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Which past Notre Dame team would be ideal for EA Sports College Football? Irish mailbag

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SOUTH BEND, Ind. — What offseason?

Since the last Notre Dame mailbag, the Irish have hired a new assistant coach, got “in the game,” added a couple of commitments and got a new voice in the NBC booth. And yes, I know you have opinions on all that.

You’ve got plenty of questions too.

Let’s get started with EA Sports, jump to the College Football Playoff, talk schedule difficulty (or lack thereof) and address what recruiting success looks like.

Note: Submitted questions have been edited for clarity and length.

Now that we’re back in the EA Sports era, which Notre Dame team from 2013-23 would have been the most fun to play? Both individual players and as a collective team. — Dan S.

The 2015 team would be a riot with Will Fuller running go routes and tunnel screens. I’d try to recreate the hand slap with USC’s Adoree Jackson before Fuller took him deep and didn’t look back. I’d also figure out a way for Jaylon Smith to finish the season with more than one sack. I also wouldn’t play prevent defense at the end of the game against Stanford or go for a two-point conversion against Clemson. Pretty sure I’m taking that team to the national championship game.

Getting a few games with the 2017 team would be fun, even if I’m just running Josh Adams behind Quenton Nelson and Mike McGlinchey. And how good would EA Sports have made Kyle Hamilton? Is there a rating higher than 99?

I cannot wait to see what EA Sports constructs with these games, especially around the Notre Dame home game experience. Will there be a player walk from the Basilica? Do we get Father Pete inviting the stadium to mass after the game? Will a professor be honored at the end of the first quarter? So many questions.

I’m from Canada and I’ve officially chosen Notre Dame as my college team to root for going forward. What’s a key storyline for me to keep an eye on before next season starts? — Gurpreet R.

Welcome. Bold choice. I’m going to assume you’re a hockey fan living in Canada, so heads up that you’ve basically chosen the Toronto Maple Leafs or Montreal Canadians as your squad. Lots of history. Swimming (or skating) upstream in the present.

If I had to pick one story to follow this season, it’s how new offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock integrates into the Notre Dame program as he begins his third tour of duty here. Can he get the best out of Riley Leonard, who’s yet to reach his full potential? Can he adjust in-game more than Gerad Parker, who seemed to struggle in bigger games when the original plan didn’t click? My hunch is that Denbrock will check both boxes because he’s checked both boxes repeatedly during his career. That’s not a prediction that he can turn Leonard into a Heisman Trophy contender in a single season, but when Notre Dame opens at Texas A&M and closes at USC, there should be supreme confidence that Denbrock can counterpunch when the Irish need it. Notre Dame shouldn’t suffer through offensive games like Duke, Louisville and Clemson again.

To me, Denbrock is basically Notre Dame’s version of Al Golden on offense. He’s seen it all. Coached through it all, and not all of it good. But all that experience pays at a place like Notre Dame, particularly with a younger head coach still learning every Saturday. When it hits the fan, Denbrock knows how to clean it off and get it back running.

With the 12-team playoff within reach and Notre Dame unable to be seeded better than No. 5, there’s an idea Notre Dame self-sabotaged by signing off on a system where “they’ll have to beat four teams in a row to win a championship.” Am I being pedantic by saying that every team will need to win four consecutive games to win a championship? Put differently, how significant to you is Notre Dame’s bye week coming during championship weekend while the conference champions’ byes come during the first week of the Playoff? — Catherine B.

OK, there’s a lot to unpack here, my friend.

It’s worth reminding everyone that Notre Dame helped design the system that prevents the Irish from getting a first-round bye. Those are reserved for conference champions, although after this week the College Football Playoff committee made formal what was inevitable, that the new field will be a 5+7 model. That’s five automatic bids for conference champions and seven at-large bids.

As for the question, you see it the way I see it.

Notre Dame has to win four straight games to win a national championship. So do Georgia, Alabama, Ohio State and Texas. The question is which four games? Notre Dame obviously can’t play in a conference championship game. Those other programs can, which means they can also lose the game, knocking them into the same pool as Notre Dame, hosting a first-round game and then having to win three neutral-site games in a row.

I’ve seen some fans argue that those programs would get a “mulligan” by losing the conference championship game but still making the CFP. I think that’s reversed. Because if Notre Dame finishes as the No. 5 seed, it’s likely drawing a Group of 5 champion at home in December. Last year that was Liberty. The year before it was Tulane. Four years ago it could have been Coastal Carolina. Now that’s a mulligan.

Put another way, would you rather Notre Dame have to play Georgia the first weekend in December, risk losing that game and then have to turn around and play Penn State, Oregon or Ole Miss three weeks later? Because it could be difficult to draw the Group of 5 champion with a loss on conference championship weekend — especially if Notre Dame is in the mix for the No. 5 spot (which we are assuming for this argument). Sure, there will be instances in which the loser of the SEC or Big Ten title game would be in position to earn the No. 5 spot. But if Notre Dame is 11-1 (or better), I’d like the Irish’s chances of getting the No. 5 spot.

Just making the College Football Playoff is one thing. Actually winning the College Football Playoff requires Notre Dame being the No. 5 seed, meaning it probably gets a Group of 5 team in the first round at home followed by the Big 12 or ACC champion in the quarterfinals — assuming the Big Ten and SEC champions are No. 1 and No. 2.

