Rather, the more convincing explanation was that they had gotten bad coaching in prior years but now had good coaching. But, in any event, let's look at the experience levels of the 2002 and 2003 editions of the Irish.
Here, in five key statistical categories, is the percentage that the 2002 Irish returned from the 2001 squad and the percentage that the 2003 Irish will return from the 2002 squad, assuming no off-season defections:Rushing yards:
2003: 97% (Hildbold's and Battle's yards keep this from 100%)
Interceptions by defense:
As we can see, the Irish were actually quite inexperienced, particularly at the offensive skill positions. Even, for example, the figure of 35% of the rushing yards returning in 2002 is a bit misleading because most of those yards were Holiday's, and he was used in a much different role in 2002. The only tailback with any experience at all was Grant at 110 yards, which (for the sake of comparison) is exactly the same number of yards that Marcus Wilson had in 2002.
The defensive figures were better for 2002, which probably explains in part why the defense was the strength of the team. But note here, with both the offense and the defense, the experience level will be much higher in 2003. One cautionary note, of course, is that the Irish will actually be inexperienced on the offensive line in 2003 with probably only three of the five starters having had significant playing time in 2002.
Let's see how the 2002 and 2003 Notre Dame teams stack up against 2002's top five in the final polls in terms of experience in these measures.Rushing yards:
N.D. (2003): 92%
N.D. (2002): 35%
Ohio State: 19%
N.D. (2003): 97%
N.D. (2002): 74%
Ohio State: 16%
Ohio State: 76%
N.D. (2003): 63%
N.D. (2002): 25%
Interceptions by defense:
Ohio State: 67%
N.D. (2003): 48%
N.D. (2002): 43%
N.D. (2003): 80%
Ohio State: 65%
N.D. (2002): 52%
As we can see, the 2002 Irish were closer to mid-level of these top teams in terms of defensive experience, but well towards the bottom in terms of offensive experience. Really, only Ohio State had a comparably inexperienced offense, but the massive infusion of freshman talent in the form of Clarett gave them enough offensive punch to allow their rugged and experienced defense to carry them to victory.
Across the board, probably the two most experienced teams were U.S.C. and Oklahoma and they played like it for the most part, particularly in delivering crushing bowl victories. Miami was quite experienced on the offensive side of the ball, but not on the defensive, and it showed particularly in Miami's inability to generate the huge turnover margin in 2002 that propelled them to the national championship in 2001. Miami's only serious lack of experience on offense was in rushing production, but that was overcome by Magahee's spectacular play.
On the other hand, the 2003 edition of the Irish will have experience levels that compare quite favorably. Moreover, several of these teams that has success in 2002 will give up huge parts of their experience base in 2003. U.S.C. and Miami will, for example, give up all of their passing yards and a huge fraction of their rushing yards.
The other less-tangible experience factor is experience in the system. Interestingly, three of these successful 2002 teams were coached by second-year coaches who didn't do anything spectacular their first years in terms of record. Tressel at Ohio State took over an 8-4 team, went 7-5 his first year but then 14-0 in 2002. Richt at Georgia took over an 8-4 team, went 8-4 his first year and then 13-1 in 2002. Carroll at U.S.C. took over a 5-7 team, went 6-6 his first year and then 11-2 in 2002.
Coker at Miami was also in his second year, though he took over a much better team. The Hurricanes were 11-1 the year before he started, he won the national championship his second and lost in overtime in the national championship game in 2002. But Coker, having been the offensive coordinator for Davis, didn't face any of the system adjustment issues. Oklahoma's Stoops was in his 4th year, but like Carroll, Tressel and Richt did not produce any dramatic results until his second year. He took over a 5-6 team and went 7-5 his first year, but then won the national championship his second, and has had his teams finish in the top 6 each of the last two years.
In most respects, N.D. was fighting a severely uphill battle in 2002 and going from 5-6 to 10-3 was an unexpected level of improvement. Next year, however, N.D.'s situation will be much more comparable to the teams that enjoyed B.C.S. success in 2002.