Phoenix or Phony? The 2008 Fighting Irish

Matt MooneyCorrespondent ISeptember 5, 2008

College football is a sport that frequently boils down to watershed moments.  Consider the Notre Dame-USC game over Thanksgiving weekend in 2002. 

That day, the 10-2 Irish and 9-2 Trojans, trying to reclaim stake in their historic identities, met with the hype of two heavyweights ready to go the distance.  Instead, Southern Cal methodically crushed the Irish, and one notable on-the-fence recruit in attendance named Reggie Bush made his college decision. 

Since that game, the Trojans have set the standard for college football excellence, posting an incomparable 60-6 record and the Irish have mustered only a pedestrian 32-29.

Saturday’s game for the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame might be a stretch to attain “watershed” status, although also against a team from the west coast, though one far less formidable. 

The true test of mettle will likely come one week from today against the hated Wolverines; but the pace of Saturday afternoon’s game against the San Diego State Aztecs should offer some indication of whether or not the Fighting Irish will merit any national attention this season, and beyond.

The devoted faithful espouse the belief that this opener is the dawn of a rebirth in South Bend. They say that this season’s success will not be the flash-in-the-pan seen in prior years, but rather the beginning of a stretch of dominance akin to the late 80s and early 90s; signaling their arrival as a worthy annual foe for the powerful Trojans of Southern Cal.

Such speculation is not unjustified. 

The team’s foundation, albeit a freshly poured one, is in place and ready to be strength tested after a brutal hardening in 2007. With the exception of the 2005 class in the transition year, Head Coach Charlie Weis brought in Top-10 ranked recruiting classes in each of his next three seasons and is on pace for a fourth, this year. 

The talent is there and the 12 freshmen that saw the field last year should be motivated and ready to unlock it following an embarrassing 3-9 campaign.

Even some of the more level-headed internet fans are predicting 9 or even 10 wins this season, a turnaround that would be nothing short of astounding. They cite the return of 28 of 44 players from the 2007, two deep, and the relative ease of the schedule compared to last season’s which ranked as one of the toughest in the nation.

Similar to the claims of this year’s presidential campaign, the team embraced the theme of change to its infrastructure this past off-season. 

Weis publicly relinquished the offensive play calling duties to Offensive Coordinator, Mike Haywood, in an effort to focus more on the broader management responsibilities of a head coach.

Jon Tenuta, the Blitz Baron from Georgia Tech, arrived as new Assistant Head Coach and Linebackers Coach to instill a more attacking defensive philosophy rather than the Irish's read-and-react scheme of the past.

The question is how much difference will the changes will make. The skeptics say that they’ve heard this song and dance before.

The 9+ win seasons of 2000, 2002, 2005, and 2006 were supposed to herald “Returns to Glory”, but too many intermingled 7-5, 6-6, and 5-7 seasons tarnished any glorified shine. 

Skeptics, like supporters, also cite the return of 28 of 44 players from the 2007 and two-deep, but regard them as the same bunch that couldn’t beat Navy for the first time in over 40 years.

The offensive line is perhaps the biggest question mark, as it was last season’s greatest liability. That unit is still extremely green (only one senior starter) and will face defensive fronts against Michigan, Michigan State, Boston College and USC with significantly more experience.

On the defensive side of the ball, the Irish's front seven are thin and untested. Even with all of Tenuta’s ingenuity, the Irish are but a few injuries away from being severely hampered on run defense.

Additionally, there are still 18 freshmen and sophomores on the two-deep, and dependence on such youth has a high propensity for penalties and turnovers, often the areas where close games are decided. 

Trying to convert a 3rd and 4th downs in front of 80,000 screaming fans on national television is a far cry from the Friday night lights of high school bleachers.

The scarcity of senior and 5th year leadership is very similar to last year’s lackluster efforts, so it is reasonable to question from where that steadying presence will sprout.

Even strictly from a numbers perspective, a six-game turnaround in consecutive years is almost impossible to realize statistically.

As the team’s season begins, Notre Dame remains relevant from the standpoint that, love them or hate them, people will be watching and waiting for the result. 

Today, we get the first clue of whether fanatics and skeptics alike should get comfortable in their chairs for the next few years or should start flipping over to “who else is playing”.