Springboard Season

The 1987 season was a turning-point campaign for the Irish football program.

Can 2008 be the same thing?

With two BCS appearances in the last three years, the Irish haven't been mired in mediocrity the last few seasons like the ND teams from the mid-1980s were. But they're definitely in need of a turnaround after a 2007 season that was one of the worst in the school's storied gridiron history.

First-year head coach Lou Holtz began making changes to the Irish program in 1986. Notre Dame was competitive again. A year later, the 1987 season spring boarded Notre Dame back into the national spotlight and the National Championship hunt for the seasons down the road. Tim Brown won the Heisman Trophy, and the Irish finished 8-4, and more importantly began to turn the corner that led to that special 1988 season.

For this year's Irish group, recruiting has begun to stock the cupboard full of talent, and Notre Dame is again ripe to spring board their way back into the National Title picture next year, and every single season after that.

The Irish are young this fall, but a lot of those pups, as defensive line coach Jappy Oliver likes to call freshmen and sophomores, have experience. The schedule is lighter than normal, and Notre Dame is going to have a chance to win every game on its schedule that's not played at USC.

A quick look to next year shows Notre Dame returning eight starters on offense, seven on defense if you count Darrin Walls, and every major special teams specialist. That doesn't count 10-12 other non-starters that are certainly going to play a lot and gain experience this season.

That's why this year's 9-3 Gator Bowl finish is going to be the season Irish fans point to as the one that got Notre Dame over the hump. I think the Irish are two years away from winning the whole shebang, but to think title next year is not foolish.

I cannot predict what's going to happen in Notre Dame's bowl game, as I don't know who they'll be playing. But I can definitely make a call on a lot of other things relevant to the 2007 season.

I'll start with a quick rundown of the schedule.

San Diego State.: The game that gets the snowball rolling in the right direction.

Last fall, a young and inexperienced team opened up with Georgia Tech and got hammered. The Irish never fully recovered. This season, a tune-up win over a San Diego St. team that is quite frankly, not very good, will get some positive momentum churning into the Michigan game the following week.

Michigan: I fully believe Rich Rodriguez was a great hire for the Wolverines. There just isn't much he can do this year, as the offense lost virtually all its fire power from the year before.

I like Notre Dame in this game. Michigan's defense will be pretty good, but the Irish will win a tight one in the fourth quarter.

At Michigan State: This will be the last time Notre Dame loses to the Spartans in awhile. Michigan State should beat the Irish and Wolverines both this fall.

Purdue: Notre Dame will bounce back from the loss at East Lansing with a victory over Curtis Painter and the Boilermakers. Purdue's defense is going to be horrible, and Robert Hughes and company should have themselves an afternoon.

Stanford: This will certainly be a tough contest, as the Cardinal are definitely improved from last season. But so are the Irish. Notre Dame and Weis top Jim Harbaugh again.

At North Carolina: I hate this game. There is something about Butch Davis and playing in Chapel Hill, that has me picking the Tar Heels over the Irish.

At Washington: Coming off the bye week, Notre Dame will rout a Huskies team in a game that will be portrayed nationally, as bigger than it really is. Tyrone Willingham was let go from his job in South Bend for a number of reasons. Charlie Weis will be the head coach at Notre Dame for a long time for a number of reasons.

Pittsburgh: Notre Dame would've lost this game last year. The Panthers will have a fast defense, and an offense led by LeSean McCoy who might be the best running back in the country. The Irish would've been screwed at both turns, but this fall they'll be ready to contain McCoy and put up enough points against that Pitt defense.

At Boston College: This isn't the same Boston College team as last year. For one day, all the tough losses the Irish have been handed by the Eagles over recent years, will be forgotten.

Versus Navy: A new streak begins after Navy finally found a way to beat Notre Dame last year to end the nation's longest losing-streak against one team. The Irish will be too much physically for the Middies, who took a huge hit when head coach Paul Johnson left for Georgia Tech.

Syracuse: Senior day at Notre Dame should be a good one, as Irish fans say good bye to guys like David Bruton, Maurice Crum, Pat Kuntz and Michael Turkovich.

at USC: I asked Pete Carroll last year if he saw Notre Dame's tough season coming. In a nutshell, he said yes because of all the graduation the Irish had from their 2006 BCS team. Ask Pete Carroll if he thinks the Notre Dame game will be tough in seasons to come, and I think he'll say yes, as it's obvious to everyone in the know, that the Irish are getting better by the recruiting class.

With that being said, USC will be way too much for Notre Dame to handle in this one.

Regular-Season Record: 9-3

ND's Defensive MVP: Brian Smith. I could've went with David Bruton here, but Smith is going to have a big year from his new middle-linebacker spot.

ND's Offensive MVP: Robert Hughes. I could've went with Jimmy Clausen, but I think the offense is going to commit to the run all year, and Hughes will post some gaudy numbers. Games against San Diego St., Purdue, Navy and Syracuse should pad the sophomore's stats.

ND's Surprise Player: Harrison Smith. He's a freakish athlete the coaching staff had to find a place for on the field.

ND's 2009 Recruiting Class Rank: This will be a top-10 class. I don't think the Irish completely strike out on Jelani Jenkins, Xavier Nixon, Frankie Telfort, Manti Te'o, Chris Bonds, Shaquelle Evans or Anthony LaLota. At least one or two of those players will join the fold.

Heisman Trophy Winner: Tim Tebow.

National Champions: USC

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