Of course, there's no sure way to judge in the spring or even in the fall before the games start. Is it good offense or bad defense? Good defense or bad offense?
Still, here are five questions worth thinking about as we creep towards the start of the season.
Question 1: Can ND's feature back average over 5 yards per carry?
The most likely suspect is Darius Walker, who was impressive as a freshman last year. Walker ran for 786 yards in 11 outings for seven touchdowns. His total production was more impressive than Julius Jones' freshman or sophomore seasons, but Walker managed a fairly modest 4.2 yards per carry.
Generally, a truly effective rushing attack requires the primary ball carrier to average close to 5 yards per carry, and preferably better than that. In Ryan Grant's best year, 2002, he averaged only 4.2 per carry. He averaged 3.6 per carry in 2003 and 4.1 last year.
Jones averaged 5.5 per carry in 2003, the only time in the Willingham era that ND had a back even close to five yards per carry. Going back to the Davie era, only Tony Fisher in 1999 managed exactly five yards per carry in 1999 on 156 carries.
During Holtz's era, however, ND almost always had backs over five per carry and sometimes over six per carry.
In 1996 for example, Autry Denson averaged 5.8 per carry on 202 attempts. In 1995 Kinder, Edwards and Denson all had over 100 carries and were over five per carry. In 1993, Lee Becton (a rugged back but certainly not a tremendous individual talent) averaged 6.4 per carry on 164 attempts. In 1992, Reggie Brooks averaged an astonishing eight per carry and Bettis averaged 5.4 per carry and they each carried about 160 times over the course of the season.
The only year Holtz failed to have a back carry 100 times and average five or better per carry was 1986, his only losing campaign.
There's little question that Walker has the individual talent to average five yards or better carry, and so does may other backs on the squad. If ND can mount a consistent, punishing rushing attack, and the offensive line can consistently open up running lanes, a lot of other things are going to get a lot easier.
Question 2: Can Brady Quinn continue his progress?
Though much and mostly rightly maligned, the prior regime did make some headway in terms of installing a pro-style passing attack. In Davie's last year, 2001, ND was literally dead last among Division I-A teams at 5.1 yards per passing attempt.
Quinn predictably struggled as a freshman in 2003 and averaged a weak 5.5 per attempt, completed only about 47 percent of his passes and had nine touchdowns against 15 interceptions.
In 2004, however, Quinn was up to 7.3 per passing attempt, over 54 percent completions and had 17 touchdowns against 10 interceptions.
If Quinn could get to, say, the high 50's in completion percentage, the high 7's in yards per attempt and around 25 touchdowns, ND will have a good or better offense.
Question 3: Can ND's defense hold the opposition under seven yards per passing attempt?
Seven yards per passing attempt is really a pretty modest goal as a defensive unit, but if one considers the degree to which ND has struggled on pass defense the last two years, reaching that level would be a significant step forward.
The NCAA average is usually about 6.85 yards per passing attempt. Last year ND gave up 7.9 per attempt, one of the worst figures in Division I-A. In 2003, it was almost as bad at 7.6. In 2002, however, the only year that ND had a really good defense under Willingham, the Irish allowed only 5.9 per passing, one of the best figures in Division I-A.
One statistic that is most telling about teams is whether they are net negative or positive in yards per passing attempt. In 2002, when ND was 10-3 on the season, the Irish were +.7 per passing attempt. In 2003, while struggling to a 5-7 record, ND was -2.4, and in 2004, while finishing 6-6, ND was -0.7.
If the Irish are going to get back on the right side of that equation by a significant amount, it will require holding the opposition somewhere in the 6's per passing attempt.
Question 4: Can ND win the turnover margin by double digits?
Willingham's ND teams were always slightly positive in the turnover margin department: +5 in 2002 and 2004 and +2 in 2003. But consistently creating double digit turnover margins will bail a team out of its other mistakes. Every single one of Pete Carroll's USC teams has been +16 or better for the season on turnovers (the Trojans were + 19 last year).
Not coincidentally, the only time ND has recently enjoyed advantages like that were when the Irish were +12 on turnovers, starting 8-0 in 2002 (though then -7 limping home 2-3,) and +14 in the 9-2 2000 regular season.
A team can't live entirely by turnovers (as Davie and Willingham seemed to each try to do at various stages), but playing an attacking defensive style, and a ball control offensive style can generate consistently good results. New England routinely has had double digit positive margins in the last four years.
Question 5: Can ND get a special teams edge back?
Special teams were mostly quite good under Holtz and Davie and continued to be reasonably good in Willingham's first year.
Special teams suffered mightily from inattention in 2003 and then especially in 2004.
ND won the net punting battle slightly in 2004, but gave up about eight yards of field position per exchange of kickoffs. Some of this was due to allowing back-breaking kickoff returns and some was due to the inability of our kickers to reach the end zone. ND kickers almost never forced a touchback, while opposition kickers forced ND to down the ball over a third of the time.
Moreover, the timing of some of the special teams breakdowns was cataclysmic. ND had the MSU game in 2004 well in hand but then managed to make it exciting at the end after the Spartans got back in the game with a kickoff return for a touchdown.
The Purdue game began to spin out of control on a similar play.
ND also appeared to have rallied bravely to beat BC in 2003, but then gave up a big kickoff return to allow the Eagles to kick the winning field goal.
ND's return teams hardly struck fear in the hearts of opponents last year. ND had no kickoff return longer than 41 yards (and that by Carlos Campbell who was pressed into service late in the year).
Carlyle Holiday had a 68-yard punt return last season, but ND had no kick or punt returns for touchdowns in 2004 and gave up 3.
In 2003, ND had no kick returns for touchdowns (and a long of 51 yards, that by Jones). Campbell was credited with a punt return for a touchdown but that was on a blocked punt that allowed ND to take the lead late in the BC game.
The fact of the matter is that ND just hasn't been a good enough team (nor is it likely to be a good enough team next year) that it can afford to give away field position and points on special teams.
The answers to these five questions will likely be the difference in the Irish having a good or a poor season in 2005.