With the season around the corner, many issues and positions are taken about the most loved and most hated college football program: Notre Dame.
At the end of the spring camp, Notre Dame seemed to have showed progress on both sides of the ball and on many positions. Still, the recruiting camp has not been impressive so far and some potentially key players have been lost. Not being enough, Notre Dame faces a groundbreaking or a trite season with multiple things at a stake and with multiple ramifications.
For one thing, Charlie Weis is in the hot seat like never before. Yes, it is right, like never before. For him this season is earning a BCS invitation or leave Notre Dame for good. This year there is no excuse for Notre Dame not to be successful. In 2007 Notre Dame had a bunch of inexperienced players, an obvious lack of depth in the chart and the fourth toughest schedule of the circuit.
2008 was considering the growing season and the team barely made it to a bowl game where they broke their long drought of bowl victories. 2009 has to be seen, obligatorily, as the season of win or die for the team.
A lackluster season like 2008 will be conducive to many changes in the program organization and, most likely, to the exit of Charlie Weis, without any question. Many things can be said about Notre Dame’s schedule this year but, curiously enough, no one seemed to care about the 2007 schedule. Indeed, commentators like Mark May, ESPN, enjoyed every bit of the 2007 season as Notre Dame level of contention was that of a championship subdivision team irrespective of what Charlie Weis tried to pretend.
2009 presents a different group of challenges, it is not as easy as everybody thinks and with pressure mounting, the team is exposed to commit daring mistakes in an effort to become convincingly a winning team. Not having any other point of reference but the performance of the opponents for the previous year, USC and Notre Dame have somewhat similar schedules, with USC facing six teams with losing records in 2008 while the Irish only will face five. So, if it is truth that the strength of schedule is not as high as it was in 2007, neither is full of “cup cake” teams.
Notre Dame opens this season receiving Nevada Wolf Pack (Rivals.com #57) in South Bend. Nevada’s head coach, Chris Ault has a respectable 198-91-1 record. In 2008, Nevada was the third most productive running game of the circuit, behind Navy and Oregon, with an average of 6.02 yards per carry. What makes this game particularly interesting?
Notre Dame rushing defense was number 45 of the circuit allowing 135 yards/game to opponents. In this, the very first game of the season, Notre Dame will have to show gigantic progress defensively because a catastrophe like last year game against San Diego State will be warning sign of the bad things to come. In Notre Dame favor is the passing game: Notre Dame was the #34 passing offense while Nevada was the worst defensive team against the pass. The key for Notre Dame in this game will be to keep Nevada’s offensive team in the bench and have an aerial show.
A week later, Notre Dame will face Michigan (Rivals.com #46) in Ann Arbor. Everybody knows about the rivalry among these two teams and this year it has a special twist: the most embarrassing defeat for Notre Dame last season was at the hands of the now defensive coordinator for Michigan and then head coach of Syracuse Greg Robinson. He knows Notre Dame can be beaten against all odds. Michigan exhibited their worst season in years ranking 109th on total offense and 67th in total defense. Expect these numbers to improve notably but I believe Notre Dame should bring their second consecutive victory against the wolverines this year.
Ranked 24 on the preseason poll, Michigan State (Rivals.com #31) visits South Bend to follow. I am of the opinion that Notre Dame should have won last year in East Lansing. Remember that starting the fourth quarter the score was 13-7 and that Notre Dame had missed by then two field goals and had turned over the ball twice. In an inexplicable circumstance, in 2008 Notre Dame was better in total offense (65 v 74) and total defense (39 v 58) compared to the Spartans; that to show how numbers are meaningless when it comes to predict how the teams will fare in any given season.
In any event, this will probably be a key game for Notre Dame’s early season. Notre Dame cannot give away the game as they did in East Lansing last year. A defeat in South Bend could be disastrous. Based on 2008 final numbers, and the fact that Hoyt and Ringer graduated is that I believe Notre Dame should win this game not without some nail-biting moments.
The final game in September will see the Irish facing Purdue (Rivals.com #76) in West Lafayette. A program in a rebuilding mode should not pose a problem for the Irish at this point of the season unless they show overconfident to the match.
