What's happening, gang?
Mike S. from Chicago writes: Hi again Matt! Lots of people doing season W/L predictions already, and looking at the schedule there seem to be some expected tough games. Is there a team on the schedule that is especially underrated and could be a *surprisingly* tough game for the Irish? Michigan, Stanford, FSU and one or two others we know will be tough. Curious if you think there's an under-the-radar team though. Thanks!
Matt Fortuna: Hey Mike, I'm not ready to make a win-loss prediction this early in the game, but I think you can make a case for really any team on the Fighting Irish's schedule this season to be surprisingly good, outside of the obvious ones that you mentioned (plus USC). North Carolina is a popular pick to win the ACC's Coastal Division. Louisville has had a lot of recent success but is stepping up in competition with a new staff and new quarterback. Arizona State is always a tough out. Syracuse will be better in Year 2 of the Scott Shafer era and has a quarterback to build around in Terrel Hunt. But the one opponent that I think is really getting overlooked is Northwestern. The Wildcats have been consistently strong in recent years under Pat Fitzgerald and definitely enter this season with a chip on their shoulder after the way things ended last year. (A year that was riddled by key injuries, too.) I covered Northwestern's game against Ohio State last season and the Cats were a play away from giving the Buckeyes their first loss of the Urban Meyer era. They are good, and they travel to South Bend, Ind., at what could be a vulnerable time for the Irish, given the tough November stretch they finish with (Navy, at ASU, Northwestern, Louisville, at USC). Purdue usually plays the Irish tough, too. (And heck, even Rice is coming off a 10-win season.)
Chris from Canada writes: Outside of the experience, what are the key differences between Zaire and Golson? They seem very similar in what they have to offer. Is it realistic to think that Zaire can beat out Golson this year or is the "QB competition" just for show?
Matt Fortuna: Chris, they are of a similar build and skill-set, though I think Everett Golson probably has the better arm and is more mobile. Whether that translates into a big gap on the field remains to be seen. As you said, Golson has the experience factor, but Malik Zaire is sure to give him a push, enough so that I think the Irish will be comfortable putting him in a game at any point, something that we know Brian Kelly is not afraid to do with his quarterbacks. Zaire certainly carries himself publicly like a guy who is not afraid of a challenge, and like a guy who expects to win the job if he plays the way he thinks he's capable of playing. My guy Adam Kramer thinks the Irish have the best depth at the position in the country. I'm not sure I'm ready to go that far just yet, but the quarterback position is certainly a luxury for Notre Dame at this point, something that has not been said before in the Kelly era.
Chris Kosiak (via Twitter): (Who is) the under-the-radar guy that everyone will love by seasons end?
Matt Fortuna: What, Cam McDaniel last year wasn't enough for you guys? (I kid, I kid.) I'd say Joe Schmidt, but his value has been pretty well-documented this spring. I'll go with Jarron Jones. It took him some time, but he really came around down the stretch last season. After being demoted to the scout team during USC week because of his academic and football shortcomings, Jones stepped up when the defense became decimated by injuries, blocking a kick on Senior Day against BYU and tallying seven tackles before getting the start at Stanford a week later. He spoke openly about how much more comfortable he is in Brian VanGorder's system, and the opportunities will be there for Jones to make a name for himself on a thin defensive line.