University of Michigan v. University of Notre Dame
Location: Michigan Stadium, Ann Arbor, Michigan
Date: September 15, 2007
Game Time: 3:30
Game #: 3
Radio: WOMC-FM and CKLW-AM
University: University of Notre Dame
Location: South Bend, Indiana
Team Name: Fightin' Irish
Facility: Notre Dame Stadium (80,225)
Number of National Championships: 12 (1924, 1929, 1930, 1943, 1946, 1947, 1949, 1953, 1966, 1973, 1977, 1988)
First Season of Football: 1894 (1-2-1)
Last Season: 2006 (10-3)
All Time Record: 821-270-41
Head Coach: Charlie Weis (19-6-0) (3rd year)
Versus Michigan All-Time: 14-19-1
Fine Notre Dame Sites and Blogs
So, You Were Ranked No. 2 Last Year, How'd That Work Out?
At the start of last year, much was made of Notre Dame's potent offense. Quinn. Smarjasdlkfjasdlkja. McKnight. Dairus Walker. The question was not whether Notre Dame would win the national championship, it was whether they should save everyone the trouble and be crowned Super Bowl Champions as well. Notre Dame sported a 9-3 record BCS bowl berth from the prior year. 2005 was supposed year where the Irish would finish in the 7-8 win territory, good, but not great. The Irish had proven the haters wrong and emerged near the top of the college football pile. Despite an old fashioned thumping from soon to be pre-season No. 1 Ohio State, expectations were high in South Bend.
Unfortunately, little attention was paid to their paper mache defense. People talked about the "speed camps" the secondary went to. Fans noted that Notre Dame's corners were stride for stride with USC's on that fateful 4th down conversion. Even the realistic fans thought the offense would be able to cover for the weaknesses in the defense. In the end, the offense wasn't quite as good as believed. Against top tier foes, the offensive line struggled mightily. When Notre Dame needed to run the ball in those games, more often than not, Walker got hit before he reached the line. Good pass rushes were poison to the line and as a result Quinn was beaten like a flesh piñata by Michigan, Michigan State, and USC. Despite the hype, Notre Dame posted 6 points per game less than their previous year.
Still, it wasn't all bad. Quinn was a Heisman finalist. The Domers posted 31 points a game, and while it wasn't pretty at times, the offense was significantly more polished than the prior year. Notre Dame's offense came to life when it needed it more often than not. Against MSU Notre Dame managed to salvage a victory (though MSU QB Drew Staton deserves most of the credit for that victory) and the Domers found a dramatic way to beat UCLA in the dying minutes. When all was said and done, Notre Dame finished 10-2, with losses to No. 2 Michigan and No. 6 USC, and secured a Sugar Bowl date with LSU.
The bayou was not kind to the Irish. The holes in both the offensive and defensive line became so readily apparent in their losses to Michigan and USC were on full display. Sadly for Quinn, Jamarcus Russell's performance in the Sugar Bowl against the hapless Irish secondary is likely what vaulted Russell over Quinn as the top QB drafted in the NFL draft.
Despite the pre-season offensive hype, the story of the year was Notre Dame's defense. In the Irish's 10 victories, Notre Dame game up 17.8 points per game and amassed 28 sacks. In Notre Dame's three losses, the Irish surrendered 42 points a game (Michigan 41, USC 44, LSU 41) and posted only 4 sacks. One of the concerning outliers from the season was Notre Dame's defensive performance against Purdue. Despite a 35-21 victory, if Purdue had played any defense the score would arguably have been different. Curtis Painter threw for 398 yards without a pick or a sack. If Purdue hadn't coughed up the ball at the ND 37 or missed a field goal, things may have turned out differently. Big days for opposing players weren't uncommon last year. Even though they didn't top 300 yards, both John David Booty and Chad Henne absolutely torched the Irish backfield. Jehuu Caulcrick and Javon Ringer helped MSU rack up 248 on the ground. Mike Hart, CJ Gabel, Caulcrick, and
Early Doucet Keiland Williams all went over 100 against the Irish rush defense. (Oops, Doucet caught 115 yards in passes in the Sugar Bowl. - Ed.)