Sure, Notre Dame has to win four games to win a national championship. But if the first two games are Liberty and Utah or if they’re Tulane and Clemson, that’s hardly something to complain about if you’re a Notre Dame fan.

Give me a bye on conference championship weekend, a fair shot at a favorable draw, then take your chances if you’re Notre Dame. Everybody’s got to win four games. But if the Irish are the No. 5 seed, odds are their four games will feel more like winning 2+2 games.

It seems Notre Dame is trying to recruit classes early with an extreme focus on culture, fit and developmental traits rather than acquiring flashier top-end talent. Do you think this is a superior strategy in the transfer portal/expanded CFP era? — Theodore R.

I wouldn’t call it an “extreme focus” on those traits, but there’s no question Notre Dame prioritizes them.

During the past week, I’ve sat down in person with two Irish commitments and one top target: Cree Thomas, Justin Thurman and Dallas Golden. All three fit what Notre Dame wants off the field. All three fit what Notre Dame wants on the field. Golden may be this year’s Kyngstonn Viliamu-Asa, a national prospect who could go anywhere and someone Notre Dame recruited well enough to make South Bend feel like the move. That’s no small thing. And it’s something Notre Dame has to do more to compete for a national championship.

I understand your question that development has to be part of Notre Dame’s success. You need stories like Xavier Watts, Benjamin Morrison, Howard Cross, Isaiah Foskey, Mitchell Evans, Kyren Williams, etc. Good prospects who developed into very good (or great) college players. But you also need stories like Kyle Hamilton, Michael Mayer, Quenton Nelson, Jaylon Smith and Manti Te’o. Great prospects who developed into elite college players. Five-star talent can be developed, too.

The issue for Notre Dame in the NIL world is those have become expensive stories to tell. The Irish saw that a couple of cycles ago with Keon Keeley, Dante Moore and Peyton Bowen. Assuming you can convince a prospect who’s slightly off-profile to come to Notre Dame in the first place, then you have to hold on to them for the duration.

In terms of a strategy in the CFP era, I don’t think taking more developmental prospects is a better approach today than it was five years ago. Notre Dame needs to mix elite talent and elite development. If there’s a change in strategy, it’s more pushing the boundaries of each class, essentially oversigning and working out the numbers on the back end.

There was a question from Michael C. about recruiting not being “great” in Year 3 under Marcus Freeman. And I’d agree with that sentiment. It’s going well. But the upgrade from Brian Kelly — while obvious in how much the head coach works at it — hasn’t shown as much as I thought it would. Recruitments like Keeley, Moore and Bowen have a lot to do with that. Getting five-star prospects to Notre Dame was difficult before NIL. It’s only become more difficult, even with a better recruiter at head coach.

With the 2024 schedule set, is this the weakest on-paper slate of opponents since you’ve been on the beat? Only eight Power 5 opponents, two academies and two MAC teams. Texas A&M, Louisville, FSU and USC are undergoing major rebuilds. Beyond those big games, does anybody else jump out at you as potentially pesky? — Jonathan T.

This may be the softest schedule of my time on the beat, which goes back to Bob Davie’s final fall. Notre Dame has faced a minimum of two top-25 teams every regular season since. Freeman faced nine in his first two years, which doesn’t include South Carolina, Oklahoma State or Oregon State.

Notre Dame has also faced 31 top-10 teams during those 23 regular seasons. (Freeman faced as many Top 10 teams in his first two regular seasons as Kelly faced in his final seven.)

There’s no top-10 team on this schedule. Getting to three top-25 games might be a stretch. You’re right Texas A&M, Louisville, Florida State and USC are all rebuilding. Still, Notre Dame has not been a good road team under Freeman, which makes winning in College Station and Los Angeles difficult. Florida State is a tear down coming to Notre Dame in November.

Last year’s schedule had potential traps at Duke and Louisville, on top of Ohio State, USC and Clemson. It’s harder to pick out blindside blocks this year. The “big games” are smaller. Could Notre Dame struggle against Purdue, Virginia or Georgia Tech? It would sound an alarm bell if the Irish did.

There are many reasons why Notre Dame should expect to host a College Football Playoff game this year. The schedule is one of them.

You get to interview either Pete Bevacqua or Marcus Freeman. You’re allowed to ask any three questions. They must give you honest, unfiltered answers. Who do you choose? What do you ask? — Ryan S.

I’ll take Bevacqua, in part because no one has interviewed him on the record yet. And I think he’d be incredibly engaging in this kind of setting.

My three questions:

• What are the terms of the new NBC contract and how does he view it as an affirmation of Notre Dame’s independence as the sport moves toward a Power 2 of the Big Ten and SEC?

• Where does Notre Dame need to evolve within the university to legitimately compete for a national championship?

• Does he share outgoing President Rev. John Jenkins’ opinion in this 2015 Op-Ed in The New York Times that if college football moves to a pay-for-play model Notre Dame would be willing to essentially take its football and go home? (I think I know the answer to this, but it would be interesting to hear Bevacqua articulate it.)

Also, did he hear what Steven A. Sm … oh wait, you said three questions. Never mind.

(Photo of Will Fuller: Joe Robbins / Getty Images)

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