Where Notre Dame Football Appears In ESPN Preseason Power Rankings
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Where Notre Dame Football Appears In ESPN Preseason Power Rankings

ESPN writers do not appear to have Notre Dame barking up the College Football Playoff tree it has made home recently in 2021. Not to start, anyway.

The Irish ranked No. 9 in ESPN's preseason power rankings released Tuesday evening. Notre Dame came in behind two schools that have never reached the CFP — No. 6 Texas A&M and No. 7 Iowa State — and one that has not made it there since the inaugural CFP season in 2014 — No. 8 Oregon.

How's that for bulletin board material for a Notre Dame program that has been one of the last four college football teams standing in two of the last three seasons?

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Let's take a step back and analyze Notre Dame's ranking before discounting it as a slight to the Irish, though. A top 10 slot isn't bad, and there are reasons to justify Notre Dame checking in at No. 9. ESPN writer Tom VanHaaren laid some of those out in his Notre Dame season outlook.

"There is a lot of production to replace from last year's team," VanHaaren wrote. "Quarterback Ian Book is gone, the offensive line will have new faces across the board and head coach Brian Kelly has a new defensive coordinator in Marcus Freeman."

VanHaaren added, "How the new faces step into key roles and help early on will be the story of what this Notre Dame team looks like this season."

Of course, Freeman could be a new face that makes Notre Dame's defense even better than it was under now-Vanderbilt head coach Clark Lea. The Irish had the country's No. 25 total defense in 2020. Freeman led the nation's No. 13 overall defense at Cincinnati.

Notre Dame Fighting Irish football defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman
Notre Dame defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman had success in three seasons at Cincinnati. (USA Today)

Headlined by a nationally-renowned, premier player in junior safety Kyle Hamilton and a front seven that is projected to start three graduate students, two seniors and two juniors, Notre Dame's defense likely won't be what holds the Irish back from the CFP. It'll be an Irish offense with a new starting quarterback, four new starting offensive linemen and an unproven wide receiver corps that could keep the Fighting Irish ranked closer to No. 10 than No. 4.

But even if that is the case for Notre Dame in what many are forecasting to be a "down year," then that's not all too bad. Iowa State finished No. 9 in the last AP Top 25 poll of 2020 with a 9-3 record. Cincinnati finished No. 8 at 9-1. A double-digit win season is well within reach for Notre Dame if the Irish are indeed a low-end top 10 team as ESPN projects.

If Wisconsin graduate transfer quarterback Jack Coan is a game-changer, maybe Notre Dame is even better than that. It's possible.

Looking ahead, Notre Dame's future seems bright with either true freshman Tyler Buchner or sophomore Drew Pyne under center. Sophomore Chris Tyree is poised to be the team's starting tailback in 2022, and that's if Kyren Williams doesn't come back for his senior season.

Notre Dame has reached the point in which the program feels disappointed if the Irish are not playing in a CFP semifinal. While the Irish are 0-2 in such games, the next expected step is winning one for the first time — not backing up and creating a trend of not getting there at all.

Even though ESPN's Football Power Index predicts Notre Dame to win 9.1 games and only gives the Irish a 3.4% chance to go 12-0 in the regular season, the goal for Kelly and company will remain the same as it has been the last handful of seasons: book a spot in the CFP. It might not be as likely this year as it's been in years past, but that probably won't change the way Notre Dame approaches the season.

Will ESPN's power rankings? That's for the players and coaches to decide.

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