One of my favorite pastimes is setting imaginary odds on random, hypothetical situations. It’s not healthy, but I do this for almost everything, especially weddings and Notre Dame football. Why those two in particular? Both are painfully predictable and otherwise intolerable. I mean, have you ever truly dedicated a Saturday to watching a Notre Dame game? At least people clap after weddings.
Perhaps, then, my weird obsession is why I was so perplexed to learn that Notre Dame’s preseason odds of winning this season’s BCS Championship (25-1) are better today than they were a year ago (30-1). Better… because of an absolutely brutal schedule that starts in Ireland and ends in Southern California? Better… because Michael Floyd left a gaping 1,100 yard hole in the offense when he got drafted by the NFL? Better… because its starting quarterback got chased down from behind by a cop and spent a Thursday in a jail cell? What, in the name of Jarious Jackson, is going on here?
I know, I know… oddsmaking is hardly an exact science. Vegas makes its projections with impossibly little information, and almost every scenario is highly fluid, influenced by injuries, suspensions, and coaches crashing motorcycles. Plus, all it takes is some Crown Royale and a few rich alums to push the odds in one direction or another. This is common knowledge.
But in the case of this year’s Irish squad, it’d take a degenerate gambler of the highest order to even CONSIDER a bet. Why sentence yourself to a losing proposition narrated by Tom Hammond? You’ve got better odds of Tim Tebow making a sex tape.
Ironically, we’ve reached a point where both Notre Dame and Vegas are trying to protect themselves from the wackos who not only take this bet, but believe strongly in its chances of winning. This is the never-ending problem with Notre Dame football. People love traditional powers and underdog stories. The media loves popular programs that drive ratings. Unrealistic expectations are the predictable offspring.
Let’s be clear: Notre Dame will be lucky to win nine games in 2012, even with the majority of its front seven, offensive line, and skill players returning. You’re fooling yourself if you try to sugarcoat this. The Irish could log another 8-5 season and still be ten times better than in 2011, when morale was higher after a strong finish in Brian Kelly’s first campaign. This year, the Irish will be lucky to come out alive after playing Michigan, Miami, and Stanford, with road tilts against Michigan State, Oklahoma, and USC. That’s not even counting the bizarre opener in Ireland against Navy, which has all kinds of Green Jersey Jinx potential. The BCS can’t add that strength of schedule metric soon enough.
You also have to wonder about the Irish secondary, which, in a sick and twisted way, may actually miss Gary Gray at cornerback. Never, in a million years, could you have predicted such an odd juxtaposition of emotions; for two seasons, fans watched Gray get toasted in all the wrong situations and begged for his scholarship to expire early. Now, as Notre Dame is forced to field corners with limited experience, another year of Gray doesn’t seem so bad. Or, for that matter, another year with Robert Blanton, who was one of four Irish players to be drafted by an NFL team. Yes, Matt Barkley could do unholy things to this Notre Dame team in the last week of the season; let’s just hope his strong belief in God prevents him from doing them.
Of course, the real quandary is at quarterback. Notre Dame’s turnover margin last season was second worst in FBS (-15), largely due to bad decisions and butterfingers by Tommy Rees and Dayne Crist, before he was excommunicated. In fact, Bad Decisions and Butterfingers could well be the subtitle for the last year’s exploits, which surely elevated Kelly’s diastolic pressure by a factor of six.
This offseason, Kelly must decide between four quarterbacks: Tommy Rees, Everett Golson, Andrew Hendrix, and Gunner Kiel. You could call it a quarterback derby, but that would imply that one is winning, or will win. If this were the Kentucky Derby, these horses would race to the starting gate and graze idly once it opened, or run at exactly the same speed for all 10 furlongs. None of the contenders in this race has an edge over the others, but all have a fatal flaw. The only way one will win is if the others find ways to lose.
Enter Tommy Rees’ recent arrest. Despite Rees’ average physical tools — again, a cop chased him down… from behind — he still knows the offense better than any of the others, which probably made him the favorite to win the starting job. However, decision making remains his ultimate Achilles’ heel while on the field, and, unfortunately, off it as well. Fans were hoping the annual Blue-Gold Game would show a refined field general; instead, Rees displayed the same forcing-passes-into-triple-coverage tendencies that earned him the “Tommy Turnover” moniker last season.
What does Kelly do? Many believe he’s quietly wanted to make the move to Golson all along, and Rees’ arrest could provide the perfect excuse. Golson is a redshirt freshman and a gifted athlete who shined in the spring game, but has trouble getting plays called on time and, sometimes, with ball security. Does it make sense to pull Rees in favor of Golson, who has more upside, even if it essentially sets the offense back another year? Or, can Notre Dame’s new emphasis on a power running attack take enough pressure off Rees to keep him atop the depth charts?
In a perfect world, a hybrid between Golson and Rees would be ideal for Kelly’s scheme. Enter Andrew Hendrix, a redshirt sophomore who possesses some of the athleticism and arm strength of Golson, along with Rees’ knowledge of the offense. Unfortunately, Hendrix also has a bit of the turnover gene in him, and has his own knack for poor decisions under pressure, usually in the form of bullet passes to opposing linebackers. The finesse game has always been a challenge for Hendrix. As Pete Sampson from Irish Illustrated aptly put it: “He throws every pass with maximum force.” Hendrix may not be the right answer for Kelly, either.
For that matter, neither is true freshman Gunner Kiel, who already has the physical prowess of a three-year starter, but lacks the decision making and knowledge of the playbook to be a serious contender. Long-term, Kiel could be the answer, but it’s worth noting that he had his heart set on LSU before his mother swooped in and forced his move to South Bend. Rough translation: he’ll be transferring somewhere else in 2013.
Ah, yes. You can almost feel Brian Kelly turning an uncomfortable shade of red. From my vantage point, the best bet on Notre Dame is no bet at all.
Ty Hildenbrandt is the co-host of the popular college football podcast “The Solid Verbal” and a regular contributor at Crystal Ball Run. Be sure to follow him on Twitter @TyHildenbrandt.