If the Irish are going to have a successful season, they need to win this game and on paper they should. The Aztecs have some talent at wide receiver, but they have to replace a quarterback that accounted for 77% of their offense last year. The offensive line is young and the running backs are talented but need to prove that they can hold up over the long haul. The defense returns eight starters from a group that was statistically the worst in the Mountain West by every measure. San Diego State's front seven has been soft against the run to say the least, which could give the Irish the opportunity to dictate play. The Aztecs do have some individual players who have the talent to make plays on special teams, but the Irish cannot allow that to be a factor. On paper, this is the easiest opener the Irish have had in some time and seems to be the perfect game to put 2007 in the past for good.
This is the game that many Irish fans have circled on their schedules as the one that will decide what kind of season Notre Dame will have. Rich Rodriguez is in his first season installing the spread at Ann Arbor and it seems that he will be doing so without a quarterback that fits the system that made him successful at West Virginia. But, Rodriguez has shown that he is capable of adapting to the strengths of his quarterback and while there has been some shakeup along the offensive line, the Wolverines still have players. Rodriguez would love to be able to enter this game without having already shown his hand against Utah and Miami (OH). Last year's defensive coordinator Ron English is gone, but expect Michigan to play as aggressive, if not more. Michigan has corners with the ability to play press coverage on every down and returns its entire front four from last year. The Wolverines lost a lot at linebacker, but a strong secondary will help them scheme. The kicker is back, but the remaining specialist positions are up for grabs. If Notre Dame can win this game it will be a great source of early season momentum.
Michigan St. Preview
The season's first road game kicks off a tough stretch of contests that many Irish fans see as toss-ups. The road team has won the seven meetings in the series. The Spartans will be led by one of top running backs on Notre Dame's schedule along with a fifth-year senior quarterback. Michigan State lost a lot of receivers, but if the quarterback can stay healthy and the line can run-block, the offense will be fine. Defensively, Michigan St. lost some key performers from last year's squad, but the Spartans played plenty of underclassmen that needed the experience at every level. The Spartans ranked 32nd in the nation in yards allowed last year and, despite losing players, they return enough talent to improve in 2008. All three kickers are back, but the Spartans will need to find some new returners. Excluding Michigan State's 31-14 win last year, the Irish and the Spartans have not had a matchup decided by more than a touchdown since 1999 and it's hard to see this year's game being any different.
It has already been announced that 2008 will be Joe Tiller's last year as head coach at Purdue and a win would give him a 6-6 career record against the Irish. The Boilermakers feature probably the most lethal quarterback that Notre Dame will see all year, but they did lose their top playmaker from a year ago. Purdue does return its top two running backs from last year and it will be interesting to see if the Boilermakers commit to the run more in 2008. Last year's defense was good, but not great and the staff is hoping to improve in 2008. The front and back ends of the defense should be solid, but if Purdue is unable to develop some depth at linebacker, the middle could be soft. Purdue has an experienced kicker, but probably won't be able to reproduce the game-breaking talent they have had returning kicks the past few years. Emotions will be running high on the Purdue sidelines all year and they will be elevated even more with it being Tiller's final trip to South Bend.
Of the eight games after the SDSU opener, this is the only one that is truly difficult to see the Irish losing. Stanford is the only team that Notre Dame defeated last year that appears on the 2008 schedule. Last year's 21-14 win at Palo Alto gave the Irish their first two-game winning streak at the end of a season since 1992, but it wasn't pretty. In his first year as head coach, Jim Harbaugh showed Cardinal fans the heights that the program could reach by backing up preseason comments and upsetting USC as 41-point underdogs. But aside from the historic victory over the Trojans and another upset over California, the rest of the season was not so pretty. Stanford returns the quarterback responsible for the win over USC, but Harbaugh has refused to name a starting quarterback for 2008 and will have a three-horse race going into fall camp. There is even a chance that the job could end up in the hands of a true freshman by the end of the season. Whoever wins the job will be throwing to a pair of new starting receivers, but they will have some experienced running backs. Stanford does have some talent on the offensive line, but there is little depth behind the starters. Defensively, Stanford was able to pressure the passer last year, but was also susceptible to the big play. The Cardinal will be just as aggressive in 2008 even with last year's defensive coordinator calling plays for Michigan, but the secondary will have to play better for the defense to improve. Stanford will have to replace its kicker and punter, but have experienced returners back. The Irish figure to be substantial favorites against Stanford and rightly so, but the Cardinal has proved that they can beat anybody and once a team believes that, it can become truly dangerous.
North Carolina Preview
While historically Notre Dame compares with the USC's and the Michigan's of the college football world, the Tar Heels are the team on this year's schedule that the Irish have the most in common with. Like Notre Dame, North Carolina had a miserable 2007 season, but the Tar Heels also have a ton of young talent and fans are predicting a breakout year. Like Notre Dame, the Tar Heels return just about every offensive leader from last year's squad with potential standouts at every skill position. And like Notre Dame, everything could come down to offensive line giving those athletes a chance to perform. North Carolina returns all four starters in the secondary, but the most talented position on the entire roster is defensive line. The Tar Heels don't lack experience at linebacker either and the defense should be able to carry the offense through any tough early moments. North Carolina brings back its punter and some key players in the return game, but they will have to replace their all-time leading kicker. This game will be a big test for both programs.
