Next Year is Here

As pundits ruminate over the tea leaves of last season, trying to divine what the future will hold, there is a corollary debate raging amongst Irish fans about what can be considered a successful 2008 season. The two schools bandied about in these arguments are Michigan and USC.

Many fans feel that these two rivals will be the benchmark of success in the era of Weis. These games are important, but, with the exclusion of bragging rights, the games themselves are still just wins or losses. Ohio State has owned Michigan for the last seven years, but most people would still consider the Wolverines an elite program. On the other hand Boston College has beaten Notre Dame, for all intents and purposes their rival, every time they've played since 1998 and, except for last year, few would consider them a perennial contender.

The real litmus test for Notre Dame is found within the schedule itself. At the outset of each year the schedule can be divided into three categories: will win, will lose, and will be interesting. The first category is made up of games that can be chalked up as all but guaranteed wins. The second category is the opposite of the first in that there is little to encourage anyone that the team will win. The last category is made up of games that are sure to be barnburners or where the outcome is hard to predict. The test of the team is not how many of each category the team has at the beginning of the season, but, looking back on at the end of the season, how they faired in each match as compared to the original expectation. A solid team should win all of their must win games, more than half of their interesting games, and stay in each of their will lose games until at least the fourth quarter. With this in mind each game of the coming season needs to be broken down into these three categories and then reassessed at the end of the season to see if Notre Dame is a solid program.

San Diego State

Every other team in Division I football has a tune-up game. The merits of these games are debatable, but it is hard to argue that the benefits don't outweigh the consequences (Appalachian State notwithstanding). San Diego State had a little bit of momentum last year with quarterback Kevin O'Connell (257/439, 3,063 yds), but still finished 4-8. The loss of O'Connell along with a defense that ended up at the bottom of the league last year should render SDSU harmless in the Fighting Irish's home opener.

Prediction: Will Win

Michigan

The Wolverines were victims of attrition due to players jumping to the NFL and a coaching change, but this game won't be a pushover by any means. After the defection of Ryan Mallett to Arkansas and new Head Coach Rich Rodriguez's failure to bring top prospect Terrell Pryor to Ann Arbor quarterbacking duties will most likely fall to Steven Threet. Threet transferred from Georgia Tech last fall, but is a drop back passer and ill-suited for Michigan's new spread offense. The losses of both Mario Manningham and Adrian Arrington at wide receiver should take the long ball out of Michigan's arsenal. This, along with Rodriguez's system, should force the likely candidate for running back, Brandon Minor (90/385, 4.3 ypc) to shoulder a heavy load. This could mean trouble for the Irish whose rush defense finished 96th in the league. Hopefully the advent of Linebacker Coach John Tenuta and his blitz happy sensibility coupled with a Michigan O-line without Jake Long and Justin Boren will bring a very bad day for Threet and Minor. This game will be a great test for an Irish defense that showed improvement last year but lacked a killer instinct; probably due to the fact that they were on the field more than the refs last year.

Michigan will be returning a solid and capable defensive line and a secondary that will not be pushed around. If the Wolverine offense can be forced into multiple three and out situations then their defense will suffer from enough fatigue to open the game up in the second half. This will be an opportunity for Clausen and friends to build confidence against a good defense while enjoying a cushion provided by the ND defense.

Prediction: Will Be Interesting…Irish Win.

Michigan State

Michigan State Head Coach Mark Dantonio likes to run the ball. State ended up 25th in rushing last year and this could be extraordinarily bad for the Irish if, again, they have not fixed the rush defense. If Brown and Tenuta can stop the run and force Dantonio to rely on quarterback Brian Hoyer's (223/376, 2725 yds) arm then this game should fall to the Irish. This is entirely possible as the Spartans are returning a decimated O-line that lost five starters as well as breaking in tight end Charlie Gantt as a starter. Notre Dame's linebacker corps will need to take advantage of this opportunity.

The Spartans' defensive line also lost three starters and their secondary should follow Michigan State's recent tradition of fielding a poor unit. The Notre Dame offense will need to step up and grind out some long drives to give the Irish defense a chance to recover. The Spartans lost running back Jehuu Caulcrick, but his replacement, Javon Ringer (245/1447, 5.9 ypc), is more than capable of giving the ND defense a hard time. This game will be more difficult than the Michigan game because State will not be suffering from a change in both its system and key personnel.

Prediction: Will Be Interesting…Spartans Win

Purdue

This is Head Coach Joe Tiller's last year and that will be not be a small factor in this game. Tiller's apoplectic paroxysms on the sideline during the 2005 ND/Purdue game will not be soon forgotten by either side and there is no doubt that Tiller would like to end the Weis/Tiller series on a more dignified note.

Last year's game showed the first signs of life from the Notre Dame offense and there is no reason why Clausen and friends should not be able to pass all over the Boilermakers' very similar secondary as long as the offensive line can stop the veteran defensive line. The Irish should have very little trouble getting to returning quarterback Curtis Painter (365/569, 3846 yds) as he tries to find someone to catch his passes. Purdue lost wide receiver Dorien Bryant who caught eight passes for a total of 82 yards and one touchdown in last year's game. Painter should be running for his life on most plays when the linebackers take advantage of the injury racked Purdue line. Running back Kory Sheets (168/859, 5.1 ypc) won't pose much of a problem either for the same reasons. If the Irish can punch the Boilermakers in the mouth early they will be able to swing the Tiller emotion in the wrong direction resulting in an Irish victory.

