What's the point? Well, the point simply is to make clear that predictions are a lot of fun to make, debate, and share. But they don't amount to all that much once the season starts, the pads get put on, and we all see just how right or wrong we were. Having said that I will attempt to go through the Notre Dame season and predict how I feel the Irish will do this fall. I will follow it up with seven keys to the season, as I see it that will make or break the season. The Irish have the talent to beat every team on their schedule. That includes USC if the Irish are able to play a perfect game and force some turnovers. But that is asking a lot and I don't see it happening. The Irish should pound teams like San Diego State, Syracuse, and Navy. But when dealing with a young team nothing is a given. The keys I will discuss are what I feel will determine if they accomplish what I feel they can, or whether they struggle to meet the expectations of what they are capable of. So what to make of the 2008 season and the chances for the Irish?
Here's my best guess.
SAN DIEGO STATE
I honestly believe we'll have a good idea just how good Notre Dame will be this season by the end of this game. Any doubts will be put to rest, or stirred up even stronger by the end of the Michigan game. But the SDSU game will be a good barometer of where the Irish are right now. Let's be honest here, SDSU is an inferior program to the Irish. The running game should really flourish in this game. Defensively I'd love to see the front seven put some pressure on the quarterback. If they can do that they'll force turnovers. I see Notre Dame rushing for a ton of yardage, Clausen hitting a few bombs, and the defense flying all over the field and rattling the SDSU offensive players.
PREDICTION: WIN (Convincingly)
Those who expect to see the same Michigan team in South Bend on September 13th that we saw in Ann Arbor on August 30th will be sorely mistaken. I've read some comparisons of the 2008 Wolverine to the 2007 Irish. The Wolverines have one thing going for them that Notre Dame did not. Schedule. Michigan gets to take some frustration out on the Red Hawks of Miami this Saturday and I expect to see the Wolverine offense begin to find some rhythm. There is enough talent at running back and wide receiver that the Wolverines will still be dangerous despite their poor QB play and young offensive line. The key is for the Irish defense to play sound, disciplined football. If the Notre Dame defenders play fast, stay home, and wrap up I believe Michigan will struggle to score. If they don't Michigan will rip off a couple of big plays and score some points. Offensively it is imperative the Irish wide receivers and tight ends make plays. Michigan is going to load the box and force Notre Dame to throw the football. When they do that the Irish need to make them pay. If they can consistently get open, catch the ball, and hit a couple of big plays that will loosen up the Wolverine defense and allow Notre Dame to run on Michigan.
PREDICTION: WIN (It will be closer than people think for most of the game)
AT MICHIGAN STATE
The Spartans will be Notre Dame's toughest test this fall outside of Southern Cal. This team plays hard and Dantonio is a good football coach. Winning this game will be an upset for the Irish. But this is a game they can win. Michigan State can be ran on. The key for the Irish offense will be whether or not they can get the ball downfield and take some of the pressure off the run game. If the defense can force MSU to throw the Irish will have a chance. He has a strong arm and with time can hurt Notre Dame. But if they pressure him he will make mistakes. Special teams and turnovers will ultimately determine the winner.
PREDICTION: LOSS (Very, very close game that goes down to the wire. An ND win will not surprise me at all)
The Boilermakers didn't impress me in beating Notre Dame last fall. Curtis Painter has a lot of physical talent, but has yet to show that he can put a team on his back and carry them to victory. I believe he'll have a big senior season, but the Notre Dame game will be one of his down moments. The Irish defenders are going to put a lot of pressure on Painter. If Notre Dame can neutralize the Boilermaker run game they will win and win big. The Irish offense should be able to run, pass, screen, reverse, or any other play they decide to run. Purdue will score some points but in the end I think this one gets ugly.
PREDICTION: WIN (ND wins going away)
I was impressed with Stanford last Thursday. They play hard (borderline dirty?), they play physical, and they can really run the football. But I also saw a team who has some serious weaknesses. Tavita Pritchard isn't going to win many games with his arm. Notre Dame should be able to get an extra player in the box to try to slow down the Stanford offense. Stanford will score some points. But I believe Notre Dame will score even more. If Oregon State had a quarterback who could consistently complete passes downfield and not turn over the football they would have beaten Stanford, and beaten them going away. Notre Dame will get a much better push up front against Stanford than did the Beavers. The Irish should be able to throw all over the Cardinal, as well as run the football. If the Irish run well early the play-action pass will create at least one big play touchdown.
