– Clubber Lang, Rocky III
In 2007 I expected to see a young Irish team struggle to win, but not to compete. A team that would be enjoyable to watch every week; be outmatched in a couple; rise to the occasion for at least one major surprise; and approach bowl eligibility (not a difficult task in this era) but maybe fall just short.
Basically I expected a replica of the 1986 team, Lou Holtz's first squad that made Irish fans proud to root for a group that played sound, confident football, but one that ultimately wasn't good enough to win more than they'd lose.
I was, uh, wrong…
Last season, I hoped for the same. Aside from the sound, confident and proud part, I was spot on. (Actually I predicted 8-4 last season, which is technically pretty far off from 6-6).
This year, I'm saving a detailed weekly prediction for Friday morning before each of the team's 12 games. (There is no educated score prediction plausible for Stanford and ND on Thanksgiving Saturday before a single game is played.)
But a season prediction is in order and I've been thinking about it for months, vacillating between two sets of numbers, finally settling on (the more optimistic of the two) in early August. And I've decided to stick with it.
First, a quick look at five sets of opponents that can be broken down as such: Unconscionable Defeats; Special Situation(s); Must-Wins; Rising to the Occasion; and Relative Peers.
The Irish have suffered three over the last two seasons: 2007 vs. Navy and Air Force (the latter due to the systematic manner with which the Falcons disposed of the Irish) and Syracuse last season. Incidentally, each took place in South Bend.
- Washington (South Bend – October 3): The Huskies have lost 14 consecutive games and that streak could reach 17 in terms of FBS opponents (Washington should win when it welcomes Idaho in Week Two) by the time they travel to South Bend. Whether the Huskies are 2-2 or 1-3 on October 3 is irrelevant. The fact that they have a new head coach (former USC Offensive Coordinator Steve Sarkisian) and a puncher's chance with the return of multi-talented QB Jake Locker should also be a non-factor. Neither of the two should be enough for an offense that finished 118th in scoring and a defense that ended the season 116th in points allowed in ‘08 (though both Sarkisian and Locker should help greatly improve the former).
- Washington State (in San Antonio – October 31): The 2-11 Cougars yielded 43.8 points per game last season (118th in the nation) including an impossible 252-points allowed in a four-game span vs. Oregon State, USC (69-0), Stanford (58-0) and Arizona. Wazzu's two victories came vs. winless Washington (16-13) and earlier in the season vs. FCS opponent Portland State. 15 starters return for 2009.
- Navy (South Bend – November 7): Obvious disparity in talent-level notwithstanding, the University of Notre Dame simply can't lose twice in the span of three seasons to Navy, at least until Roger Staubach's grandson takes the field for the Midshipmen. Consecutive home losses to Navy, even in a vacuum (interspersed with an otherwise successful season) would likely not be tolerated.
- Connecticut (South Bend – November 21). The Huskies will coincidentally hit South Bend on the same weekend that their Big East brethren Syracuse rolled through town in 2008. The difference? Connecticut will have likely beaten more than one FBS team through ten games when it steps onto the concrete at Michiana Regional Airport.
The Huskies should be a bit down from last year's 8-5 squad that beat Buffalo in the International Bowl (yes, I had to look that up). But they're a .500 level team as we enter '09 and draw the Irish on a Senior Day Saturday sandwiched between two solid opponents (on the road) in Pittsburgh and Stanford.
The Irish have certainly dropped decisions to worse outfits over the last two seasons, but a home loss here (coupled with more against better teams along the way, of course) would be ridiculous and grounds for the end of an era in South Bend.
An analysis of developed talent; the direction of both programs; and ancillary issues such as off-season turmoil indicates that Notre Dame should handle Michigan head-to-head for at least one more season. The Wolverines will improve upon last season's 3-9 mark but the bulk of that improvement shouldn't be evident in Week Two.
While I think the Irish will prevail in Ann Arbor I don't believe the contest will be the cakewalk that most ND fans have forecast. In fact, I agree with the experts regarding this early-season test. And by experts, I don't mean the media – rather the people that take the money of hardworking folks such as our subscribers.
The Irish are favored by a mere three points – one field goal.
Easy money? Or maybe that's why Vegas has big buildings...
A second Special Situation game represents a closer contest on paper, but one in which the Irish hold a significant edge in terms of skill position talent and, more importantly, appeared to have finally narrowed the gap between the teams' comparative trenches.
Boston College has beaten the Irish six straight. At this time last year the Golden Eagles were purportedly reeling from the loss of 18 fifth year seniors as well as quarterback and 1st Round Draft Pick Matt Ryan. The new starters, led by the team's defensive interior and per-usual sound defense, played its way to a 9-5 mark and a shutout victory over the Irish.
This season BC is replacing its head coach, nine starters, a first- and second-round draft pick from its aforementioned dominant interior defense, and its best defensive player, LB Mark Herzlich, who has just begun the long road back after cancer treatment (Herzlich's goal is to play again in 2010).