Prediction: Will Be Interesting…Irish Win

Stanford

Irish fans should send a big thank-you note to Stanford Head Coach Jim Harbaugh, who brought two moments of happiness in an otherwise bleak 2007. The first was beating rival USC taking the wind out of their sails. The other was giving up a two…oops…one touchdown win to the Irish to finish out the season. This season he has brought the gift of a fairly easy mid-season game. Harbaugh is in the middle of a quarterback controversy that seems likely to extend into the first few games. There are so many questions regarding the Stanford depth chart that the hardest thing to predict about this game is what Stanford will look like at kick-off. The Cardinal should be coming off of wins against San Jose State and Washington on their way to Notre Dame so their confidence level should be pretty high and there is always a chance of an upset like last year's USC game. Still, Jim Harbaugh has been too good to the Irish lately to change now.

Prediction: Will Win

North Carolina

The North Carolina game comes in the middle of the season and a week before the Washington game, which is sure to be a media distraction for all involved. There will be a danger that the Irish will be caught napping by a talented group of Tarheels. North Carolina is a pass oriented team that will help Notre Dame showcase the secondary. North Carolina quarterback T.J. Yates (218/365, 2,655 yds) is recovering from surgery on his throwing shoulder which may put a burden on running back Greg Little (59/300, 5.2 ypc). North Carolina has not developed their defense as well as they have their offense. The squad is mostly made up of sophomores and their new coordinator, Everett Withers, is reluctant to call out the blitz unless necessary. By this time in the season the Irish front line should be cohesive enough to give Clausen all day to throw and pick apart the young North Carolina secondary. As long as the Irish take this game seriously, and resist the temptation to look to the next week, the Tarheels won't present much of a problem.

Prediction: Will Win

Washington

Jake Locker (155/328, 2062 yds) has been deigned the second coming in Washington. Unfortunately for him it is the second coming of tremendous talent squandered by Tyrone Willingham. The cagey Locker will give the Irish defense plenty of trouble, but, with very little talent surrounding him (Center Juan Garcia may be out for the season with a foot injury), Brown and Tenuta will order up the right series of blitz packages to neutralize him.

Washington's defense ranked 89th in defense against the run and 104th in pass defense. This should give Notre Dame Offensive Coordinator Mike Haywood ample opportunity to tune-up the running or passing game as needed. Despite the media frenzy that will surround the game, and Willingham's penchant for winning a few big games here and there in spite of himself, Notre Dame should have no problem getting a win.

Prediction: Will Win

Pittsburg

Dave Wannstedt was lit up like a Christmas tree when he met Charlie Weis in 2005. Three years later he is in a much better position to meet the Irish even if it is in Notre Dame territory. LeSean McCoy is a very capable running back who ran for over 1300 yards last season. The Panthers also have a group of decent receivers returning many of the veterans that helped to upset West Virginia last year. If the Irish defensive line can't step up and pressure quarterback Bill Stull (14/20, 177 yds) this will prove to be a very difficult game.

Pittsburg will be returning all but two of the starters from last year's fifth ranked defense. If the Notre Dame offense is not firing on all cylinders (at this point in the season they should be) the Panthers could hold them to under ten points.

Prediction: Will Be Interesting…Panthers Win

Boston College

Even though Boston College had third overall draft pick Matt Ryan Notre Dame came with in two scores of winning last year's game. The game also included a phantom touchdown from Andre Callender and a Notre Dame touchdown called back on a questionable holding call. The Notre Dame squad from last year will be coming back largely intact and the BC squad will be returning sans Ryan and Callender who will be replaced by fifth-year senior quarterback Chris Crane (2/4, 28 yds) and freshman running back Josh Hayden.

The Eagles will be playing Notre Dame following a tough week against Clemson which is a turn from BC's usual scheduling of lighter or no fare the week before ND. A more experienced Irish team late in the season will take advantage and come out with the win fans have been expecting for a while.

Prediction: Will Win

Navy

The most difficult thing about this game will be pronouncing the names of Navy's players, but that doesn't mean the game will be easy. Navy shouldn't have any problems settling in with new Head Coach Ken Niumatalolo as he has been an assistant under departing coach Paul Johnson for the last six years. The Irish run defense will have to step up once again in order to shut down the option finesse of Navy quarterback Kaipo-Noa Kaheaku-Enhada (180/834, 4.6 ypc) and running back Shun White (78/620, 7.9 ypc). This will prove to be much easier than last year as only one starter is returning to Navy's frontline. The Navy defense returns a host of veteran's but these are the same veteran's that gave up 36 points per game last year.

Prediction: Will Win

Syracuse

Syracuse is just bad all over.

Prediction: Will Win

USC

USC is as good as Syracuse is bad. The Trojans will benefit from a platoon of veteran talent that will be looking at the Irish as a speed bump on their way to the National Title. It is very unlikely that the Irish will be at a level to compete with USC this year, but Jim Harbaugh managed to do it last year. If the Irish can catch the Trojans with stars in their eyes and if all the Notre Dame players can play to their full potential (and there is a lot of potential in this year's team) then an upset, however unlikely, is not out of the question.

Prediction: Will Lose

The breakdown leaves Notre Dame with seven will wins, one will lose, and four interesting games (two of which will go to the Irish). If the season shakes out as it does in the above scenario then fans can be reasonably pleased with the results. This is, of course, barring any blowouts or other debacles. The problem that may occur, and did during Weis's first two seasons, is that a 9-3 Notre Dame may be offered a BCS bowl based on their ability to bring in lots of money rather than their ability to play at that level. If so fans can expect another difficult loss in a warm climate come January. The loss to USC coming at the end of the year may discourage this and, if so, the Irish will land in a Gator Bowl equivalent where they will have an excellent shot at a bowl win.


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