The four words we have been waiting for all summer: Week Zero is here. The Notre Dame Fighting Irish and Navy Midshipmen will kick off the college football season in Dublin, Ireland, early Saturday. The Marcus Freeman Era enters its second year after mixed results in his head-coaching debut. After a surprising 3-3 start that included inexcusable losses to Marshall and Stanford, Freeman settled in as his team won five of its final six games. He will look to carry that success over and start the season off strong with a very manageable schedule, starting with Navy, which went 4-8 last season, on Saturday. Notre Dame is currently a 20.5-point favorite, while the total (50.5) is hovering just below the key number of 51.
Is Sam Hartman the savior for South Bend?
Notre Dame made a massive splash in the transfer portal by recruiting former Wake Forest QB Sam Hartman. Hartman threw for 7,929 yards and 77 TD’s over his last two seasons for the Demon Deacons and brings the innate leadership that the Fighting Irish covet. After Tyler Buchner’s injury in the opener against Ohio State last season, the Notre Dame offense lacked the vertical passing threat to keep defenses honest with Drew Pyne under center. When a player of Hartman’s caliber steps into the building, expectations follow. Notre Dame’s stout offensive line and deep stable of running backs will make Hartman’s life easier from the pocket, but questions remain whether the wide receivers can improve enough to maximize the potential of the offense. If Hartman can elevate his new teammates into playmakers, the Irish could be a big story this season.
Two offenses with new play-callers
One of the most intriguing aspects of Saturday’s game is the unveiling of each offense under new play-callers. Grant Chesnut, formerly from Kennesaw State, is tasked with modernizing the Midshipmen’s triple-option attack by blending in more passing concepts. After former offensive coordinator Tommy Rees departed for Alabama, Notre Dame handed over the headset to Gerad Parker. Having a first-time play-caller paired with Hartman isn’t ideal, but a favorable matchup with Navy should help Parker ease into the role. I will be paying close attention to the dynamics between the two, and I think it’s fair to expect that the offense will be a bit of a work in progress early on.
Running games and a running clock
Conference realignment consumed everyone’s attention this summer, but it’s important we get back to the things that matter for this year. If totals look a few points low this season, that’s because a new set of rules goes into effect Saturday. College football has adopted a running clock after first downs (outside of the last two minutes of each half) in hopes of shortening the length of games. The change is most significant for a team like Navy, where controlling time of possession with the run game is the foundation of the offense. It’s even more significant in this specific matchup, considering both teams’ strengths are their rushing attacks.
Best Bet: Notre Dame-Navy under 50.5 (-110)
Historically, this has been a high-scoring series. Last season, Notre Dame needed 35 points to put away Navy in a three-point win. I see the game playing out much differently Saturday. Navy returns nine starters on a defense that finished third nationally in both rushing defense and first downs allowed in 2022. Its front seven should be able to provide resistance to Notre Dame, considering the Irish are rolling out a new offense with a first-time play-caller. As almost three touchdown favorites, Notre Dame is projected to do the heavy-lifting on the total. There are a lot of situations that could lead to the Irish falling short.
The conditions won’t be perfect, as the forecast is calling for rain and wind in the 10-13 mph range. How will that impact the Notre Dame receivers? If the Irish get a lead early, it’s reasonable to expect a conservative approach from Parker in his first game as a play-caller. I also expect Freeman’s defense to be dialed in after allowing 32 points last year. Catching Navy to open the season is a big advantage, as opposed to trying to prepare for it midseason. Similar to Notre Dame, there will be growing pains with Navy’s new offense. The roster was built to play a specific way, especially the offensive line, which will be adjusting to pass-blocking a little more frequently. None of these factors moves the needle by itself, but in totality, they have me more confident in this game landing under the total. I’m willing to bet we see alot of rushing early on, with Notre Dame grabbing a sizable lead, as Navy resorts to its bread and butter in an effort to claw back. We are likely in store for an ugly game to open the season, but I will feel better about it knowing I’m on the under.
Stats provided by cfbstats.com.