For a University so universally recognized by its tradition things will certainly appear different with the 2010 edition of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish Football Team.
Gone are the days of Charlie Weis, an often-criticized, overly confident alum whose early success only seemed to accelerate his departure upon exceedingly dreadful performances over the last three years of is presence under the dome. Also gone is Jimmy Clausen, the most prized recruit of the Weis era, who left (independent of the coaching change) with a year of eligibility left to fulfill his lifelong dream of NFL employment.
With those departures, additionally including Biletnikoff winner Golden Tate, a new era embodied by Irish Catholic roots is breathing new life into a stagnant and lifeless program.
Enter Brian Kelly, conductor of improbable success as head coach at perennial afterthought universities. Grand Valley State, Central Michigan, and most recently Cincinnati are among the previous employers proud of what their former head coach accomplished during his respective tenure. He brings with him a spread offense and, unlike former ND head coach Tyrone Willingham's west coast offense, this new system will actually appear noticeably different from any prior scheme executed by the Blue and Gold.
At the crux of this belief is the coherence manifested by a tight-knit coaching staff. Unlike the previous regime, whose assistants were an amalgam of men who, for the most part, had not worked for or with Weis, Kelly's staff has mostly operated under his influence for years.
Perhaps the most significant of the new hires is Strength and Conditioning coach Paul Longo. Not to throw former occupant of that position at ND, Ruben Mendoza, under the bus but teams in the Weis era showed two crippling weaknesses every time they stepped onto the field: 1) lack of endurance and 2) an inability to put teams away when holding the lead.
Although Coach Longo surely enjoys the upgrade in facilities presented by the Guglielmino Athletic Complex (including its connecting Haggar Fitness Center) and Labar Practice Complex versus where the middling Bearcats used to train (their own stadium), Longo has embraced Kelly's blue-collar ethos with open arms. In fact, with Kelly's blessing, coach Longo implored his new players to trudge through the snowy South Bend winter and forgo comfortable, heated training inside of the Loftus Sports Center to battle the cold at 4am. Even Chuck Norris would have blushed.
Coaching and training hard is not everything, though, which is why Kelly convinced Athletics Director Jack Swarbrick to institute a training table, whereby athletes are treated to specialty nutrition to ensure competitive advantages over their opposition. Training tables are routinely used amongst many elite programs and the weaker ones, too. Now, finally, Irish football players will be able to fuel their bodies with the appropriate nutrition under microscopic supervision to ensure they maintain necessary weight (and strength) levels over the grueling season.
With all of those things in place, the 2010 ND Football program has a clean slate and competitive advantage to boot. New faces on offense and defense abound will compound the fresh look, which also includes new uniform designs.
Dayne Crist, hailing from Notre Dame high school in California, takes over as signal-caller for the Irish after a speedy recovery from a torn ACL suffered in garbage time against Washington State last season. He is the only scholarship quarterback with Division 1 snaps but he'll have trusty wide receiver Michael Floyd and tight end Kyle Rudolph, two All-American candidates, to ease the adjustment to Kelly's new system. Armando Allen Jr., a senior running, also provides a reliable target from the backfield to help Crist settle in. Although coach Kelly touts offensive line depth as a strength, the Irish will be breaking in new tackles with minimal experience in redshirt freshman Zack Martin and senior Taylor Dever, meaning Crist will need to be on alert at all times.
Offense was never really an issue for Weis' teams though (except in the red zone). It was always porous defenses that crippled any chance of Weis fielding competitive teams. Ultimately, Brian Kelly's success rests on the defense. Bob Diaco, defensive coordinator, switched his men back to a 3-4 from a 4-3 last year, bring the Irish and their current players back to a system they were originally recruited for. This should allow stars in the making like Ethan Johnson and Manti Te'o to flourish. In order to achieve the results are fans are hoping for, though, the defensive line will need to improve upon its woeful recent history which has seen the Irish allow teams to run through with ease.
Thanks to the "efforts" of former Notre Dame Athletics Director Kevin White this year's schedule leaves much to be desired (see below in my game by game prediction).
Most coaches will tell you that they take one game at a time and they will not circle the important ones until they're next on the schedule, but Coach Kelly thinks unconventionally. He knows that bouts against Michigan, Pittsburgh, Utah (don't laugh), and USC will set the tone for his tenure at ND. Sure, Boston College, Michigan State, and Purdue always put up strong fights against the Irish but the four aforementioned swing games will identify how taxing a chore Coach Kelly has before him.
Unfortunately for Irish fans there is no quick fix to turn around a program mired in misery (16-21) over the past three seasons. A new quarterback, offensive scheme, offensive line, defensive scheme, and coaching staff will turn dust into gold overnight. Irish fans will be required to exude patience, much patience. Coach Kelly has talked about a five minute plan, rather than a five year plan, but that is unrealistic even for the remotely delusional Irish fan. Not that Coach Kelly won't be in a hurry to turn around the program, but the Irish will operate more closely under "Fiji time" (painfully slow pace) than "Kelly time" this fall and next.