AT NORTH CAROLINA
This game scares me. North Carolina has talent, so please don't be mislead by their nail-biting victory over McNeese State. That game against McNeese State is exactly why the Tar Heels scare me. For one they have talent, as we saw with the show Brandon Tate and Hakeem Nicks put on. The Irish lines need to play well in order for them to win. North Carolina will try to run the football against Notre Dame. The Irish have to slow them down. If North Carolina decides to throw the football they have the talent to pressure the Irish secondary. The key for the Notre Dame defense will be the kind of pressure the Irish can put on T.J. Yates. Offensively the Irish need to really pound the run game to control the clock and keep the UNC offense off the field. To me the first quarter is the key to the game for Notre Dame. If they can jump on UNC early I see them winning a tough game. If North Carolina jumps out on Notre Dame, or at least goes toe-to-toe early with the Irish they will stay in this game and can absolutely win this game.
PREDICTION: LOSS (I will not be shocked at all if Notre Dame beats UNC going away, but this will be the biggest game of the year for the Tar Heels and a tough place for ND to play)
Beating Washington is easy, but also can be tough. The plan is easy, stop Jake Locker. The tough part is actually stopping Jake Locker. If Notre Dame contains Locker they should win an easy one. If Locker goes off he is good enough to carry the Huskies to a win. Offensively the Irish need to just not turn the ball over. That's the one thing they can do that will allow Washington to stay in the game. I expect to see Notre Dame pound them early and often which will set up some big plays off the play-action pass.
Pittsburgh scares me. Yes, even after seeing them lose to Bowling Green they still scare me. Pittsburgh is not a good matchup for the Notre Dame defense. They are a big team up front, a physical team, and LeSean McCoy is a talented football player. If Pittsburgh can establish the run game it will be a tight game. If they don't than Notre Dame should win in a rout. It's that easy. Pittsburgh beat themselves on Saturday more than the Falcons actually beat them. I have a feeling special teams will play a huge role in this game. Stop LeSean McCoy = Win.
AT BOSTON COLLEGE
Boston College didn't impress me last fall in beating Notre Dame 27-14. Their line will be good and that is where they will win or lose games. Defensively the Eagles are going to be very, very good. The Irish offense will be able to do some things but won't work over this defense. Boston College has the talent to slow down the Irish rush offense. That puts the game on the shoulders of Jimmy Clausen and the young receiving corp. If they make plays the Irish can win, if they don't the Irish will struggle to win. If the defense can force some turnovers in Irish territory, and the special teams can win the field position battle the Irish will have a chance to win this game.
PREDICTION: WIN (The BC defense will be darn good and playing on the road will be tough. BC will be battle tested by this point in the season)
After losing to the Midshipmen last fall I believe the Irish players will be geared up big time for this game. Gone is the feeling that Navy is an automatic win. Present are the days where Navy must be taken seriously. I'm not implying that the Irish coaches or players didn't take Navy seriously in their preparation. But let's be honest here, did anyone really believe that Navy could beat Notre Dame? I sure didn't. After last fall Navy is going to get beat soundly for a few years by the Irish and it starts this fall. I believe the Irish offense will score at will against the under-manned Navy defense. Even if Navy is able to score some points (as they did last fall) I don't see them keeping up with the Notre Dame offense.
This is probably the worst team on the Irish schedule. Even on a bad day I don't think Syracuse can beat Notre Dame.
AT SOUTHERN CAL
I believe the 2007 game will give them confidence. This is due in large part to the fact that the young players on offense who finished that game got physical with the Trojans and moved the ball very well. I also believe that by this point in the season the Irish offense should be working on all cylinders. They should be able to score some points against Southern Cal. Notre Dame has a chance to be the most balanced team USC faces all season. Yes, that includes Ohio State. The key is whether or not that talent has emerged throughout the season. If it has they will battle USC. But in the end the Trojans will pull away. They are just too talented on defense, have too many weapons on offense, and are too deep for the young Irish to beat on the road. The Irish have two hopes for victory outside of the offense being able to go toe-to-toe with the Trojans. If they can rip off some big plays on special teams (returns and a blocked punt) and pressure Mark Sanchez they'll have a chance.
