Friday, September 4, 2009

One Last Preview

So last night we got our first taste of the 2009 college football season. A little over 24hrs from now both the Irish and the fighting Nittanys will kickoff their respective years. This provides one last chance to offer predictions on what will happen over the next couple months. As I’m sure you’ve seen, Billy offered his well-reasoned picks for both teams—I especially like his gameplan for stopping Tim Tebow in the National Championship. I hear he has a weakness for Macedonian women Bill—wouldn’t be the first time they’ve done the seemingly impossible.

Here’s a legit preview of the Irish from someone who follows them as close as humanly possible.

Returning Starters: 15 (9 offense, 6 defense)

Strength of Schedule: #36 (Phil Steele Magazine)

Key Losses: FS David Bruton (drafted by the Broncos)

Key Returners: Everyone of significance

Freshman Contributors: LB Manti Te’o, KR Theo Riddick, and K Nick Tausch

Notre Dame is coming off a disappointing year of 7-6. In three different games they blew double digit leads (including to Syracuse at home in one of the worst losses in school history), were again completely manhandled by Southern Cal, and were shutout by Boston College. Charlie Weis is one of the most embattled coaches in college football today and may in fact have the hottest seat in the country. With all the negativity that was surrounding the program and cries of the team’s lack of relevance coming from just about any mouth in front of a camera, why then does there seem to be such a sense of hope? Lou Holtz and Beano Cook both picked them to go to the national championship game. Kirk Herbstreit thinks they’ll land in the BCS. Phil Steele (the most accurate preseason magazine of the last ten years) has them as preseason #7. There are a lot of legitimate reasons for those willing to actually look.

The offense should be one of the best in the country. Jimmy Clausen is much farther along at this point in his career than Brady Quinn was. He completed 61.9% of his passes last year (Brady was 54.1% his sophomore year) and there’s no reason to believe he won’t take another step in the right direction this year. Yes, he threw way too many interceptions last year but that’s not abnormal for a young quarterback trying to do too much. He has another year under his belt and the best WR-TE combo in the country at his disposal. Wide receivers Golden Tate (Jr.) and Michael Floyd (So.) could be even better than the record breaking duo of Samardzija and Stovall from 2005. Also one name few people outside of Notre Dame know is tight end Kyle Rudolph (So.). He’s a future first round draft pick and could be the best tight end in school history when all is said and done. The offensive line has a new coach (Frank Verducci from the Cleveland Browns) and over 100 combined career starts, making it one of the most experienced lines in the entire country. They were much improved in pass protection last year (cutting the number of sacks allowed in half); could there be a similar leap in run blocking under Verducci’s tutelage this year? On the defensive side of the ball the Irish are loaded with talent, albeit inexperienced talent. The front seven will be one of the questions that must be answered, but for the first time in years there is a surplus of talent at the coordinator’s disposal. They also have one of the best secondaries in country, spurred by the return of exiled cornerback Darrin Walls and LB Harrison Smith’s shift back to safety. On top of all this, Charlie Weis is taking back play calling duties. Add this with the fact that—like Penn State—Notre Dame has one of the easiest schedules in years and play Southern Cal at home this year…things seem to be lining up for something great.

That being said there are still major questions. I will have serious doubts about the offensive line until I see improvement with my own eyes. I’ve seen five straight spring games and the first four were very good indicators of what was to come in the fall. When I left the stadium in April I didn’t think the O-Line was quite there. Paul Duncan starting at left tackle petrifies me. It’s been almost a decade since we had a legitimate running attack that could move the ball on elite level defenses. On defense, Kerry Neal just may not be big enough to stand up against the run. We’re also relying on a lot of inexperience to step up at the linebacker position and the interior defensive line.

Perhaps most importantly, is the real Charlie Weis the one that came in and orchestrated one of the best offenses in school history in 2005 or the one that got out-coached last year by a lame duck Syracuse coach Greg Robinson? You had a clear feeling that Willingham wasn’t the guy mid-way through his tenure. I honestly have no idea whether Weis is the guy or not—we’re at a tipping point in his career. A lot of things seem to be lined up in Notre Dame’s favor. It’s now time to capitalize on them. Notre Dame will be favored in 11 of the 12 games they play in the regular season this year. The patience of the Irish faithful has been pushed to the limit and I think another mediocre year would be Weis’ last.

The objective person in me says that Notre Dame will go 10-2 this year. We’re still not on Southern Cal’s level yet so that would be one loss and I feel this team probably isn’t ready to take care of business every week they should. Where would that second loss come? Maybe at home to Michigan State, maybe at Stanford or Pitt. Anything more than two losses and this season will be a failure.

That being said, for the first time in awhile there’s a chance for something really special to happen in South Bend. There are a lot of if’s that need to happen in order for a BCS championship run to happen…but this is Notre Dame. There is an aura that surrounds the place that is unique from any other school in the country. If Notre Dame gets off to a good start and are undefeated when Southern Cal rolls into town (which isn’t a stretch by any means), then the atmosphere for that game will probably surpass the craziness leading up to their classic 2005 showdown. Is it likely? Probably not. Will I cling to the thought of it happening until the bubble bursts? You better believe it. Dr. Lou’s prediction isn’t that far-fetched.

And now a quick preview of Penn State:

Penn State’s a good team. They play a schedule so easy that it actually makes Notre Dame’s look somewhat difficult (Akron, Temple, Eastern Illinois?). For the first time in years they don’t have anyone on probation or suspended for committing a felony. They play Ohio State at home. All good things. Can Tom Bradley lead this team to a national championship (don’t even pretend that Joe Paterno has coached this team since 2002)? The hunch is that Penn State slips up at least once in addition to losing at home to Ohio State; if JoePa were coherent he would’ve found a way to keep Terrelle Pryor in state. He’ll pay for it this year when Pryor lights up a green secondary.

Penn State has never handled preseason expectations well—the two highest rankings they’ve achieved in the past ten years have come in years where no one picked them to do anything (unranked in 2005, #22 last year). They were routinely a top ten preseason team in the late 90’s and played in more Alamo Bowls than BCS bowls. They had a chance to head to the championship last year and just had to take care of an Iowa team that was headed to the Outback Bowl but they laid an egg. They have to replace their entire secondary and three All-Big Ten Offensive Linemen. Sorry Bill, you won’t get a shot at Tebow. You won’t even be close. The Nittanys go 10-2. Does that put them in the BCS? It could. If Notre Dame is 10-2 they’ll be in the BCS as well. If God doesn’t answer my prayers and put us in the national championship, maybe he’ll give me a consolation prize of playing Penn State in a bowl.

Best part of this weekend? The speculating finally comes to an end. Penn State begins their march to the Outback Bowl, Notre Dame begins their march to the top of the college football world. Giddyup.


  1. Once again in the words of ESPN, Notre Dame football schedule has so many cupcakes on it they could start a South Bend Bakery.


  2. Look at Penn State's--it's a Tasty Cake Factory.