Onward to Victory or the Death March?

<P>September 6th is a little over a week away and I did some digging to find some cold hard facts—some not so pleasant facts. I decided to do some research to give Irish fans a little recent history and to look at the Irish schedule and see how the Irish might finish in 2003. </P>

It's been 10 years since the Irish finished the season ranked in the top 10. It's been 10 years since the Irish won a bowl game. The Irish have played in only three major bowls in those 10 years and lost all three by a combined score of 113-59. They have only beaten four teams ranked in the top 10 during this span. The good news is their victories were against Michigan twice, USC and Texas—three teams most Irish fans love to hate.

When you look at recent Irish schedules, one would think the Irish played some very difficult schedules in the past. In reality, they played the 28th (2002), 22nd (2001), 34th, 3rd, 82nd, 15th, 54th, 1st, 18th and 50th most difficult regular season schedules. Irish fans usually complain about the schedule but only finished in the top 10 in strength of schedule twice in the last 10 years and only four have been ranked in the top 20.

The facts are hard to swallow for all Irish fans. It seems like yesterday that the Irish had their 23-game winning streak. Maybe we all forgot about the end of the Holtz era and the Davie years—many of us would like to. What we can tell by these statistics is that the Irish haven't been bit by a strong schedule—the problem has been a lack of talent, lack of coaching or both.

Once again, on paper, the schedule looks very difficult. I will agree that this schedule should end up being a top 10 schedule if not a top five schedule. The succession of games is what really makes this schedule tough. This might be the year that schedule bites Notre Dame in the posterior.

The Irish kick off the season September 6th against a team that has finished in the top 10 the last two years in Washington State. I think a lot of Irish fans are discounting the successes the Cougars have had. Not many teams finish the season ranked in the top 10 two years in a row unless they have great talent and great coaching. Their only two losses last year were to National Champion Ohio State and in-state rival Washington (with their quarterback playing on one leg). The bowl game does not count in my mind because Price was leaving and everyone knew it.

It would be easy to look at their losses in personnel and say they won't be as strong. They have a new coach although he has been there for quite some time. I think a lot of fans are looking past this game. The Irish better not look past Washington State or they will get beat. They might still get beat because Washington State has the kind of talent to challenge Notre Dame and the passing game to cause fits for the Irish defense. The game is at home so that is a big plus for the Irish.

The Irish then travel to Michigan on September 13th. The 7th-ranked Wolverines always have talent and this is a rival game in Ann Arbor. I recently heard Mike Gottfried of ESPN pick Michigan to win the National Championship. Michigan has a favorable schedule but I don't think they have the best team, or the second best team or the third, fourth, fifth, sixth….. The Irish are 7-4-1 in the last 12 meetings but the Irish have lost the last two times they went to Ann Arbor (97 & 99). The Irish also finished their seasons 7-6 and 5-7 in 1997 and 1999 respectively. Michigan also shared the National Championship with Nebraska in 97 and had a very strong team.

This game is always a pivotal game for either team. If Notre Dame beats Michigan, they usually have a great season and Michigan usually has an average season. The same holds true if Michigan beats Notre Dame—Michigan usually has a great season and the Irish struggle. This is always a classic battle and will be a very difficult game for the Irish.

The Irish return home to face Michigan State. The Irish snapped a five-game losing streak beating the Spartans 21-17 last year in East Lansing. The Spartans struggled last year finishing the season 4-8 with a lot of internal problems. John L. Smith takes over the reigns of the program and tries to rebuild the once proud Spartan team. Michigan State lost a heartbreaker to the Irish last year and the loss really deflated the Spartans as they finished their last eight games 2-6 with wins over struggling Northwestern and Indiana.

On paper this game should not be a struggle for the Irish. If the Irish offense sputters and the Irish lose to Michigan or Washington State this game could be closer than many think.

Notre Dame then travels to West Lafayette, IN on September 27th to face 22nd-ranked Purdue. The Irish have three consecutive victories over the Boilermakers. Purdue finished 2002 with a 7-6 record but lost their six games by a total of 26 points (4.3 points per game). 18 starters return for the Boilermakers and this will be a very good team both defensively and offensively.

If the Irish are struggling, this game could be ugly. If they Irish are 3-0 at this point, this could be a mild upset if the Boilermakers steal the win. The Irish gain nothing by beating Purdue in style points and lose a lot of credibility when they lose to Purdue. This game scares me more than any other. The Boilermakers have lost three straight games and should've won at least two of them and will be very motivated for this game.

