With the 2009 NCAA football season coming to an official close tonight with the BCS title game, I am jumping months into the future and previewing Notre Dame's 2010 football schedule.
With newly hired Brian Kelly only a month into his tenure and the recruiting dead period about to end, a quick look at the upcoming Irish opponents and the state of each program is useful.
I have ranked the games going from the twelve to one, going from the most winnable to the most difficult matchups.
Discussing Notre Dame's schedule is always a lively topic, so feel free to comment on any of the opponents with thoughts and analysis.
Now, imagine the weather outside is sunny and a comfortable 73 degrees. Notre Dame Stadium is packed once again and the Brian Kelly era is about to start!
Pound for pound this will most likely be the weakest team on the 2010 Fighting Irish schedule and the addition of the Broncos on said schedule has caused a tiny uproar throughout ND Nation. Many Irish fans were hoping for a powerhouse team to be inserted at this date next year, but I would caution: be careful what you ask for.
Western Michigan will struggle mightily next year especially without All-MAC quarterback Tim Hiller who has at times showed flashes of brilliance over his career. It doesn't get any more reassuring when you factor in the Broncos best victory in 2009 came against Buffalo either.
The tough thing for Notre Dame with this game will be not having a let down against an unfamiliar and known weak opponent. This game will be played at Notre Dame Stadium after the Irish open the season with a brutal stretch of six games against six historic rivalry opponents.
Hopefully, Notre Dame will play well enough that the game may be in hand early enough so that we may see some of the younger players take the field.
It's probably a toss up between Army and Western Michigan as to who has more talent, but I believe this game will be slightly more difficult for Notre Dame due to a couple reasons.
First, it's Army and there is a tradition attached to this match up (even if it has lost a lot of its luster, especially compared to ND-Navy) and you know the Black Knights are going to be bringing their A game.
Secondly, this will be Notre Dame's second to last game and it will be played inside the new Yankee Stadium in late November.
Who really knows what this neutral field game will be like? There could be a whole host of factors involved that could be either good or bad for Notre Dame.
It's going to be cold and the Irish may be looking ahead to USC the following week. Will the atmosphere be electric or a bit of a let down for such an anticipated event? Will the media blitz distract Notre Dame, especially if they are highly ranked?
A lot of attention will be paid to this game because it will be the first football contest played inside the new Yankee Stadium, but also because people want to see how the neutral site games play out and what to expect in the future with such contests.
While certainly not a powerful program, I don't think the Tulsa Golden Hurricanes are the laughingstock many make them out to be. Let's call them one of the better bad teams in college football then?
One thing is for certain, Tulsa will be bringing the offense when these two team's meet, and the Golden Hurricanes have one of the better dual threat young quarterbacks in the nation to back up their explosive attack.
If the Irish want to become a top team again, these are the kind of games where their defense really has to make a statement and shut the other team down early and often. Tulsa likes to spread the ball around to many different ball carriers and receivers so it will be interesting to see how this is handled.
Another factor to consider is that this will be Notre Dame's ninth straight game to start the season and will be their last contest before their bye week. Who knows what kind of team we will see by late October?
Always a pesky opponent, Notre Dame will have the privilege of hosting the Boilermakers to open both the 2010 regular season and the Brian Kelly era.
Although Purdue is typically a middle-of-the-road program in the Big Ten, the intensity of this in-state rivalry always gives us a passionate contest. And with this game opening the season for both teams, a little more uncertainty is added to the eventual outcome.
Yet, this is a game Notre Dame should win and the key to victory will be the performance of the Irish defense. Even in the horrific 2007 season, Notre Dame was able to move the ball offensively and it is a general pattern that the Irish have always been able to put points on the board against Purdue.
The real test will come against Purdue's pass-happy, spread attack which has given Notre Dame some problems in recent years.
With Brian Kelly bringing a similar Purdue-type offense to South Bend, the Fighting Irish should be well prepared when this match up rolls around in early September.
