Duplicating Willingham's start to his coaching tenure at Notre Dame is probably too tall a task for even the best coaches, especially when you play your first four out of five on the road. But Willingham's beginning should probably be considered just as unlikely to happen, and it did.
In 2002, the Irish returned a no-name defense and an experienced offense—sound familiar?
The Irish defense consisted of starters Ryan Roberts, Darrell Campbell, Cedric Hilliard and Kyle Budinscak up front. Courtney Watson, Derek Curry and Mike Goolsby were the starting linebackers, and Glenn Earl, Gerome Sapp, Vontez Duff and Shane Walton were the starting corners.
While we all remember fondly many of the names listed above, none were considered stars heading into the 2002 season. None were considered can't-miss prospects or NFL first round picks.
The Irish did return a veteran group on offense, but an offense absolutely putrid in the passing game.
Do you realize that Notre Dame threw for only four, yes four, touchdowns during the entire 2001 season? They also averaged just 101 passing yards per game. And, Willingham later found out that star running back Julius Jones would be suspended for the 2002 season.
So how did this group of no-names on defense, and a one-dimensional offense win eight straight including victories over Michigan and a road victory at Florida State? Great defense and winning the turnover battle—it was that simple—oh, and a few big plays along the way.
During the 2002 eight-game winning streak, the Irish allowed just four rushing touchdowns and just 10 total touchdowns. They also allowed an average of just 82 rushing yards per game, and they created 22 total turnovers (while losing just 12 themselves). They also allowed teams to complete just 46 percent of their passes.
The 2002 Irish were opportunistic, and they made big plays when they needed them.
Notre Dame's offense in 2002 wasn't anything spectacular, but a veteran line pushed the Irish over the century mark seven out of eight games in rushing, including 153 yards against Purdue, 157 yards against Michigan, 249 against Stanford, 335 against Air Force, and 116 against Florida State.
So how did this happen considering the circumstances? My guess is excellent leadership and a new lease on life. Weis will bring both excellent leadership at the top, and the Irish will have new life, but will they have the leadership among the team to make a similar run?
The 2005 offense returns all five offensive linemen—just as they did in 2002. In fact, they essentially return all 11 starters on offense if you consider Darius Walker a starter.
The 2005 Irish defense might not have the star names, but they certainly return some talent, especially at the defensive line position, a position that will be vital to their success.
What will be the key to getting off to a strong start for the Irish, however, is team leadership. If Notre Dame can find similar leadership, they have the makings of a surprising team. Leadership, or lack there of, will definitely be shown if/when this team loses their first game. Will we see the "here we go again" attitude seen so many times in recent years?
The 2002 team had a playmaker—Arnaz Battle—that they could call upon when needed. Can you spot a playmaker for 2005? There are plenty of candidates in Darius Walker, Rhema McKnight, Brady Quinn, Maurice Stovall and Matt Shelton.
The 2002 team had excellent leadership on defense. Can you spot that guy or those guys on the 2005 squad? Brandon Hoyte? Anyone? Well guess what, nobody would've thought Shane Walton would be the excellent leader he was heading into 2002.
The similarities are striking when comparing the 2002 and 2005 squad. We firmly believe Weis will do two things this year. This team will play with discipline, and this team will be well-coached. But how they respond to their new leadership will likely depend on their own leadership within the team. If they have strong leadership—like in 2002—this could be a very exciting season.
No matter how well-coached or disciplined this team will be, success will likely come by winning the battle at the line of scrimmage and winning the turnover battle, just as it did in 2002.
The Irish have the horses up front along the offensive line, and Notre Dame will have three former USA Today All-Americans starting along the defensive line. They certainly have the chance to surprise a lot of people this year. Whether they will, I believe, will depend on if they can find the necessary leadership to show them the way.