Five years ago, Notre Dame was breaking in another new coach and looking to reassert itself as an elite program after nearly a decade of tumultuous ups and downs on the football field.
Today it’s a similar story, as Brian Kelly enters his first season in South Bend looking to do what his last three predecessors failed to accomplish.
Before the 2005 season started, there was a guarded optimism amongst the Irish faithful, who were very curious and excited to see what Charlie Weis could do to the struggling Notre Dame offense and what the future held for the program.
In truth, it never really got better than Weis’ first season at Notre Dame, and as we shall see, it was never that good to begin with.
Still, the fact that Weis could come in and win nine games was seen as a tiny miracle given the team’s ineptitude throughout the previous two seasons.
Brian Kelly faces a similar path this fall, overtaking a talented Irish team that has faltered for not just two, but three years in a row while failing to meet expectations in each season along the way.
So can the new Irish head coach have a successful season like Weis did in 2005 or even like did Willingham in 2002?
In order to see how Kelly’s first year may stack up, I wanted to compare the upcoming Notre Dame schedule with the slate of games played by the Irish in 2005.
First we’ll look at the common opponents from each season and see how the programs differ today, while also matching up the remaining non-common opponents.
Now, let’s take a trip back to that fateful night at Heinz Field when Charlie Weis led Notre Dame for the first time in a prime-time matchup against Pittsburgh to open the 2005 season.
A year after going 8-4 and being co-champions of the Big East conference, Pittsburgh had fairly high expectations heading into the 2005 season.
However, the Panthers would not live up to those expectations.
It will be a common theme throughout this piece that many teams from the 2005 Notre Dame schedule disappointed and failed to meet expectations.
Pittsburgh entered its contest against Notre Dame ranked 23rd in the nation, but its season fell apart soon after losing to the Irish.
The Panthers would go on to lose to Ohio University and to most of the quality Big East teams on route to a 5-6 season.
2010 Strength: Modest Improvement
As of right now, Pittsburgh is the highest-ranked team on the 2010 Irish schedule, and I expect the Panthers to be much better than their 2005 squad.
Even though the depth and talent have increased only slightly over the past five years, Pittsburgh has some really top-notch stars who will carry their team this fall and who will definitely separate themselves from the 2005 underachieving unit.
They were talking National Championship in Ann Arbor leading up to the 2005 season, and it seemed like all the pieces were in place for a title run.
Alas, it was not meant to be.
When Notre Dame went into the Big House and toppled No. 3 Michigan in only Charlie Weis’ second game as head coach, it had the feel of an all-time classic win. Then Michigan never recovered from the loss and faltered against the Big Ten’s top teams, ultimately altering a possible career-defining game for Weis and lessening its importance.
After talk of such high expectations, the Wolverines finished 7-5, driving one of the nails into the coffin of the Lloyd Carr era.
2010 Strength: Solid Reduction
There’s no two ways around it, Michigan is coming off its two worst years in school history. The talent level has dropped off slightly, and the team is still not all the way through a transition to the Rich Rodriguez offense.
The potential on the offensive side of the ball is high, but no less experienced or more productive as the 2005 unit, and the defense has taken a major step backwards in comparison to five years ago as well.
Overall, the 2010 team is not as good as the 2005 squad. As disappointing as the 2005 season was for Michigan, it did lose only one “bad” game to Minnesota, but it was defeated by strong Wisconsin, Ohio State, Nebraska, and Notre Dame teams.
Michigan State Spartans
The 2005, Michigan State team entered the season stuck in a rut of mediocrity and had fallen behind the top teams in the Big Ten for most of the new century.
But that didn’t stop the Spartans from winning a thriller in Notre Dame Stadium to hand Charlie Weis his first loss as Irish head coach.
Like so many times in the past, Michigan State jumped out to a 4-0 record but then completely fell apart, losing six out of its last seven games to finish 5-6 on the season.
2010 Strength: Solid Improvement
There is better talent in East Lansing now, the coaching situation has improved, and it will be a tough night road game for Notre Dame in 2010. All signs point to this being a much better Michigan State team.
Plus, the 2005 team only had one quality win—sadly, the overtime victory over what turned out to be a nine-win Notre Dame team. Other than that, MSU defeated Kent State, Hawaii, Illinois, and Indiana.
I expect the Spartans to pick up a couple more quality victories and make some noise in the Big Ten this year.
Heading into the 2005 season, Purdue was saying goodbye to the Kyle Orton era and had a combined 16 wins over its last two seasons, including a complete shellacking of Notre Dame in 2004.
However, despite a strong running game, the Boilermakers could not find quality quarterback play, and the 2005 team ended up 5-6 without even playing Ohio State or Michigan in conference.
Despite winning seven games the previous year and starting out the year 2-1 with a loss to Minnesota, Purdue came into the 2005 matchup against Notre Dame ranked No. 22 in the country, but would lose to the Irish 49-28.
I’m still trying to figure out how Purdue came into that game ranked.
2010 Strength: Push
It is too hard to tell if this fall’s version of Purdue football will be better or worse than the 2005 team's, but I expect something of the same outcome as five years ago.