The first October game is in South Bend when the Irish will receive Washington (Rivals.com #97). It is disconcerting to have to teams in rebuilding mode back to back as the Irish have shown a tendency to play weakly against weak teams. Washington new Head Coach, Steve Sarkisian, used to be an assistant coach of USC and he knows how to beat and fest on the Irish defensive team. He will not have the weapons that he had in Troyland but his presence gives an interesting twist to this game. I still think that Notre Dame should beat the Huskies comfortably.
After a bye week, Notre Dame will face their eternal foe: USC. Ranked #3 on the preseason poll, the Trojans will be the highest ranked team Notre Dame will face in their season. The Trojans have shown to be resilient in spite of changes and losing key players to the NFL draft. This is not going the be the rerun of the past three years games where Notre Dame was erased from the field and completely dominated in both sides of the ball. It might be a rerun of the epic battle of 2005 and the score will favor the team with fewer mistakes and with more players capable to create big plays.
This could be, for the first time since 2005, the year that Notre Dame might match the Trojans and deliver a competitive game. Irish are particularly effective when coming off a bye week (close to .800), they have the players to create big plays, and they are playing in South Bend; this might be an upset in the making if Notre Dame arrives undefeated to this match. The Trojans will arrive as strong favorites to win this game but if they do it might be the closest score between these two teams since 2005. If Notre Dame pulls the upset, they will have to be careful with their next opponent.
Rivals.com #68 Boston College visits South Bend the following week. No matter where they are ranked; the Eagles have been historically a difficult foe for the Irish, mainly after the Irish had pulled an upset. On Notre Dame advantage is that Boston College has a new Head Coach and a young group of QB’s. With the game being played at South Bend and if Notre Dame is rolling, they should not have too much problem beating the Eagles this time.
The third game in October can be considered more like an exhibition game not without due respect to the opponent. Washington State is ranked by Rivals.com as #104 out of 120 and it is, without any doubt, the worst team of the Pac-10 Conference. The game will be taking place in San Antonio Alamodome and should give Notre Dame a chance of give some of the players’ game experience. This should be another comfortable victory for the Irish.
November starts with the visit of Rivals.com #63 Navy to South Bend. The Midshipmen have caused severe cases of indigestion to the Irish for the past two seasons. They indeed beat Notre Dame in South Bend during the catastrophic 2007 season and they were about to pull a second victory during the 2008 campaign. Notre Dame has to show their maturity by beating Navy clearly and without any doubts to head for the final stretch of the season.
For their second game of November, the Irish will travel to Heinz Stadium to face the Pittsburgh Panthers, Rivals.com #48 team. Pittsburgh beat Notre Dame in a disheartening, four overtimes game last season. A difficult place to play as a visitor, Notre Dame should show the maturity and learn to finish their seasons without demoralizing loses. The Irish should come with a convincing victory as a visitor team if they want to keep a BCS bowl invitation alive.
The Irish return to South Bend to face Connecticut, Rivals.com #55 team. Of interest is that it will mark the return to Zach Frazer to Notre Dame. It is obvious that Frazer will do anything on his power to beat the Irish. This might be an exciting game but the scale tips in favor of the local team with more experienced players on both sides of the ball.
The final game of the Irish will come with a trip to Palo Alto to face the Cardinal. Stanford is a difficult foe in its house and we all remember the demanding effort that Notre Dame required to beat Stanford in 2005 to be BCS eligible. This game might not be any different. At this point of the season, many cards will be already in the table, and the Irish will have to close the season with a victory which, like in 2005, might give them the chance to return to the BCS circle.
In order to consider Notre Dame a contender, their final record should not be any less than 10-2. Less than 10 victories for Notre Dame might indicate the end of the Weis era as it will result astonishing if an improvement of only two games in the victory column will suffice to save Weis’s job for one more year. Looking at the schedule closely, they have a really good chance of finishing September with a 4-0 record, October with no less than 3-1 and then, showing their degree of maturity and growing experience, finishing November with a 4-0 record, raising to the occasion by defeating Pitt and Stanford as a visiting team.
The expectations are high but, in contrast to the past two seasons, Notre Dame now counts with more experienced and better equipped players on key positions. September will definitely mark the direction of the program and if they pull an undefeated stretch, they will gain confidence and they might reach 10 or 11 victories by the end of the season. Considering the cards at hand, this time this seems to be a reachable goal and not just a dream.