Phil Steele, one of the best college football prognosticators, has gone out on a limb and selected the Notre Dame Fighting Irish No. 7 in his 2009 preseason poll.
Steele, if not the best, is certainly the most in-depth of the college football analysts, and along with selecting the Irish at No. 7, he has labeled them a "dark horse national title contender."
Steele has placed huge expectations on the Irish, a team he lost some credibility on last year for picking them No. 19, only to see them finish a disappointing 7-6.
Steele reminds us that Jimmy "Santa" Clausen will be a third-year starter in 2009. He feels this and 15 returning starters will make the difference. He also points out that the Irish blew three double-digit leads last year.
There appears to be one other stretch in Steele's 2009 poll—Rutgers at No. 16. Rutgers has hardly been mentioned in anyone's top 25, but Steele is basing his decision on a seven-game winning streak and the return of everyone on an experienced offensive line.
Picking Notre Dame at No. 7 seems to be a surprise because the only other publication to have them even near the top 10 was the Sporting News at No. 11. Rivals has them at No. 23, Athlon has them at No. 24 and CBS Sports No. 25. National Champs, Sports Illustrated, and Scout don't rank them.
Notre Dame is quite capable of making Steele look good because the talent is there. Scout calls this "the best team under Weis in the five years he's been there with experience across the board and plenty of good options." They point out there will be "strong battles for most of the jobs."
This team is deep, and with 10 starters back on offense, the Irish could put a lot of points on the board in 2009.
Everyone thinks first of Clausen, but the best player could be junior wide receiver Golden Tate. The two of them have the potential to compile the stats that's created anticipation these juniors will equal or surpass the recognition of the great Terry Hanratty/Jim Seymour tandem of the late '60s.
Tate isn't the only threat at receiver. With Michael Floyd, Duval Kamara, and tight end Kyle Rudolf, Clausen will have no problem finding an open man.
Notre Dame's running game was weak in 2008, but with four veteran backs, they'll be better.
Armando Allen and Robert Hughes should get called on the most to establish what Weis hopes will be more of a "power" running game than he saw over the last two years.
The line is solid, experienced, and big. They should be able to get the job done.
Defensively they return fewer starters than the offense, but that could be a good thing. They bring back six players from last year's defense—a defense that just couldn't stop the run.
It appears defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta wants to go to a "4-3" defense instead of last year's "3-4." He sees a lot more speed than last year and thinks the blitzes are going to work better from the "4-3."
Inside linebacker Brian Smith could be the leader of the defense. He, along with inside linebacker Toryan Smith and outside linebacker Harrison Smith, will make up a linebacking unit that will be expected to swarm to the ball.
With these three linebackers, the Irish are hoping their biggest problem in 2009 will be figuring out who they're talking about when they say "Smith."
Defensive end Ethan Johnson is expected to be a big-time player. They are going to need a big year from him because they lost two of last year's down linemen.
Most folks around the world of college football are still trying to figure out the difficulty of the 2009 schedule. Phil Steele ranks it the 36th toughest in the country, and that means it's going to be better than some fans expect.
Of course, USC will be the toughest game, but Pitt has gotten mentioned in a lot of preseason top 25s. Michigan State always plays great against the Irish and haswon six straight games on the road in this series.
What about Michigan? The game is in Ann Arbor, and it's Rich Rodriguez's second year as head coach—they will be better. Steele ranks them as one of his top five "most improved teams" for the coming season.
In order for the year to be a success, the Irish have to win at least nine games and most likely have to win a bowl game.
Charlie Weis is under a lot of pressure this year, and everyone knows his job is at stake.
The talent on offense is clearly there. Defensively, it might take the team a while to get used to playing with each other.
One of the biggest factors, and it's usually overlooked, is the execution. It must be "job number one," and they have to get fewer penalties than 2008 if they're going to meet or exceed the expectations of Phil Steele and the Irish fans.