Ranked For First Time Since 2006, Notre Dame Prays It Lives Up To Hype

Mike MuratoreCorrespondent IAugust 10, 2009

ANN ARBOR, MI - SEPTEMBER 15:  Head coach of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish Charlie Weis looks on in the fourth quarter during a game against the Michigan Wolverines at Michigan Stadium September 15, 2007 in Ann Arbor, Michigan.  (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

The 100-degree temperatures in Northern Indiana weren't the only thing making the Notre Dame football team sweat as it opened camp this weekend. The Irish, for the first time in a long time, find themselves in the USA Today Coaches' Poll at No. 23 and officially move into the realm of expectation.

The last poll in which Notre Dame held rank was the final 2006 vote following a pounding at the hands of LSU. The Irish slid from No. 10 to No. 17 following the loss, beginning a slide that ended after the 2007 season with Notre Dame tallying many school-record "worsts."

After a year of rebuilding and overall improvement in 2008, culminating with a blowout bowl win, the feeling around South Bend has changed from one of hope to one of demands.

The faithful are expecting to win.

That Notre Dame finds itself ranked at No. 23 is no great cause for celebration, as history practically mandates that even average Irish teams are given the benefit of the doubt and often placed in preseason rankings well above their true talent. This year, however, the Irish believe themselves to be underrated.

With a less demanding than usual schedule awaiting them and the deepest and most talented roster in camp since the Lou Holtz era, there is plenty of reason for optimism. Many around Irish camp are talking BCS.

But with high expectations often comes pressure. Nowhere does pressure build as quickly as at Notre Dame. One big win over Hawaii has turned a rebuilding process on its ear and has many folks, serious folks in the Notre Dame camp, talking 10-plus wins.

The burden of these expectations falls on the embattled shoulders of head coach Charlie Weis.

"Let's not talk about expectations," Weis quipped at his pre-camp press conference last week. "It's time to put up."

Weis has never been shy about his lofty beliefs regarding his own abilities, but there seems to be a grittiness to his tone this year. There is no boasting of a "marked schematic advantage" or being able to do "whatever he wants" against an opponent. His comments are much more grounded in realism, more to the point.

"Since I've been here, this is the most exciting depth chart I've been able to go into the season with," Weis said.

A look at the players on the practice field will reinforce the coach's belief. These guys are big and fast. They are healthy. The only holdout of the first two days of camp was sophomore DT Hafis Williams, who is expected back any day.

They are deep. Fifteen offensive linemen on scholarship. Deep enough to slide one of last year's O-line standouts, Eric Olsen, from guard to center. Deep enough to have a two-year starter in Dan Wenger be the odd man out.

In fact, the only disturbing sight at Irish camp was the new vertical stripes adorning the jerseys. Let's hope those stay on the practice field...

Weis is banking on these guys being as good as they look (discounting the jerseys), as he continues to say that he has set a goal for his team to meet last year's BCS teams at averaging 4.6 rushing yards per carry—a 1.3-yard per carry improvement over last year.

But Weis knows that even with all the returning firepower on offense, without the ability to run the football there is little hope of fulfilling the 10-win expectation.

Weis realizes that it was the lack of a rushing attack that allowed games against North Carolina, Pittsburgh, and Syracuse to slip away, and prevented Notre Dame from having a chance against Boston College and Michigan State.

Everyone knows that you'll have to run the ball, and run it well, to stay on the field with USC, but to admit that it is your primary concern is a huge step forward in fixing it.

On paper, all the tools are there. Talent. Speed. Size. Depth. Health.

Weis said it best himself: "It's time to put up."

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