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2021 football opponent preview: Notre Dame Fighting Irish

It’s the first matchup between the Badgers and Irish since the Lyndon B. Johnson administration, and it’s set to be a crucial one for both teams.

NCAA Football: Notre Dame Blue-Gold Game
Jack Coan, still wearing red we see.
Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

It is August now, which means that it is time to seriously turn our attention to college football. The Wisconsin Badgers open up fall practice on Friday and the rest of the country will be joining them shortly. For the rest of the month, we will be posting two articles about each opponent on Wisconsin’s schedule.

The first post will be written by one of our staffers and will give you a basic overview of each team the Badgers are playing. The second post will be written by a variety of fans and writers of each team, giving us a more in-depth look at the team from those who follow it closely. We’ve got other SB Nation site contributors, newsletter writers, podcast hosts, and other Twitter sports shouters on deck. It should be a lot of fun.

Up next in our preview series we take a look at Notre Dame.

NCAA Football: Rose Bowl-Notre Dame vs Alabama Robert Franklin-USA TODAY Sports

Team name: Notre Dame Fighting Irish
2020 record: 10-2, No. 1 ACC (editor’s note: lol)
Date/location of 2021 game: Saturday, Sept. 25, Soldier Field, Chicago, Ill.
Last time vs. Wisconsin: 1964 (!), Notre Dame 31 - Wisconsin 7

Returning leaders:

Passing: N/A. With 2020 QB Ian Book now on the Saints, Badgers graduate transfer Jack Coan will presumably get the start for the Irish.
Rushing: Redshirt SO Kyren Williams, 1166 yards (5.5 ypc), 13 TDs
Receiving: SO TE Michael Mayer Dotson, 42 receptions, 450 yards (10.7 ypc), two TDs
Tackles: JR FS Kyle Hamilton, 63 tackles, 4.5 TFL
Sacks: Redshirt FR DE Isaiah Foskey, 4.5 sacks
Interceptions: JR FS Kyle Hamilton, among others, one INT

Key offensive player: While the running back pairing of Kyren Williams and Chris Tyree is electric, they’re also a known quantity after last season. Notre Dame’s offense reaching the College Football Playoff level it did last season will rely on the play of graduate transfer quarterback Jack Coan.

A name Badger fans will be, uh, extremely familiar with, Coan will enter his final year of college with major shoes to fill. While Ian Book was never a Heisman contender, he was all but indisputably the most successful quarterback of the Brian Kelly era at Notre Dame, leading the Irish to two undefeated regular seasons and a school-record 30 wins. Coan, as Wisconsin fans know, is a reliable option that has always made up for his lack of a dynamic deep ball with impeccable accuracy on short and medium passes. Notre Dame’s run heavy offense should be tailor made for such a skill set, but if Coan is unable to match Book’s production it’s difficult to foresee the Fighting Irish making it back into the playoff.

Key defensive player: Kyle Hamilton will almost certainly be the showpiece of the Irish defense this fall, after a monster 2020 that only gets more impressive when you remember he was playing injured for most of the season.

Last fall Hamilton led Notre Dame in tackles, passes broken up, and interceptions, while also notching 4.5 tackles for losses. Putting the “free” into “free safety,” the junior is a menace that can impact the game at all levels- capable at both roaming the secondary and closing down ball carriers. Unsurprisingly, traits like those are why he’s currently marked as a surefire first rounder on most 2022 draft boards currently out.

2021 season preview: As with many Notre Dame seasons in the Brian Kelly era, the question to be answered is where the team’s ceiling, not floor, will be. It’s fair to say the Irish are in something of a rebuilding year (rebuilding being used extremely loosely). They lost four offensive lineman from a group that was one of the nation’s best in 2020. Gone is a two year captain and starting quarterback that guided the team to their two most recent playoff berths. Last season’s ACC Defender of the Year (and Butkus Award winner) Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah is now in the NFL, and much of the receiving core is unproven. At face value, there’s a lot of question marks on the roster.

NCAA Football: Syracuse at Notre Dame
Kyren Williams toting the rock.
Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

But there’s plenty of promise as well. Kyren Williams and Chris Tyree proved to be an incredible backfield tandem as just freshmen (redshirt and true respectively), and they’ll only grow this year. Tight end Michael Mayer looks like he could be an All-America candidate as just a sophomore. In Jack Coan the Irish have, at minimum, a proven game-manager QB who has led top level teams before. And, as mentioned in the section above, having an All-American future draft pick roaming the secondary has never hurt a team either.

But the biggest advantage Notre Dame will have in 2021 is their schedule. Four games stand out on the Irish’s fall slate as matchups with teams that will likely be hovering around the top ten in Wisconsin, Cincinnati, Southern Cal and North Carolina- and three of the four will be played in South Bend, with the fourth being a neutral site game with Wisconsin in Chicago that’s more than commutable from northern Indiana. The Irish don’t have an easy slate this year, but other than Wisconsin every major test they’ll face will come at Notre Dame Stadium, where they have won 24 straight.

All things considered, Notre Dame has a more than workable schedule. In eight games, they should be comfortable favorites (though a trip to Virginia Tech always looms as dangerous), and none of the remaining four pop off the page as matchups that the Irish would be the weaker team outright in. The game against the Badgers very well might be the most important one all season for Notre Dame- if Kelly and co. can take down a top 15 team, finish September undefeated, and head into October with all their biggest remaining challenges at home, spirits will be sky high in South Bend.