Simply put, Jim Harbaugh and the Stanford Cardinal are going to miss running back Toby Gerhart. It is exceedingly difficult to replace someone like Gerhart and his production at even the elite programs around the country, and it will be even more so at a place like Stanford.
Nevertheless, Stanford still has some good players and Harbaugh has the program on the rise, but all signs are pointing to a bit of a decline in 2010.
Andrew Luck is a promising young quarterback, but you have to wonder how much his abilities will be affected by the loss of Gerhart? Will Harbaugh be tempted to stray from his heavy run orientated offense?
This will be an interesting game because it will be played much earlier in the season then when these teams usually meet. At such an early juncture will Notre Dame's wheels have already fallen off or will the Irish be rising from a string of victories?
This is an important game for Brian Kelly because many Irish fans want to see Notre Dame defeat its fellow academic rival and beat a team that has become physical and tough over the past few years. In short, we want to be like Stanford, just a lot better.
We may not get that smash mouth style of football that so many crave, but a win is a win no matter what.
You could make a case that Navy deserves to be higher than this, but I think they are a team that has now fallen into a comfortably low ceiling and low floor. In other words, we can expect Navy to be good but not great and give Notre Dame all they have.
Now that the Irish have lost two out of three to the Midshipmen, this games rivalry aspects have peaked and as much as it hurts to have lost "the streak," it is probably a good thing for both programs to have this be a competitive game.
Yes Notre Dame should always beat Navy, but as much as Notre Dame has changed since the early '90s, we have to admit that Navy has changed as well over the past fifteen years.
This is a good football program that can compete and match up with anyone on any given Saturday. It's about time Navy started getting the respect they deserve, especially after another 10-win season in 2009.
An interesting question about this game is how the new Meadowlands field will handle this rivalry? I believe the last time these two teams met at the Meadowlands the game was not sold out, making it only one of a dozen or so games that have not sold out when Notre Dame takes the field.
But, two cheers to Notre Dame playing in the two New York City area sports stadiums in 2010!
I don't want to say this too loudly, but I think Michigan State has a shot at being a really good team next year. They may be losing a key defender or two, but they will be returning nearly all of their offensive weapons to a team that is a lot younger than most people realize.
The Spartans never seem to get their stuff together when Big Ten games come rolling along, but they play Notre Dame tougher than perhaps any other school. That's why if MSU is 0-2 or 2-0, this game is always a dog fight.
If Notre Dame wants to complete the sweep of the Big Ten schools on their schedule, they will have to pull out a victory in East Lansing to do so. The jury is still out on Mike Dantonio's transformation of the Michigan State program, but they are my early January 2010 sleeper pick in the Big Ten.
I think it's safe to say that Boston College has finally made the leap from fringe occasional Goliath slayer to a legitimate strong football program that will be consistently ranked and a player in the ACC.
I thought for sure the Eagles would struggle mightily in 2009 and then they go and rip off eight wins in what was supposed to be a down year. With a lot of starters coming back and a possible return of linebacker Mark Herzlich, Boston College could be an ACC favorite.
Also, this is one of four true road games for Notre Dame, sandwiched between two games against very physical opponents amongst a very tough early season schedule. It won't be easy to win at Chestnut Hill in 2010.
Too high for the Wolverines? Aren't there too many people counting down the days until Rich Rodriguez is fired? I'm not too convinced Michigan is headed for another lackluster season just yet.
First off, in regards to their game against Notre Dame, it will be in early September and anything can happen that early in the season.
Secondly, I just can't see Rich-Rod not improving his team in his third season. Maybe their defense will be weak, but Michigan has been quietly accumulating young offensive play makers and many returning starters come back in 2010.
Perhaps things will continue to fall apart, but I have a feeling Michigan is going to rebound and win at least eight games in 2010 and Rodriguez will be around for a lot longer than people think.
This is always an important game for Notre Dame and assuming the Irish can get past Purdue to open the season, it would give Brian Kelly and the program enormous momentum for the rest of the season by beating Michigan and starting off 2-0 at home.
With the addition of Western Michigan and Tulsa to the Irish 2010 schedule causing such an uproar, this match up against Utah has been curiously overlooked.