The Irish then have the week off before they travel to 12th-ranked Pittsburgh October 11th. The week off seems like an advantage but the Panthers also have a week off before playing Notre Dame. Pitt returns 17 starters from their 9-4 team in 2002. The Irish squeaked out a victory 14-6 against Pitt in 2002 but this game is at Pitt and should be a very difficult game for the Irish.

The schedule doesn't get any easier as archrival and 8th-ranked USC comes to South Bend on October 18th. USC was the only team the Irish played last year where the Irish looked out-classed. Gone are the entire backfield including 2002 Heisman winner Carson Palmer, Sultan McCullough and Justin Fargas (thank God). Also gone is ¾ of the starting secondary including safety Troy Palumalu. Back is a very deep defensive line and four out of five starters along the offensive line—a line the Irish had little luck penetrating on either side of the ball.

USC hung 610 yards on the Irish defense—the most ever by an Irish opponent. Still, the Irish have won 15 out of the last 20 and nine out of the last 10 at home.

An inexperienced quarterback usually means a struggling offense for any team and USC has a new guy at the helm. The game is at home and USC traditionally doesn't play their best football in South Bend. You can throw the statistics out the window on this game after watching USC dismantle the Irish on offense and defense last year—this will be a very difficult game for the Irish.

The Irish follow the USC game traveling to Boston College on October 25th.

After Fredo "sleeps with the fishes" they return home to play 11th-ranked Florida State on November 1st. The Seminoles appeared to be in self-destruct mode at the end of the season last year but this team is still dangerous.

The Seminoles finished 9-5 last year. They return only 4 starters on offense and two returning starters are Chris Rix and a recovering Greg Jones. The defense returns 10 starters but they were also the 61st-ranked defense last year—hardly the FSU defense we expect. FSU was ranked 85th in pass defense—what happened to that great FSU pass rush?

This team still has talent and can be dangerous if they start to believe. If they have a run of wins before coming to South Bend this will be another classic battle.

The month of November gets a little easier as the Irish again are home against Navy on November 8th. The Midshipmen finished the season 2-10 in 2002 but it could've been 3-9 if not for a Holiday to Omar Jenkins 67-yard bomb last year.

It baffles my mind how a team can get blown out 38-0 by Connecticut but still continues to give the Irish a scare almost every time they play. The game is set up for another scare by Navy. If the Irish somehow manage to enter this game undefeated this could be a team the Irish overlook.

On November 15th BYU comes to South Bend. The Cougars return 16 starters from a 5-7 season in 2002 and another year under Gary Crowton. This should not the most difficult game but the Cougars throw the football and pass defense was an area the Irish struggled with at the end of last year.

The Irish have a week off before Tyrone Willingham and his staff returns to Stanford Stadium on November 29th. The home team has won the last seven games in this series. The Cardinal returns 13 starters from a 2-9 season in 2002. The media hype will likely get out of control for this game. I think Tyrone Willingham will have his team ready for this game regardless of the records of either team.

The Irish then travel to Syracuse on December 6th. The Orangemen return 14 starters from a 4-8 season last year. Paul Pasqualoni could be fighting for his job in this game if the Orangemen have a season like last year where they finished 113th in total defense allowing 475 total yards per game.

The Orangemen lose their starting quarterback in Troy Nunes and their best defensive player in linebacker Clifton Smith. If the writing is on the wall for Pasqualoni, this should be a relatively easy game for the Irish.

The schedule appears to be very difficult this year. The Irish play the preseason 7th, 8th, 11th 12th and 22nd ranked teams in 2003. The Irish enter the season ranked 18th so on paper this team should lose four games this season. For some reason I don't think that will happen.

I think Michigan and Florida State are a little overrated. The Michigan game is at Ann Arbor so it might not matter. I think Pitt, USC and Purdue might be a little underrated. Teams like Washington State and Boston College could easily beat the Irish this year. The schedule is especially difficult because the Irish play their seven most difficult games in the first eight games of the year.

The results of the season will come down to two things. If the Irish can remain healthy and get solid offensive line play they will have an outstanding 2003. If injuries start to pile up and the offensive line doesn't come together—it could get ugly.

My prediction

My best guess is that the Irish will finish 10-2 with losses to Purdue and USC (that hurt). Purdue is going to be a lot better than most people think and I just don't think Notre Dame is at the level that USC is currently at. I could just as easily see a 7-5 season for the Irish but I don't see that happening. It's possible that they could go undefeated in the regular season but the ball would have to bounce their way again in 2003—too much to ask. I do expect to see a much improved offense regardless of the record.

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