them back a ways. Now, the schedule ramps up a notch, playing 4 Top 40 Power 5 teams, along with a slew of the strongest teams in non-AQ ball. And if you think the 2015 schedule is tough, take a peek at what’s to come in 2016 and 2017. As a BYU fan, you have to embrace the challenges, because this at least offers the idea of controlling your destiny, and makes a path to the Playoff or New Years Six Bowls at least fathomable. Will conference realignment rage on, and will BYU be considered for a spot? Who knows. If it was up to me, strictly-football speaking, I would throw BYU in the Pac-12 with either Utah State or Boise State. It’s not that easy, sadly. But for BYU the focus needs to remain on the 4 challengers awaiting in September.
NAVY Even with another full season ahead of him, Keenan Reynolds already owns the NCAA career rushing touchdown record (quarterbacks) with an amazing 64 touchdowns. He has been the signal-caller for 3 straight winning seasons, but they ceded the Commander In Chief's Trophy to the Falcons. It is a new era of Navy Football, as the Midshipmen join a conference after 125 years of football independence. As members of the AAC West, new conference foes include Houston, Memphis, Tulane, Tulsa, and SMU. It is tough to gauge Navy in a conference, but with cross-division games against the East's bottom two teams, I am calling for a finish in the upper half of the West. Games against both West favorites (Houston and Memphis) will be tough, but I see Navy finishing no lower than 3rd, with the potential to strike higher. Navy continues to own the rivalry with Army (13 in a row); a reflection of the coaching staff, from Niumatalolo down to every single "player-coach," these Hosses know how to win.
ARMY After yet 3 straight losing seasons, a new staff was brought in last season. Jeff Monken took over after a successful stint at Georgia Southern running a similar triple option attack. His Eagles (Division 1-AA) upset Florida in the Swamp - and didnt even attempt a single pass! In Year 1, there was a 1-win improvement from 3-9 to 4-8. This season, 10 starters return and there are several opportunities for wins: Fordham, Connecticut, Wake Forest, Eastern Michigan, Bucknell, Rice, and Tulane are all winnable. Army may bounce back to its winning ways with Monken around, but will not reclaim the CIC in 2015.
AIR FORCE Troy Calhoun brought Air Force from 2 wins in 2013 up to 10 last season, the biggest turnaround of 2014. He also returned the Commander In Chief’s Trophy to Colorado Springs for the first time since 2011. This season, 11 starters return to face a tough non-conference slate that features road trips to Michigan State and Navy. Air Force again looks like one of the stronger teams in the Mountain West, and I am calling for a return to Bowl Season.
COMMANDER-IN-CHIEF TROPHY PICK: NAVY MIDSHIPMEN ... ANCHORS AWEIGH