Proponents of the Irish will point out that Charlie Weis took them to two straight BCS bowls in his first two seasons while others will point out that he did that with Tyrone Willingham's recruits and last year showed Weis's true colors with a 3-9 season. Frankly, I think both sides are flawed, however I'm not here to write about Willingham as a recruiter, Weis a developer or past records. I'm here to talk about this season.
My first though about this years Notre Dame Squad is that we simply don't know what they are. There are usually things you can point to with any team. Ohio State is always going to have a great defense. Oklahoma will forever be loaded with talented defensive linemen. Miami is going to have quality defensive backs. This list goes on and on. With Notre Dame, the team is so young that there isn't one area you can point to and be completely confident, but at the same time, you can't sit there and objectively say that it is a weakness either because as I stated before, we simply don't know what this team is.
The country knows that Charlie Weis has recruited an awesome amount of talent during his tenure. Everyone also knows that the talent he has recruited is still young and will need to develop. There are many that think this is Notre Dame's year and they'll be a BCS contender. I'm not one of those people. There are many that think another 3-9 season is on the way. I'm also not one of those. I think the Irish are still a season off of being up at the top again and this year will either prove or help to disprove that theory.
My biggest question mark is the offensive line of Notre Dame. Many will automatically point to individual talent, however chemistry amongst those linemen can be even more important. A solid offensive line is the sum of its parts. If Chris Steward does beat out Mike Turkovich for the starting guard position the Irish offensive line comes in averaging 316 pounds per body. While James Aldridge may be the starter by name, Robert Hughes is easily the most talented running back on the team in my opinion. With his power and Armando Allen's change of pace, the Irish should be able to pound the ball. Again, the key is should.
If Jimmy Clausen is protected and has figured out he's allowed to throw the ball away at the college level rather than simply running out of bounds or taking a sack, that could give them a dangerous passing game. Duval Kamara was the most impressive freshman wide receiver I've seen in South Bend in a long time. Word is that Michael Floyd has been absolutely dominant in workouts. David Grimes gives them a solid slot receiver and Golden Tate could become the deep threat homerun hitter that Notre Dame has been missing.
Losing Darrin Walls is a big blow to the defense, but something tells me the combination of Corwin Brown and Jon Tenuta is going to be a nasty one over the next few years.
So, let's take a walk through the schedule.
San Diego State
This should be a win and if it isn't, I retract my 3-9 not being a possibility statement. I don't expect the Irish to blow the Aztecs out like many do, but a solid offensive performance as a warm-up for the Wolverines would give this offense loads of confidence. This is a very, very important game in my opinion. You want to see a crisp passing attack and sound play from the offense. A tight game against SDSU would not be a good sign.
I think the Irish will also be able to pull out a win at home against Michigan, starting them off at 2-0 for the season. One fear that I do have is that Rich Rodriguez always did a lot with a little at West Virginia, but I still see ND pulling this one out.
at Michigan State
The Spartans lost their top receiver to the NFL Draft, but return a senior quarterback and an experience offensive line. This has always been a tough game in recent years and I see it being no different this season. Coming off of two straight wins the Irish could win this, but I see it as a loss right now as Brian Hoyer should pick them apart.
Again, another team led by a senior quarterback and is very experienced on the offensive side of the ball. Can Notre Dame keep up with them on the scoreboard? They could, but I just don't see it happening.
Many overlook this as a definite win for the Irish, but don't forget that Stanford knocked off both Oregon and USC at the Coliseum last season. Notre Dame squeaked by with a seven point victory however. I mark this up as a win, however I get the feeling it won't be nearly as easy as I'm reading from the Notre Dame faithful.
at North Carolina
This is a UNC team that lost to Virginia, ECU, Virginia Tech, South Carolina, North Carolina State and Georgia Tech last year by a combined 21 points. A loss is a loss, but those are some tight games. Of course, Duke took them to overtime as well, so you really don't know what to expect. North Carolina is well coached and has some young talent on their team that can make plays. I see this as a toss up game that could go either way.
Get ready to pile on here. I know Charlie Weis will have two weeks to prepare for this game. I've seen Tyrone Willingham coach and have never been impressed in the slightest. I also know that Jake Locker is a very talented quarterback that can beat you with his feet or his arm and that Notre Dame will be going into a night game in Washington. This is another tough match-up that I think could go either way.
Pittsburgh lost two big players from their offensive line in Jeff Otah and Mike McGlynn which doesn't bode well for a team that likes to pound the rock so much with their tremendous running back LeSean McCoy. The Panthers do look tough on defense, but I like Notre Dame's chances here.
at Boston College
At first this game comes up as an automatic loss to me as BC always plays Notre Dame tough, but they lost Matt Ryan, Gosder Cherilus, Andre Callender, Jamie Silva, DeJuan Tribble and Jolonn Dunbar, among others in the offseason. By no means is the cupboard bare, however this game gets interesting. Players like Brian Toal and Ryan Purvis aren't what scares me, it's that BC knows how to beat Notre Dame and has done it consistently at home. Another toss-up here.
It's not happening again. Notre Dame wins this one.
Frankly, typing this sentence isn't needed, but another win.
at Southern Cal
There is just too much talent to see this going any other way than a USC victory. Green jerseys, blue jerseys, polka dot, it really doesn't matter. I think the Irish get whopped here.
I originally had the Irish tabbed at an even 6-6, but I'm giving them the benefit of the doubt and going with 7-5 this year. I think the best case scenario is 9-3. I have read a lot of Notre Dame fans saying that the Irish need a nine-win season for recruiting. I heavily disagree. Notre Dame needs to get themselves into a bowl game and win it. In my two-plus years working for Scout.com I don't think I've ever heard a recruit mention an undefeated season or a team's record…they talk about bowl games and national championships. That is what sticks out in their minds. They don't sit down like you and I do and watch games every weekend. They watch the highlights at night and bowl games. That is their impression. I hate to go here, but see the impact the beating ND took from LSU two years ago late in recruiting. Again, bowl games.
Keys to Success:
It all starts at the point of attack on both sides of the ball, but the offensive line play far outweighs the defensive line play for me. Jimmy Clausen started to develop some bad habits last year because of the shoddy play on the offensive line. People point to star rankings with these guys, but chemistry is what I would worry about more. If Notre Dame can protect Clausen and give Robert Hughes and the rest of the running backs holes the talent is there to put up some big scores.
The defense needs to help the offense win games by creating turnovers. Many members of the media point out Tyrone Willingham and his first season at Notre Dame when he was so successful. What they fail to point out is that the defense run by Kent Baer carried that team to the success they had. Baer had Vontez Duff and a converted soccer player at cornerback, Jon Tenuta and Corwin Brown will have much more talent in the secondary.
Some players need to make big impacts. Jimmy Clausen needs to live up to the hype this season. Duval Kamara needs to be the dominant receiver he has the potential to be. Michael Floyd needs to get on the field this season. David Bruton looks like he could be the best safety Notre Dame has had in a long time. He needs to go out there this season and continue to be a ball hawk. I'm not worried about a pass rush with Tenuta on the staff.
Finally, the special teams units need to be more consistent, specifically the kickers. It has been painful watching the kicking game since D.J. Fitzpatrick. One of these young players needs to take hold of the starting kicker position and give Weis the confidence that he can kick a 40-yard field goal. Last season he didn't look confident they could make a 25-yarder at times.
This is a team that I believe will contend for a national title in 2009 and 2010 and this season should show if those expectations are realistic or not.