Notre Dame Football Is Underrated

The Irish have floated under the radar this season, but if quarterback Brandon Wimbush has anything to say about it, that won't be the case for long.

“Notre Dame football is underrated.”

I’ve never used these words together before. I’m not sure anyone has.

But a look at this season's numbers strongly suggests the Fighting Irish should be getting more attention than they have so far. Through four weeks, Notre Dame (3-1) is 22nd in the AP Poll and unranked in the Coaches Poll. The human rankings suggest this is a legit team, but the computers are singing a different tune.

Our power ratings here are numberFire have the Irish ranked 9th in the nation, while The Power Rank, ESPN’s Football Power Index and the Fremeau Efficiency Index all have them 11th or better. Notre Dame is 17th nationally in raw margin of victory and has played the 23rd most difficult schedule in the nation, per

Model Where ND is ranked
numberFire 9
The Power Rank 8
FPI 11
FEI 11
S&P+ 19

This sort of underselling is an unusual occurrence. Over the last 20 years, no team has undershot where it ranked in the preseason AP Poll more often than Notre Dame, according to FiveThirtyEight.

So how is arguably the most famous college football team flying under the radar?

Going 4-8 Distracted Us From Their Point Differential

I don’t know if you guys heard but Notre Dame went 4-8 last year, a record not actually indicative of the team’s performance on the field.

They finished the year with a +37 point differential and ranked 47th in the nation in opponent-adjusted scoring margin. It’s hardly the stuff of legend, but it is also not what we would expect from a team that was four games under .500.

The Irish undershot their point differential by going 1-7 in games decided by one possession. Their other three wins came by margins of 29, 17, and 38.

Notre Dame also ranked 36th in yards per play differential, but were extremely unlucky in the turnover department. Turnovers are generally random events, but we can try measure how often they should have occurred by looking at things like fumble recovery rates and interceptions per defensed passes.

Bill Connelly of SB Nation measures adjusted turnover margin by looking at what the differential would be if a team recovered exactly 50 percent of all fumbles and had an average ratio of interceptions to pass break ups.

By adjusted turnover margin, Notre Dame was a very average 65th last season, but by actual margin, the Irish were 90th. This suggests there was some degree of bad luck at play here, and we should have expected some regression coming into this season.

Sure enough, the Irish rank 18th nationally in actual turnover margin in 2017 and are actually overperforming their adjusted differential.

Explosive Offense, Efficient Defense

Aside from actually winning the turnover battles, Notre Dame is thriving thanks to a big-play offense and suffocating defense.

The Irish offense -- 34th in yards per play (6.4) and 23rd in S&P+ -- boasts an explosive rushing attack. Notre Dame is third in yards per rush (6.8), led by running back Josh Adams (499 yards on 65 carries, 7.7 yards per rush) and new quarterback Brandon Wimbush (406 yards, seven touchdowns on 50 carries, excluding sacks). Backup running back Dexter Williams is averaging 10.7 yards per rush on his 20 carries.

They get to run behind a unit that returns four starters, including left tackle and NFL prospect Mike McGlinchey.

The rushing attack is 42nd in success rate (the percentage of plays that improve a team’s chances of scoring), but 5th in Isolated Points Per Play (IsoPPP), a Connelly creation that measures how explosive a team’s successful plays are.

The passing game is similarly geared around explosive plays, but it has been both less explosive and less efficient.

Wimbush is completing just 54.4% of his passes and is averaging 5.1 net yards per drop back. The Irish rank 45th in passing IsoPPP but just 114th in passing success rate.

The junior passer’s go-to big play target is Equanimeous St. Brown, who is averaging 14.6 yards per catch but has just a 37.9% catch rate. Tight end Alize Mack is a more efficient target, who has a 61.1% catch rate and 44.4% success rate (the Irish passing game’s overall success rate is 31.8%). He is averaging 6.4 yards per target, while the other Irish receivers have averaged 5.7.

On the other side of the ball, offenses have had a tough time moving the ball consistently against an Irish defense ranked 16th in success rate. This is true when they try to run (Notre Dame is 19th in rush defense success rate) and pass (16th in success rate). The rush defense has been about average in terms of big play prevention, but the secondary has done a good job at clamping down on them, ranking 35th in IsoPPP and 22nd in yards per completion.

The defensive backs are the strength of the pass defense, as they have not gotten a ton of help from a pass rush that ranks 86th in sack rate. The young unit took its lumps last season (it ranked 86th in pass defense S&P+), but with that experience under its collective belt, the results have been a lot better in 2017.

Overall, this does looks like one of the stronger teams in the nation and will be favored in its next two games leading into a big showdown with Southern California in South Bend. The hype is coming.