The Boilermakers are better in some areas but weaker in others, and the fact remains that they are still in the middle to bottom of the pack in the Big Ten.
Southern California Trojans
The Team of the Century. The Bush Push. Heisman Trophy.
And now, vacated wins.
A lot could be written about the 2005 USC team, but despite all that has happened since its soul-crushing defeat of Notre Dame that season, this was one of the most talented teams to ever step on a college football field.
This Trojan team had talent and depth at every position and cruised to an undefeated regular season before dropping the national title game to Vince Young and the Texas Longhorns.
2010 Strength: Solid Reduction
While the USC roster still remains very potent and filled with skill and power, it is simply not the same as the 2005 squad's.
I expect the Trojans to be a very good football team in 2010, but an undefeated regular season seems unlikely given the new coaching staff and problems that have affected the team since Pete Carroll left for the NFL.
Going into the 2005 season, Navy was coming off its most successful season in nearly 40 years with a 10-2 record. The Midshipmen would lose to the Irish and fall back down to an eight-win season in 2005, but they proved to be a quality opponent worthy of much respect by that point.
In a matter of seven or eight years, this program has taken tremendous strides and has had the benefit of being run by two terrific coaches in succession.
2010 Strength: Modest Improvement
Navy, more or less, has been getting the same players for a long time, but there’s the sense that they are better coached and more in tune with the system than ever before.
With senior Rick Dobbs running the option attack, Navy has a really good shot to win 10 games in 2010 or even do the unthinkable and go undefeated.
The Midshipmen are officially a crew to be reckoned with.
The Cardinal were smack dab in the middle of the bottom-dwellers in the Pac-10 heading into the 2005 season, although they did manage to win five games, their most since 2001.
Stanford was the type of team that had a handful of really quality players but could never take the next step and become legitimate contenders in its conference.
Even though they gave Notre Dame a run for its money to end the season and defeated four Pac-10 teams, the Cardinal's lack of consistency showed itself in an embarrassing loss to California-Davis earlier in the year.
2010 Strength: Solid Improvement
Clearly the reign of Jim Harbaugh has helped matters in Palo Alto. Now, Stanford still lacks depth at many positions but has developed a handful of star players and is a true competitor in the Pac-10.
Maybe the Cardinal aren’t an elite team or a program that’s going to be a feature in the top 25 this season, but they are a step or two above where they were five years ago.
Now let’s match up the non-common opponents from 2005 and 2010.
Syracuse (2005) vs. Army (2010)
Typically Syracuse would have a little more talent than the Black Knights do these days, but the Orange were a miserable 1-10 in 2005, and Army is peaking a little bit with a couple of strong players leading the way this year.
Also, the Army game this fall will come between matchups with Utah and USC, and the neutral field location at Yankee Stadium could offer a bit of a distraction for Notre Dame.
Washington (2005) vs. Western Michigan (2010)
The Huskies weren’t quite ruined by Tyrone Willingham at this point, but the talent had fallen to a pretty low level beforehand, as the Huskies only won one game in 2004 and hadn’t won more than seven since 2001.
Although this would be an interesting theoretical matchup, I give the edge to Washington because of its status as a BCS conference member.
BYU (2005) vs. Tulsa (2010)
BYU has had some quality teams in recent years, but its 2005 squad was not very good and did not net any impressive wins en route to a 6-6 season.
Tulsa, with its spread offense and ability to score a lot of points, appears to be the tougher matchup.
Tennessee (2005) vs. Boston College (2010)
Advantage: Boston College
Tennessee may have had more talent than the current Boston College team, and the Volunteers' upset victory in Baton Rouge against LSU was big, but that hides the fact that they were pretty awful otherwise in 2005.
The Vols beat Ole Miss and Kentucky, but lost the rest of their SEC games (including Vanderbilt) and were beaten by 20 points by the Fighting Irish.
Boston College will be very strong defensively and should have a very potent running game as well. Since this upcoming game is in Chestnut Hill and is a rivalry game, Boston College looks to be the tougher game.
Wildcard: Utah (2010)
That’s right, Notre Dame only played 11 regular season games in 2005, leaving one extra opponent on this fall’s schedule that cannot be matched up.
That team is the Utah Utes, a team that is ranked in the preseason coaches' poll and looks to be a very formidable opponent when November rolls around.
On the whole, the 2010 schedule looks to be much tougher than the one played in Charlie Weis’ first season in South Bend.
The overall opponent record of 61-65 from 2005 is emphatically underwhelming, and it featured eight teams that were .500 or worse on the season, seven teams that lost six or more games, and only two teams that won at least eight games (8-4 Navy & 12-1 USC).
You could certainly make the case that 2005 was the worst schedule in school history for Notre Dame in terms of playing weak opponents.
In my opinion, four out of the six common opponents will be tougher in 2010, while three out of the four non-common matchups appear stingier this fall as well.
When you add in Utah and that extra 12th game, I don’t think there’s any doubt that Brian Kelly will have his hands full this fall.
Luckily, Notre Dame appears to be ready to take on such a tough schedule with a team that is talented and poised for a breakout season under one of college football’s most successful coaches in recent years.