Multiple articles have been written about the Notre Dame 2010 season and the great majority of those works are full of expectations of a breakthrough season based on the arrival of Brian Kelly as head coach and the reputation that preceded his arrival to South Bend.
Undoubtedly Brian Kelly is a wizard who has been able to create very competitive teams out of teams seemingly devoid of prime recruits like he did in Cincinnati. Notre Dame fans are waiting or wanting nothing less than a 10-2 or 11-1 season.
Some factors that favor a turnaround season are already in place: a good group of experienced receivers headed by Kyle Rudolph and Michael Floyd; a great crop of linebackers headed by Manti Te’o, and a potentially threatening and experienced running backs group leading by Armando Allen.
In contrast, some other areas are in dire need of extensive overhaul: both defensive and offensive lines, defensive backs and special teams. All these units are a patchwork in progress trying to create the combination that can give the Irish an edge during the season.
To add to the disadvantages, Notre Dame lacks an experienced quarterback. Dayne Crist was a highly touted recruit but his experience was limited to 20 passing attempts in four games during last season before getting injured during his fourth appearance. Behind him there is no experience at all: Nate Montana, Tommy Reese, and Andrew Hendrix are fighting for the backup position but two are true freshmen and one has not had a single play of experience.
Phil Steele designed a preseason evaluation system that considers Lettermen returning, starting players returning, and returning of an experienced quarterback.
This “Letterman returning/Lost system” has proven to be accurate to predict performance of a given team based on those factors. 83 percent of teams with a score greater than 185.1 show improvement over the team previous year’s record, while a score greater than 190.1 increase this percentage to 89.5. In the other side of the coin, 85 percent of the teams with a score ≤ 114.5 will end with worse records than the previous season. Notre Dame lies right in between these marks with a score of 151 (61 percent returning Lettermen, 18 returning starters and an unexperienced quarterback).
Phil Steele also uses what he calls “experience score” to determine the weight of the seniors in the depth chart and the experience on the trenches. Notre Dame received a score of 50.5.
This analyst considers Notre Dame’s schedule the 17th toughest in the circuit and ranked the Irish as No. 27 in his preseason poll. Rivals.com ranked the Irish as No. 30.
If we used the Rivals.com preseason rankings, it can be tempting to assume that Notre Dame will beat the 8 opponents ranked lower which include Michigan, Michigan State, Boston College, Stanford, Army, Tulsa, Western Michigan, and Purdue.
If we use Steele’s Experience Score results could be dismal as only Purdue has lower score; USC and Pittsburgh are equitable to the Irish, and the remainder teams have better scores than Notre Dame.
Keeping all these data in perspective, I believe the Irish will give a great season but it is hard for me to give them more than seven wins. The Irish lack experience at the offensive and defensive lines, and at the defensive backs. The depth chart is the thinnest at the quarterback position where the starter has 20 passing attempts of experience.
In analyzing the Irish 2010 season, the games can be divided in three groups: games Notre Dame should win, games that Notre Dame could win, and games that Notre Dame might lose.
The games Notre Dame should win include the opening game against Purdue and games 7, 9 and 11 against Western Michigan, Tulsa and Army respectively. Even when the games are played for a reason, a loss against any of these teams will be seen as a great failure for Brian Kelly’s Irish.
The opening game deserves few more lines. Coach Danny Hope named Robert Marve as the starter quarterback for Purdue. This brings experience in a position where Notre Dame has a profound need. Fortunately, Notre Dame has been historically successful on season opening games at home but this might be an interesting match to watch.
The following five games represent the most difficult stretch of the Irish season. They will face at home Michigan, Stanford and Pittsburgh while they travel to East Lansing to face Michigan State and to Chestnut Hill to face Boston College.
This stretch will test the Irish ability to solve difficult games, the real breadth of the team and their preparation leading into their second game of the season.
Michigan will be a real challenge. The Wolverines will bring an experienced team and an experienced quarterback to South Bend. Rich Rodriguez will bring a team more acquainted with his system and leading by Tate Forcier, they will represent a real gauge of the Irish assimilation of Brian Kelly’s system.
Visits to East Lansing and Chestnut Hill will help with Notre Dame’s growth but I do not foresee any victories out of these two visits.
In between these two trips, the Irish will face Stanford in South Bend. Because Stanford has not been able to beat the Irish in South Bend since 1992, this might represent the only victory for the Irish among these difficult games.
Pittsburgh might well arrive with a 3-1 or 2-2 depending on the result of their bouts against Utah and Miami. With probably three players among the Top 20 by Rivals.com, this will game will mark the midpoint for the Irish’s season.
By midseason, the Irish might have a record of 2-4. Dismal as it might seem, the Irish would have faced worthy opponents, and they might have acquired the experience necessary to face the second half of the season.
The second half of the season will present the Irish with a more comfortable schedule. The experience gained from the first half of the season might give the Irish a winning record by the end of the season.
Wins against Western Michigan, Tulsa and Army are expected. Games are played for a reason but I still believe that the experience gained and the quality of Notre Dame players will prevail over those teams and Notre Dame will add three victories to their record.
The Irish will travel to East Rutherford to face Navy. Midshipmen have become a worthy opponent for the Irish splitting victories in the past four matches. Victories for both teams have come as visiting team. By this point of the season the Irish will have enough confidence and dominion of the new system and a victory is likely.
Final two big games include a Utah visit to South Bend and a trip to Los Angeles to face acrimonious foe USC.
By the time Utah visits South Bend they might be harboring a 7-1 or 8-0 record. Fighting for a BCS berth, Utah will still have to face BYU in the last game of their season. The Utes might encounter some opposition but they will end up beating the Irish on their first visit to South Bend.
Arriving to the last game of the season after beating Army comfortably, the Irish might come to the Coliseum with a 6-5 record. This is the game where Notre Dame might have to die in the field to get a winning record on Kelly’s first season at the helm.
As incredible as it might seem, the Trojans might arrive to this game with two consecutive losses against Arizona and Oregon State and with a 6-4 record. Lane Kiffin is not Pete Carroll and his team is not near the 2005, 2006, 2007, or 2008 versions of the Trojans.
The Trojans are now thin on the depth chart, returning few experienced players (13) than in the past and that might give the Irish a chance to win as the visiting team.
By this game, the Irish will have experienced Brian Kelly’s system in full force, they will have acquire better understanding and master routes and schemes that will allow them to create the proper matches to achieve a victory.
If the Irish succeed, the record will reflect only a slight improvement but the performance on the field might leave a sweeter taste. The recruiting phase is actively pursued and this season should be seen as the stepping stone where the echoes of glory will finally be waken up in South Bend. Go Irish!