This is not a game Notre Dame should lose. Now ask yourself how many times you've uttered/typed/thought those same nine words regarding a game with Boston College over the last 16 years?
The Irish, like most teams with BCS aspirations, encounter a must-win situation in their home opener vs. Nevada. The 2009 Wolf Pack is a better football team than any the Irish defeated last season (and it might not be close). They have an offensive identity; a Hall of Fame coach; three 1,000-yard rushers on the roster; an NFL pass-rushing prospect at defensive end; and a quarterback that posted 3,979 rushing and receiving yards last season (as well as 39 total touchdowns).
Nevada is a solid, season-opening opponent, even dangerous offensively – but one that the Irish, given their talent level, depth of developed talent, and experience should beat. It's also a team the Irish must beat given the current situation of the program after 15 losses in its last 25 games.
A second must-win game occurs on September 26 when the Irish travel to Ross-Ade Stadium to take on Purdue. Admittedly, this could rank as an Unconscionable Defeat, but perception is reality in college football, and in a vacuum (imagine the Irish enter the contest 3-0) a night game road loss to the Boilers probably wouldn't derail Notre Dame's season. But there's little excuse for a loss to a Purdue squad that should struggle mightily defensively and one that lost six offensive starters including veteran stars at QB, RB and two WR positions (as well as its best defensive player).
Rising to the Occasion
There's but one team with a developed talent level and roster of potential contributing depth deeper than that of the Irish on their 2009 slate: USC.
Last season, the team's met on Thanksgiving weekend and fifth-ranked USC played top-notch, athletic, soundly coached, confident, violent football.
The Irish flew out to Southern California, acted the part of an angry football team in a pre-game fight and backed up their talk with a first down late in the third quarter.
More on this matchup as the game draws near.
Michigan State, Pittsburgh and Stanford:
MSU has beaten the Irish six straight in South Bend. Notre Dame has beaten Stanford in seven consecutive seasons. Pittsburgh and the Irish have split the last four meetings (the Irish hold a 5-3 edge since the Dawn of the Davie Era).
Last season these three opponents ran the football 127 times for 542 yards and five touchdowns vs. the Irish front seven. MSU and Pittsburgh both lost talented, NFL-level running backs and replaced those backs with talented, untested, but highly-touted freshmen or redshirt freshmen runners. Stanford returns its bruising tailback, Toby Gerhart, who topped the 100-yard mark vs. the Irish last October on just 13 carries.
Aside from USC, the trio above promise to represent the most physical opponents (on both sides of the football) that the Irish will face in '09.
Now that we're caught up…
The Opponents: Nevada, at Michigan, Michigan State, Purdue.
Weis W/L Record: 11-8 in September; 6-6 collectively vs. UM, MSU, PU.
Currently/Potentially Ranked Opponents: Zero/One (Michigan State).
O'Malley's Prediction for September: The Irish are 21-17 this decade in August/September. They're 35-28 since the start of the 1994 season. I have mild confidence that the Irish are BCS-bound this January. But it won't appear that way in September.
Individually I'll likely predict an Irish victory on each of the next four Fridays, but my September projection is 3-1.
The Opponents: Washington, BYE, USC, BC, Washington State (San Antonio).
Weis W/L Record: 8-4 in October; 2-6 collectively vs. Washington, USC, and BC.
Currently/Potentially Ranked Opponents: No. 4 USC/USC.
O'Malley's Prediction for October: USC and BC have combined to win 13 consecutive games vs. the Irish. THIRTEEN? Notre Dame hasn't defeated both schools since 2000 (courtesy of Bob Davie in a three-week span).
Both streaks end in 2009 as the Irish roll to 4-0 in October with two blowouts book-ending a college football classic and subsequent head-shaking home escape.
The Opponents: Navy, at Pittsburgh, Connecticut, at Stanford.
Weis W/L Record: 10-7 in November; 6-2 collectively vs. Navy, Pittsburgh, and Stanford.
Currently/Potentially Ranked Opponents: None/Pittsburgh.
O'Malley's Prediction for November: I think the Irish will be playing for something, both on November 15 in Pittsburgh and on Thanksgiving Saturday in Palo Alto.
With a nod to how incredibly tight the 2005 squad played against a terrible Stanford team with the BCS on the line; knowing that both the Panthers and the Cardinal will test the Irish at their perceived weak points (the offensive and defensive lines); and with the unfortunate reality that last November better encapsulated Notre Dame football 2008 than did a trip to the Islands on Christmas Eve…
I can't give this regime anything better than 10-2 over the next thirteen weeks. The Irish go 3-1 in November and hope a standard college football season plays out around them (in other words, one that does not include an exceptionally top-heavy group) to qualify for the BCS.
Note: IrishEyes co-publisher and recruiting analyst Jeff Baumhower's '09 season prediction will be posted later today.