In possibly the most anticipated game on the slate, Notre Dame and Charlie Weis could be playing former coach Ty Willingham for the final time, at least at Washington. Willingham's job was in jeopardy at the end of the 2007 season and there has been plenty of speculation about whether this will be his last year. The Huskies have a play-making quarterback, who will have to carry the running game while trying to become more consistent throwing the football to a whole new set of receivers. The running backs are young, but the offensive line has some experience and the dual-threat quarterback will ensure the Huskies of a solid running attack. Washington has a new defensive coordinator who has made no secret of the fact that he intends to keep his defense a secret, but is already making changes to the unit. He is moving players around in the secondary and while he may have the linebackers to play a 3-4, he might not have the linemen. The kickers are back, but the Huskies will have to replace their returners. If there is a game on the schedule that is more important to Notre Dame fans than Southern Cal, this is it and Charlie Weis knows that.
Dave Wannstedt is not on the hot seat yet, but if he doesn't deliver a bowl game in his fourth season, after Walt Harris brought the Panthers to five straight before leaving, than he will be. But Wannstedt has shown signs of progress in the program and was given a vote of confidence in the form of a three-year contract extension that came before the Panthers' historic upset of West Virginia in 2007. But still, Wannstedt must be feeling some pressure and brought in five new assistant coaches for this season. With their starting quarterback returning after an early injury last year and the best running back in the Big East, the Panthers have the talent to do it. The offensive line is a bit of a question mark, but there will be plenty of targets to throw to. Defensively, the Panthers have a fine mix of youth and veterans along with a bit of All-American potential. The defense is deep enough to withstand a few injuries and still be the strength of the team, but the offense has the athletes to be dangerous. This contest could be a trap game for either team.
With Matt Ryan playing for the Falcons, this is Jeff Jagodzinski's year to prove how good of a coach he is. Ryan will be replaced by his veteran backup, but the real question mark on offense is running back where the Eagles appear poised to hand the job to a true freshman. There are some questions after graduating the entire left side of the offensive line, but the season could be decided by the guy behind center and the guys behind him. Boston College had an incredible defense last year, but they will have to plug in some replacements. BC gets back a couple of studs that sat out last year with academic issues and injuries. However, they lost an All-American safety to graduation, a starting defensive end to the court system and will have to replace their best cornerback. BC has its kicker back, but will have a new, albeit familiar name at punter. The return of Eagles' top return man has not been decided yet and his future in football is cloudy.
Everyone knows what happened last year, but this is a new year and the Midshipmen have a new admiral in charge. While there will be a change in a leadership, there will be no change in offensive philosophy. The Naval Academy has the led the nation in rushing each of the last three years and with last year's starting quarterback returning, new coach Ken Niumatalolo has no plans to scrap the triple-option approach. The coaching staff appears comfortable with their skill position players, but they will have to work in some new offensive linemen. Navy has some experienced players coming back for the 3-4 defense, including a top safety and linebacker who went down with early injuries last year. The Midshipmen lose their dynamic return man, punter and one of their top kickers. It may not be 43 years before the next Navy win, but with the talent level at Notre Dame maturing, it should be a little while before it happens again.
Of all of the teams on Notre Dame's schedule this year, the Orange probably had the worst team in 2008. Of all of the coaches the Irish will face this year, Greg Robinson is probably the least likely to have his job in 2009. Of all of the games Notre Dame has in 2008, this is probably the one that would be most shocking for them to lose aside from San Diego State. But the contest takes place so late in the season that anything could happen by then. The Orange could have their best offensive player back, the offensive line could be giving the quarterback time to throw and he could be lighting it up. Greg Robinson could turn around a unit that ranked worst than 100th in passing defense, rushing defense, scoring defense and total defense in 2007. All of those things could happen, just like the Irish losing, but none are very likely.
When most Irish fans talk about the 2008 season they either don't mention the USC game or write it off as a probable loss. But some Irish fans seem to slyly avoid the topic almost as if they're hoping to sneak up on the Trojans or trying not to get too far ahead of themselves. USC has All-American talent at virtually every position and despite not claiming a national title since 2004, the Trojans have lost none of the swagger that has made them the team of the millennium thus far. The offense has game-breaking talent at every skill position. The quarterback has patiently waited for his chance and he has a number of talented targets to throw to. The Trojans possess a stable of top backs and the competition at offensive line will almost assuredly produce a solid group. The defense features a solid line, an All-American safety and a pair of Butkus Award candidates at linebacker. The Trojans return their punter and kicker and will have a host of options in the return game. This is one of the storied rivalries in all of college football. If the Irish have a successful season heading into this game, it will no doubt be hyped and past history has shown that strange things can happen.