Negativity and optimism aside, I strongly believe less than five years are needed to take this program to where it so desperately wants to and needs to be. If Nick Saban can do it, so too can a blue collar, Boston-Irish Catholic student of the game.
1) 9/4 vs. Purdue, 3:30p EST on NBC
The last Irish coach to lose his debut under the dome was Lou Holtz. While Coach Kelly would surely welcome success similar to Lou Holtz's career, I cannot see the Irish losing this one. The Boilermakers are an intimidating figure only to lower Big Ten (12?) and MAC foes.
Result: Irish win
2) 9/11 vs. Michigan, 3:30p EST on NBC
No coach is on a hotter seat than Rich Rodriguez. The time to win is now in Ann Arbor, but this year's game is in South Bend and there will be no phantom disallowed TD like last year's travesty (starting at 1:36 in this video).
Result Irish win
3) 9/18 @ Michigan State, 8p EST on ABC
The Spartans always seem to cause trouble for the Irish. A split against the state schools from Michigan would not be the end of the world, at least not in rebuilding year 1. Sparty will be too much for the inexperienced Irish to overcome on the road.
Jim Harbaugh is on to something in Palo Alto. Toby Gerhart may be gone, but the fire at Stanford lay with their head coach.
Result: Cardinal win
5) 10/2 @ Boston College, TBD
On my wife's (and brother-in-law's) birthday there will be nothing in the way of her happiness, not even the heart warming story of Mark Herzlich and his return after a bout with cancer.
6) 10/9 vs. Pittsburgh, 3:30p EST on NBC
Yet another Wannstache year brings yet another wing for the wrong blue and gold team. Pitt is too cohesive a unit to let this matchup slide.
Result: Panthers win
7) 10/16 vs. Western Michigan, 2:30p EST on NBC
Let me put it this way: ND has never surrendered a single point against a current MAC school. While that trend might not continue, this should be 'no contest' for Kelly's men.
8) 10/23 @ Navy (Meadowlands Stadium in NJ), Noon EST on CBS
Sadly the Midshipmen have shown supremacy two out of the past three years against ND. Although it is technically a home game for Navy that will not be the vibe in the stands as it is being played in the brand new Meadowlands Stadium (home of the Giants and Jets of the NFL) in New Jersey. ND usually travels well to Maryland when it plays the Midshipment and will have an even stronger contingent in NJ given the close proximity to NYC, a place where many domers and subway alums call home.
Result: Irish win
9) 10/30 vs. Tulsa, 2:30p EST on NBC
The Golden Hurricane do not stand a chance in this one. Big Irish win (point total, not opponent quality) here.
Result: Irish win
10) 11/13 vs. Utah, 2:30p EST on NBC
This is a really interesting matchup for the Irish, who will be coming off of a bye week. The Utes will be coming off of a tough matchup against TCU the week before, but I think that will help them more than it will hurt. Sadly, the Utes will send the Irish seniors out with a loss in their final home game.
Result: Utes win
11) 11/20 vs. Army (Yankees Stadium in NY), 7p EST on NBC
In a throwback to a period of time when these schools met 21 times between 1925 and 1946, the Black Knights will square off against the Irish in (new) Yankee Stadium, just like old times. But this game will not be like the golden days for the Black Knights. They will be well served to get on the bus quickly after a surefire pummeling. It will feel nice to reminisce about the good ol' days in the 1940s when the two schools combined for six national championships (4 ND, 2 Army) and five Heisman trophy winners (3 ND, 2 Army). That's about all that will go well for the Black Knights.
Result: Irish win
12) 11/27 @ USC, 8p EST (TV coverage TBD)
The only song played in Troy over the past several years was that of "success." Gone is lowlife Pete Carroll who quite clearly cheated and lied his way throughout his collegiate tenure until his secrets could no longer be withheld from public knowledge. He bolted for the NFL, paving the way for a former assistant of his, Lane Kiffin, to take the reigns of the Trojans. Kiffin has failed to muster any semblance of an impressive resume as a head coach (7-6 last year at Tennessee in college and 5-15 for the Raiders in the NFL), leaving many Trojans fans wondering if he would have landed the job if not for his performance as offensive coordinator under Carroll. This is one of the games I mentioned earlier that Kelly will have his men focused on. The Irish will reclaim the jeweled shillelagh, much to the chagrin of Trojan fans who have grown accustomed to handling the Irish with ease over the past decade.
Result: Irish win
In summation, Brian Kelly will lead the Irish to an 8-4 regular season record, after which the Irish will return to a bowl game (likely the Cotton Bowl). Once the time comes for bowl season expect to see a full review from Stars and Slights about each game.
With that, I'll leave you with you a promotional video released by NBC in support of the upcoming season.