(10) Notre Dame Fighting Irish (-3.5, 60 o/u) at Texas Longhorns
Two of the most storied programs in college football history will go head to head in Week 1 of the 2016 season as the no. 10 Notre Dame Fighting Irish (10-3, 8-5 ATS in 2015) travel to Austin to take on the Texas Longhorns (5-7 SU, 5-7 ATS) at Royal Texas Memorial Stadium on Sunday (7:30 PM Eastern).
Notre Dame has an enviable quarterback situation with both DeShone Kizer (2,884 yards, 21 TDs, 10 INTs; 520 rushing yards, 10 TDs) and Malik Zaire (428 yards, 4 TDs & 0 INTs; 103 rushing yards, 0 TDs) on the roster. One of the biggest questions heading into this season was which one would be the starter. Head coach Brian Kelly effectively punted on the decision, saying both would see the field in Week 1 against Texas.
Both QBs are dynamic athletes who should keep the Irish offense prolific. (The team has averaged 33.5 PPG over the last two seasons.) But there’s a lot of turnover basically everywhere else on the Irish roster.
New starting RB Josh Adams (835 yards, six TDs last season) takes the mantle from CJ Prosise. In the receiving corps, Will Fuller, who racked up over 1,250 receiving yards and led the team with 14 TDs, is gone. Now Torii Hunter Jr. (28 rec, 363 yards, two TDs) will try to replace the production of the first-round NFL pick.
The defense has its own big names to replace. Star linebacker Jaylon Smith – who only fell to the second round of the draft because of a knee injury – and Joe Schmidt have departed, along with tackle Sheldon Day, defensive end Romeo Okwara, cornerback KeiVarae Russell, and strong safety Elijah Shumate.
Who the new-look Notre Dame defense will be trying to stymie remains a question mark. Texas coach Charlie Strong hasn’t announced his decision on the Longhorns’ own QB battle. He’s apparently decided who to start, but isn’t revealing whether it will be senior Tyrone Swoopes (537 yards, four TDs, one INT) or freshman Shane Buechele. Like Kelly, Strong has said that both of his QBs will see action.
Strong, who has underwhelmed during his tenure in Austin, will need at least one to emerge as a quality starter this year in order to keep his job. The Texas offense has a good chance to make strides this year under new offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert. The Art Briles disciple will try to instill some of the systems that turned Baylor into an offensive juggernaut, but whether he has the talent to make it work remains to be seen. The team did move QBs Jerrod Heard and Kai Locksley to receiver in an effort to boost the talent level at the skill positions.
On the ground, the Horns will be powered by the combination of D’Onta Foreman (681 yards, five TDs) and Chris Warren III (470 yards, four TDs).
On defense, Strong landed some highly recruited prospects on the defensive line, including four-star prospects Jordan Elliott, Chris Daniels, and Marcel Southall. The team will be looking for immediate contributions from its youngsters against Notre Dame’s fleet-footed pivots.
The Irish are modest 3.5-point favorites in the opener. Traveling to Austin isn’t easy – even though the Longhorns aren’t the dominant Big 12 force they’re used to being – but Notre Dame has the obvious edge in talent thanks to Kizer and Zaire. They’re also 5-0 ATS in their last five games as a favorite, and 5-2 ATS in their last seven as a road favorite. I’ll roll with the Irish to cover.
Pick: Notre Dame (-3.5).
Photo credit: Johntex (Own work) CC BY-SA 3.0 [http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.