Disaster Years

Plenty has been written about last year's woeful 3-9 year for ND. Taking a cue from Irish Head Coach Charlie Weis, it's time to move on and thus I don't intend to dwell much on last year, except to examine to what extent it might give clues about 2008.

While Notre Dame is at a relative low point historically, coming into 2007 the Irish had been averaging exactly 8 wins per year over the previous 5 years. Even for an historically powerful program like ND, it is not unheard-of for a 3 or 4 win season to appear suddenly and painfully.

Over the last 30 years, historically strong programs including Alabama, Auburn, Colorado, LSU, Oklahoma, Penn State, USC, Texas, Texas A&M, Virginia Tech and West Virginia have endured at least one (and often more) seasons with 4 or fewer wins and rebounded to play winning football. There is no guarantee that it will happen immediately however, and in some cases it has required a coaching change. But there are some good reasons to think that ND's rebound will be relatively quick and won't require a coaching change.

Common themes in the disaster years are hard schedules, young teams and especially youth, inexperience and turmoil (in some combination) at the QB position. Consider, for instance, Holtz's 6-5-1 year in 1994. He had a new QB in redshirt freshman Ron Powlus and lost almost all of the offensive line that paved the way for a near national championship in 1993.

Notre Dame certainly had those factors working against it last year. First, the schedule was hard. The Irish opened with 10 straight bowl opponents. ND actually beat all the teams on its schedule that finished with losing records: UCLA (6-7), Stanford (4-8) and Duke (1-11). Unfortunately, there were only 3 such teams on the schedule. This year, however, ND faces 6 teams who finished last year with losing records and several of the 6 who finished at or over .500 are in transitional years, including at the QB spot.

Last year's ND team was extremely young overall, but especially so at the QB spot. Replacing four-year starter Brady Quinn at the QB spot turned out to be Mission Impossible last year. Any team that starts the season with a redshirt freshman at QB, finishes with a true freshman at QB and gives starts to three different quarterbacks is likely to struggle. This year, however, Jimmy Clausen is the established starter at QB and Evan Sharpley is an experienced and capable back-up. Moreover, as Coach Weis noted in his opening press conference, 19 of the 24 players (including specialists) who started the last 2 games of last year will be back in action.

It's easy to forget that ND has enjoyed significant bounce-back years in the recent past with similar conditions. In 2001, Bob Davie's last year, the Irish got off to a start that was nearly as horrifying as last year's, going 0-3 and not having mounted a touchdown drive of longer than 6 yards. They were forced to open on the road at Nebraska, a team that would spend a good deal of the season ranked #1. That team also had QB turmoil with Matt Lovecchio opening the year but then Carlyle Holiday finishing it. The team did show some signs of life down the stretch winning its last game and actually going 5-3 over the last eight games.

That boded well for 2002 as most of the key players were back for new coach Tyrone Willingham and Lovecchio's transfer made Holiday the unquestioned starter at QB. ND opened 8-0 and finished 10-3.

In 2004, Willingham's last, the Irish again faced a hard schedule. Though they didn't have turmoil at the QB spot, they lost several key performers, including record-setting running back Julius Jones. Again, at times, the Irish showed signs of life, including beating Michigan and beating Tennessee on the road. Still the 6-6 record was such a disappointment (as was the recruiting trajectory) that Willingham's contract was bought out.

2005 was a perfect bounce-back year. First, Quinn was the established and experienced starter and most of the key players were back, including leading rusher Darius Walker, the top receivers and most of the offensive line. Second, the schedule was relatively easy by ND standards. Howell's database rated ND's schedule under .670, one of the few times that ND's schedule had been rated that easy in the last 30 years. Notre Dame came out blazing crushing ranked Pittsburgh on the road in the opener and then stunning then-#3 Michigan on the road the next week. ND finished the regular season 9-2 and nearly upset top ranked USC along the way, and finished ranked in the AP Top 10 for the first time since Holtz's day.

One potentially encouraging analogy for ND is the rebound of Colorado in 2001. Coming into 2000, Colorado had been averaging 8 wins per year and head coach Gary Barnett had led the Buffs to a decent 7-5 1999 campaign, including a 62-28 thrashing of Boston College in the Insight Bowl. Moreover, most of CU's losses in 1999 had been close. They lost a heartbreaker 33-30 in overtime to a strong Nebraska team, a game that Colorado could have won with a 35-yard field goal at the end of regulation. They also lost to a very good Washington team 31-24 and nearly upset Kansas State on the road. As 7-5 teams went, the 1999 edition of CU was as good as it got.

In 2000, the wheels came flying off. Colorado played three different quarterbacks. The Buffs (like ND of last year) didn't get their first win until October, a stunning upset on the road (in Colorado's case Texas A&M in ND's case UCLA). Still it wasn't enough to right the ship and Colorado went into Lincoln at 3-7 to end the Buffs' painful season. Like the Irish of last year at the end, though, the Buffs would not quit. Against the highly ranked and heavily favored Huskers, Colorado was down 31-24 with less than a minute to go and punched it into the endzone to make it 31-30. Barnett gambled and went for 2 and Colorado converted to take the lead 32-31. Nebraska got the ball back with well under a minute to go, but future Heisman winner Crouch completed a long pass on the sidelines to get NU into position for a field goal allowing NU to win 34-32. The sideline cameras caught one Colorado lineman sobbing his eyes out as the clock hit zero on Colorado's 3-8 season. It was that kind of season for the Buffs.

But it was not that kind of season the next year. With part-time 2000 starter Bobby Pesavento playing most of the games at QB, CU entered its final regular season game in 2001 at 8-2. The opponent again was Nebraska and this year there would be no miracles to save the Huskers and their #1 ranking. Colorado dominated every phase of the game winning 62-36 and then went to the Big 12 championship game where a 39-37 win against Texas avenged CU's only conference loss. Many thought that Colorado should have gotten the nod to play Miami in the national championship game, but that berth went to Nebraska, which was badly overmatched by the Hurricanes and trailed 34-0 at halftime en route to an embarrassing 37-14 loss.

Many of these factors that have helped teams to have bounce-back years appear to be lined up. Howell's preseason schedule strength rating for ND is .606, which would make it the easiest schedule since Bob Davie went 9-3 against a relatively unimpressive slate in 1998. The QB position is set and the experience level is much higher. And ND did show signs of life late last year, winning the last two contests.

There are no guarantees in this business but plenty of reasons to pay attention to the 2008 edition of the Irish.

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