There have been some lean years for the Utes, post-Urban Meyer, but over the past two seasons they have been back on the top of the college football scene. They have went 23-3 since the beginning of 2008, with bowl wins over Alabama and California.
You're telling me a program like that is not good enough to merit serious applause for being added to the Irish schedule?
Okay maybe it's not like adding Texas or Miami to the schedule, but Utah has proved they are a legitimate top 10 team. And its not like they aren't playing tough schedules themselves. When they lose it is typically to good teams like TCU and BYU or in out of conference games against Oregon State or Texas A&M.
We can't really afford to thumb our noses down at programs like Utah and moan at having them on our schedule. More than likely, with Notre Dame's recent past, it is Utah who should be concerned that defeating the Irish won't do much for their reputation and quest for a BCS bowl or something greater.
Anyway, this is going to be a great game. It's still very early to tell, but I have a feeling this will be a nail biter and out of the home games in 2010, this is the one I'd most like to attend...except that it is being played in late November.
The Panthers will have to find a new quarterback and replace some really good players on defense, but they will be bringing back significant returning starters to merit being the favorite to win the Big East conference.
This is going to be a very tough game to win for Notre Dame. By the time these teams meet, the Irish will have already played Purdue, Michigan, Michigan State, Stanford, and Boston College in consecutive weeks. It won't be easy capping off a six game stretch to start the year with yet another rival and potential BCS-caliber team.
Luckily for Notre Dame, the Panthers have to face Utah and Miami before the come to South Bend so Pittsburgh could be reeling from an early season defeat. Or perhaps Pitt will come into Notre Dame Stadium sky high with confidence and undefeated?
All I know is that with one of the most talented young running backs and two outstanding NFL caliber receivers, Pitt is going to be a force to be reckoned with in 2010. If they can plug some holes on defense, Pitt may run the table in the Big East and make some noise on the national stage.
Since this game is being played at home, Notre Dame fans would like to pick up a victory, but this could very well be the strongest opponent to enter Notre Dame Stadium in 2010.
Same as it ever was right? After a disappointing 9-4 season, some may be quick to point out the beginning of the decline of Trojan football. I'd wait another year or two until any proclamation of that kind are made though.
Here's the truth: USC will be returning plenty of starters on both sides of the ball and Matt Barkley is going to progress and improve into a top 10 quarterback. There is still a lot of talent on the Trojan roster and they will be playing one of their easier schedules in recent memory in 2010.
What this means is that I would almost pencil USC in for 10 wins next year. And since they are playing thirteen regular season games, I would go as far as to pencil in eleven wins as well.
It will be interesting to see how USC football handles a down year (for them), but I fully expect another three years of dominance, if not more.
We're almost 11 months away from Notre Dame meeting USC in the Coliseum and there is a lot to unfold until that time, but Brian Kelly has to be salivating at beating the Trojans even after a month on the job.
This is a very interesting schedule for Notre Dame, and the more I keep looking at it, the more difficult it appears to be.
There is still a lot of changes that will occur over the coming months such as injuries, recruits, fifth year exceptions, and underclassmen leaving early, but there is solid evidence that points to a very strong Irish schedule in 2010.
To me, it is obvious that Western Michigan, Army and Tulsa are the three weak teams and less obviously, that USC, Pitt, and Utah are the three strong teams. All the other programs have the potential to be really good and I found it much harder to discern if Michigan will be better than Boston College or if Michigan State will be better than Stanford and so forth.
The way I see it there are three, to as many as seven, teams that will either crack the top 25 at some point during the season or will end up finishing there by seasons end.
With this being Brian Kelly’s first season in South Bend, with the brutal opening six game stretch, with two New York City area contests, with a big-time matchup against Utah, and the season finale against USC, this is shaping up to be one entertaining schedule.
A good year in Brian Kelly's first season would be 8-4. Anything better than that would be very great. If the Irish can somehow manage to get through their first six games with only one loss, the possibility of a BCS bowl increases dramatically.
Only eight months to go...