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Can Notre Dame Wake up the Echos in '09?

Mike MuratoreCorrespondent IAugust 3, 2009

LOS ANGELES - NOVEMBER 29:  Jimmy Clausen #7 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish looks to hand off the ball against the USC Trojans on November 29, 2008 at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in Los Angeles, California.  USC won 38-3.  (Photo by Jeff Golden/Getty Images)

For fans of the Fighting Irish times have been hard of late. The mere fact that a 7-6 record and bowl victory over Hawaii left an uplifting feeling among Irish faithful speaks volumes as to how far the might have fallen since the Sugar Bowl thumping in January 2007.

The last two seasons have not been kind to the Notre Dame football program, as recruiting woes past and experience deficiencies led to two rather forgettable seasons.

For the Irish coaching staff, to call 2009 a "do or die" year would be an understatement.

With four recruiting classes now enrolled, there can be no more fingers pointed back at Ty Willingham. With three of those four classes ranked among college football's best, the talent is here. The burden now rests on the shoulders of the Weis regime alone.

There are signs that the dark ages may be ending for Irish fans. Slowly the ice may be melting from the long and painful winter. Notre Dame is poised to potentially put up double digit wins in 2009.

But will they?

A glance at the 2009 schedule will give any Irish fan lofty expectations. Eight of the opponents rank in either the "easy win" category or the "hot mess" group.

Nevada, Washington, Navy, Stanford, Washington St., and this year, Connecticut are deficient talent wise from a basic player-to-player standpoint. Notre Dame should be able to physically outgun these teams from the start.

Michigan and Boston College are both rebuilding, transitioning under new leadership, and are experiencing much turmoil. Really, Washington fits into this category as well...

For even the most grounded of Irish fans, nine wins should be expected.

But a glance back to 2008 quickly casts a shadow of doubt. A lose to 2-8 Syracuse. Losing fourth quarter leads to North Carolina and Pittsburgh. Stanford and Navy almost rallying. Struggling versus San Diego State. Suddenly some of those sure wins don't looks so sure.

Why will 2009 be different?

As an Irish fan, you hope that last year showed rising talent, but the lack of on field experience and leadership. You are banking that returning 10 starters on offense and seven on defense are going to account for leaps in execution.

It's easy to see that Notre Dame will score points. Their skilled players on offense will outmatch every secondary not wearing garnet and gold. Clausen has shown that with pass protection he can make any throw on the field. The backs are capable, if there is room to run.

The offensive line will be the barometer to Notre Dame's success. Seniors Eric Olsen and Sam Young have to be better than they were last year. One of them needs to be the leader for a unit that has size, but has lacked strength.

In all of Notre Dame's losses a year ago, the Irish failed to rush for 100 yards. Not surprisingly those games also mark Jimmy Clausen's lowest ratings. If the poor run production continues, the Irish fate may be similar to that of 2008 where three times leads slipped away as the offense could not convert a first down and the defense tired down the stretch.

The remedy for this problem may be experience. For the first time since Brady Quinn and co. left the Kentucky Bluegrass and Notre Dame Stadium, there will be a predominantly upper-classmen team on the field.

Despite expectations, it is fairly certain that Notre Dame will be Bowl eligible come November. The remaining question is will they be in a big-time bowl? A large clue will reveal itself on Sept. 19 when Notre Dame hosts Michigan State.

For all purposes, Notre Dame should beat the Spartans at home, but they rarely do. Sparty has dominated the Irish of late, and beating them would be the first sure sign that things in South Bend are finally on the right track.

Leading up to Notre Dame's open date on Oct. 10, Notre Dame hosts Nevada, Michigan State, and Washington while traveling to Ann Arbor and Purdue. Winning all five early contests is possible, and absolutely necessary if Irish fans want to start thinking BCS.

Looming after the bye are Notre Dame's two most challenging contests, hosting first USC then Boston College in back-to-back weeks. A sweep in these two games would send Irish stock over the moon, and thoughts of BCS would quickly turn to Championship, as the rest of the schedule is decidedly down hill as Notre Dame travels for a date with Washington State in San Antonio, to Pittsburgh, and to Stanford, while hosting Navy and UConn.

Not many realistic Irish fans expect to end the losing streak to the Trojans, but after flooding day one of the NFL draft this year, USC will be a younger team than Notre Dame has seen in a while. USC is far and away the toughest test on the 2009 schedule, and will prove to be the tell-tale as to how far Notre Dame has come.

For the Irish, 2009 will be a year of improvement. They will hold leads that they lost last year, and be more competitive where they weren't. They will be confident enough to win close, but still not quite good enough to not let one slip away.

Look for the Irish to win the games that they should, lose a competitive contest to USC, and drop a heart-breaker to Michigan State, Boston College, or Connecticut. At 10-2, Notre Dame will be invited to a BCS game to play a team that everyone (including me) will expect to beat the Irish.

Maybe, just maybe, we will be surprised!

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