A year ago the pressure to rebound from a horrific 2007 season was high, and while the Irish did play solid football in stretches, they did not reach the expectation level that most Notre Dame fans had for the 2008 season. There are a myriad of reasons for the lackluster performances, but nothing prevented the Irish from reaching their potential more than their inability to run the football.
The Irish running game was held to less than 100 yards in seven contests. Their record in those games was 2-5. Oddly, one of the wins in which Notre Dame was held to less than 100 yards rushing, is the game many fans mention as the turning point for the program… the bowl game against Hawaii, where the Irish were held to 65 yards on 34 carries.
The 2009 season will begin in less than a week and the pressure to win is as high as it was last season, but the expectations are even loftier. The Irish return nearly every starter on offense, and more importantly, all of their marquee players return. The offensive line is seasoned and should be able to dominate most opponents if it plays up to its potential.
There are a few more question marks on the defensive side of the ball, but the Irish are young and athletic. The strength of the defense should be the defensive backfield with four cornerbacks that are tested playmakers. The linebacking corps is also deep and talented. The questions marks come along the defensive front, but the Notre Dame coaching staff has been pleased with the development of several young linemen
The Irish simply can't afford to drop games against opponents that they should put away by halftime. These are games that the fans are looking for style points. A loss to any these teams and the Notre Dame fans will become very restless.
Purdue: This is a night game on the road, but I envision a game similar to the 2005 contest where the Irish manhandled a much more experienced Purdue squad. The Boilermakers struggled mightily last season going 4-8. This year they lost a host of players on both sides of the ball, and are breaking in a new head coach. Last season the Irish dominated Purdue at the line of scrimmage, where the Irish rushed for 200 yards against a more experienced defense… I expect a repeat performance this year.
Washington: Another new head coach for the Huskies, but I don't expect the results to be different in 2009. Washington does have Jake Locker, but his supporting cast is limited in talent and experience. With games against LSU, USC and Stanford coming before the Huskies reach South Bend, new head coach Steve Sarkisian will be hard pressed to infuse his team with the confidence they desperately need.
Washington State: This is the first in a series of "neutral" site games for the Irish. I expect the Alamo Dome to be filled with Notre Dame fans, and likely noisier than Notre Dame Stadium. Like their in-state rival, the Cougars lack talent and depth. Unlike their in-state rival, they don't have Jake Locker. Last season the Cougars allowed their opponents to rush for nearly 250 yards per game, while their offense only managed to cover 95 yards on the ground per game. Washington State hasn't upgraded since, so I expect similar struggles in 2009.
Navy: Navy will be two years removed from the Paul Johnson era when they make their first appearance in Notre Dame Stadium since beating the Irish in 2007. No disrespect to Navy's current head coach Ken Niumatalolo, but Johnson is one of the best coaches in the country and his loss will start to be noticed as time goes by. The Irish should be able to dominate the Midshipmen, much like they did last year for three and a half quarters. Notre Dame shouldn't need to sweat this one out.
Nevada: This game should be a good indicator for the 2009 season, much like the opener against San Diego State was last season. The Wolf Pack should be able to move the ball against the Irish. Nevada averaged over 500 yards in offense last season and many of the key contributors return. Defensively, the Wolf Pack return numbers, but they had a very difficult time stopping quality opponents in 2008.
Connecticut: This could be the return to Notre Dame Stadium for Zach Frazer. The former Irish quarterback is expected to start for the Huskies this season after making two starts last season. Frazer completed 55.4 percent of his passes, but threw six interceptions against four touchdowns in 88 attempts. The Huskies lost a number of leaders from last season, including first-round NFL running back Donald Brown.
Stanford: Despite the excitement that Jim Harbaugh has brought to the Cardinal program, Stanford is only 9-15 in two seasons under his leadership. He has made the Cardinal more competitive, but there hasn't been a huge upgrade in talent…yet. The Cardinal will have experience on both sides of the ball, returning eight starters on offense and as many as seven on the defensive side of the ball. The Achilles heel for the Cardinal is their pass defense, which will likely be Notre Dame's strength. The Irish should be coming into this game with a full head of steam and possibly playing for a BCS bid.
Michigan: Despite coming off a 3-9 season, not having a clear starting quarterback, and turmoil surrounding the program, I don't expect this game to be easy for Notre Dame. Michigan still has quality athletes on both sides of the ball. Rich Rodriguez has been able to work with his team for another year, so I expect to see a more polished squad on offense than the unit most saw last season.
Michigan State: Like Michigan, Michigan State always plays Notre Dame tough. In fact the Spartans have won nine of the last twelve games in the series. Mark Dantonio is developing into one of the better coaches in the country and he has an outstanding staff. The Spartans did lose Javon Ringer to the NFL draft, and they are trying to find a replacement for quarterback Brian Hoyer, but they have the players to slide in to the vacated spots, including a talented group of receivers. The defense will again likely be the strength of the team, with the linebackers being one of the top groups in the Big Ten.
Boston College: This game comes on the heels of the USC battle, which concerns me regardless of the outcome of that game. With the amount of turnover Boston College has had with the coaching staff and on the field it would lead one to think that the Irish should be able to handle the Eagles, but history should make people reconsider. Starting out the season the Eagles will need to find a quarterback to lead the offense, but by the time BC makes their way to South Bend, that issue should be resolved. They return two top running backs and nearly their entire offensive line. Defensively, their secondary will be very good.
Pittsburgh: Pittsburgh's offense has been less than spectacular in the past and they have lost running back LeSean McCoy, but they return starting quarterback Bill Stull and a host of talented receivers. The defense should be stout with a solid group of players along the defensive line.
USC: Reload, reload, reload… although Notre Dame has upgraded its depth and overall talent, the Irish still lag behind USC… but who doesn't? There is a slight quarterback controversy heading into the season. This could resolve itself before the Trojans come to Notre Dame Stadium, or it could fester. On offense, they return a wealth of experience and talent. USC will need to replace a lot of bodies on defense, but they have the talent on hand to reload.
Now for the prediction…
Opponents: Nevada, at Michigan, Michigan State, at Purdue.
Two games here that I feel Notre Dame should win and two toss-ups. The Irish haven't had an undefeated September since 2002. I think they win the ones that they should… and also take both of the toss-ups to enter October 4-0 and one the verge of a top-10 appearance.
Opponents:Washington, USC, BC, Washington State
An easy home win against Washington, a bye week and the Irish should be ready to defeat the Trojans for the first time since the Irish rushed for 208 yards in a 27-16 victory back in 2001… Unfortunately, I don't think Notre Dame will be able to run the ball like that and USC will stretch their series winning streak to eight. The Irish bounce back against BC and punish Washington State to go 3-1 in October and 7-1 overall.
Opponents: Navy, at Pittsburgh, Connecticut, at Stanford
I have three games I believe Notre Dame should win and one toss-up. Notre Dame handles Navy, UConn and Stanford, but trip up on the road against Pitt. November ends with a 3-1 record and 10-2 overall.
10-2 would be a very solid season for the Irish, but I'm not sure that it would have them in the top-10 at the end of the season. The schedule will be considered "light" and with the potential loss to USC, Notre Dame won't have a signature win on the season. If this is the case, I think Notre Dame will miss out on an invitation to a BCS bowl.