OVERALL RECORD: 9-3
The margin of error for the Irish is small this season. If they struggle out of the gate they can lose to Michigan. If they don't play well on the road they could lose to Washington and Boston College. They aren't that far away from being a 10-2 or even 11-1 football team. But they are just as close to being a 7-5 or 6-6 football team. What will determine if they are as good as I think, better than I think, or worse than I think.
1. PLAY WITH AN ATTITUDE – Coach Weis may not want to talk about 2007, he may not even be talking about the 2007 season. But it is without a doubt on the minds of the coaches and players. That's not necessarily a bad thing. They have a lot to prove to the nation, their fans, and most importantly to themselves. I truly believe this football believes they are better than people think. Playing with a chip on their shoulder should help them prove that to everyone.
2. RUN THE FOOTBALL – The Irish need to set the tone early in the season. Come out against SDSU, Michigan, Michigan State, and Purdue and just pound teams. That doesn't mean the Irish won't be able to throw the football for a ton of yards. What I'm referring to here is coming out, establishing a solid run game, and smacking teams in the mouth. I really hope the first play of the game is a downhill run play. I want to see the linemen come off hard, pound the Aztecs, and have whatever back is in the game rip off a nice gain.
3. PLAY FAST AND SOUND ON DEFENSE – The Irish aren't big on defense. They aren't big enough or good enough to get physical on defense they way they can on offense. But they have enough speed and talent on defense that should allow them to use that to their advantage. Teams will be able to run on Notre Dame. But if they play fast and play sound football they will be able to slow opponents run game down a bit, make plays in the pass game, and force enough mistakes to give their offense chances to score points.
4. GET THE YOUNG GUYS GOING – I don't think any freshmen not named Kyle Rudolph will lead his position in any statistical category. But if the Irish want to win they need serious contributions from their freshmen class. Rudolph will be a key for this offense now that Mike Ragone is out for the year. Ready or not the Irish offense is better if he is productive. Same goes for Michael Floyd at wide receiver. Ethan Johnson is the most talented kid the Irish have up front. If he is productive this fall it makes the Irish defensive front that much better. The same goes for Darius Fleming and Steven Filer. Robert Blanton is pushing for time not because of a lack of depth but because of his play. A player like him pushing vets makes everyone better. We need to see that across the board.
5. BRING BACK THE PASS – Notre Dame should be able to run the football well this fall. But whether or not this offense becomes a dominant one again will be determined by the pass offense. The Irish need to be more efficient in the pass game and create bigger plays in the pass game. If they don't teams will be able to load the box and slow down the run. Jimmy Clausen needs to make smart decisions and make them quicker than he did last fall. I believe he will. The offensive line needs to protect him. The receivers need to get open and catch the football. The coaches need to design schemes that give the players chances to make plays. Efficient pass offense = wins.
6. GET AFTER THE QUARTERBACK – Jon Tenuta was brought in with the reputation of having a great blitz package. At times his defenses have just been torture for opposing offense. But there have been times where his defenses were unsound in their pressures and teams were able to gash them. Hopefully a balance between Tenuta and coordinator Corwin Brown will give birth to a defensive pressure package that makes life hard for opposing quarterbacks but is sound enough to prevent a bunch of big plays. They will happen, but limiting them makes life easier. Sacks and forced turnovers, which come from pressure, makes this defense better but also gives the offense a chance to score a lot more points.
7. SPECIAL TEAMS – This is last for a reason. It's the whole "last but not least" concept. If you made me pick one area that is the key to the season this would be it. The Irish special teams has been spotty at best in Coach Weis' tenure. At times it was dangerous, as we saw with Tom Zbikowski returning punts and David Bruton being all over the place. But inconsistency in coverage, inconsistency with the kicking, and a non-existent kick return game have made the special teams an area of weakness as a whole. There is too much talent in the return game not to be dangerous, and I fully expect the speedsters (Armando Allen, Golden Tate, etc) to break some long returns this fall. But I also want to see a more aggressive punt block team. I want to see a consistent coverage unit(s). I don't expect Brandon Walker to be money from 50+ but at least be money from 35 in. I don't care if Eric Maust leads the nation in punting. But I do want to see him be consistent and get the ball deep inside the 20. If the special teams are good it makes everyone else's job so much easier.