The offensive line's struggles against top competition were also apparent. Michigan and USC both only sacked Quinn 3 times, but the Irish quarterback spent most of both games getting knocked around like a whack-a-mole. Hell, even Purdue got to Quinn four times in a loss. Against LSU, Notre Dame gained only 291 total yards and gained only 17 first downs. In comparison LSU racked up 577 yards, including 31 first downs and 332 passing yards. Notsogood.
Regardless of the three losses I've spent most of this preview harping on, it was a relatively successful year for the Irish. They amassed ten wins. Went to a second consecutive BCS bowl. They finished 17 and 19 in the polls (despite 10 wins). And their success helped Weis to secure one of the better recruiting classes in the country. At just about any other school, that's one hell of a year and cause for celebration. However, at Notre Dame, it's just enough to feed the Irish' insatiable expectations.
Enough About Last Year, What About This Year!?
The offseason effectively robbed Notre Dame of all of its best offensive and defensive parts. Gone from the offensive skill positions are Samardzija, Quinn, Walker, and McKnight. Notre Dame lost three starting line men to graduation including the left side of the line (2 draft picks no less). Last year's best linemen, Derek Landri and Victor Abiamiri, now ply their trade in the NFL. Therefore, the only returning defensive starters of note are horrendously under-rated Maurice Crum (LB) and slightly-overrated-white-corner-slash-safety-a-la-Jason-Sehorn Tom Zbikowski (S). Crum didn't get enough credit for the outstanding job he did in the middle of the Irish defense last year. He was basically on his own last year. Despite offenses knowing he was the player to stop at the second level, he still made plays. Even with these two potent starters returning things will be tough this year as the whole or "hole" of the secondary returns. The same secondary that was lit up like the Vegas skyline against... well... everybody.
Despite the losses on both sides of the ball, I think this will be a dangerous team by the end of the season. Weis pulled in some top tier talent to play under the dome this past year. This year's freshman class ranked 8th according to Rivals and 11th according to Scout. While Jimmaaaay Clausen got the pub, three other class mates will likely have a more immediate impact on the Notre Dame record. Freshman Gary Gray will likely step into a starting role at DB halfway through the season, Duval Kamara should find his way on the field with Notre Dame's depleted receiving corps, and bowling ball running back Robert Hughes should see immediate playing time behind Travis Thomas.
Despite the influx of fresh talent, Notre Dame lost a considerable amount of its core this year. Some of my optimistic Irish friends predict an 8-4 season. The more pessimistic Irish haters think the Irish will start 0-6 and finish with a losing record. I'm somewhere in between. Looking at this team top to bottom there is plenty of talent, but the changes on the field and the sideline will make this a difficult season for the Irish.
Changes You Say?
Indeed. Just to name a few critical positions that are changing hands this year. Quarterback. Running Back. Wide Receiver (1). Wide Receiver (2). Left Guard. Left Tackle. Right Guard. Kicker. Defensive End. Nose Tackle. Two Outside Linebackers. Free Safety. On the whole, Notre Dame returns 9 starters. Four on Offense, Five on defense. That's tough for any team to deal with.
A minor, yet amusing change, was Ron Powlus moving from head of "personnel development" to new quarterbacks coach. While in some respects Powlus' move to coach his former position makes sense (he's dealt with the pressure, he knows what it's like, he was a pro QB), the fact that the most overhyped and largest recruiting flops in recruiting history is now coaching one of the most overhyped recruits in recent memory just sets itself up for all kinds of wonderfully vicious storylines. Don't think for a second if Clausen goes down the tubes the parallels won't be used to the point of exhaustion.
Another major change is at defensive coordinator. In an effort to upgrade their defensive scheming, Notre Dame hired former Michigan Captain (1992) Corwin Brown away from the New York Jets. Brown has a solid reputation from his time a as the Jets' defensive backs coach. One of the first things brought up in any conversation about Brown is the little factoid that his DBs didn't have a Pass Interference penalty in their first eight games. Rakes of Mallow has an excellent look at Brown's resume. To blatantly steal from Rakes:
|Passing defense (rank)
|Passing first downs
Decent numbers. Brown was under consideration for the Michigan DC position but lost out to Ron English. Brown seems to be taking a modicum of revenge on the recruiting trail, already picking up a pair of 4 star safeties and a 4 star DB. Brown is already being talked about as a hot commodity for a head coaching position in the near future. Don't think for a second his early success on the recruiting trail isn't helping that speculation. If he turns Notre Dame's defense around this year, dollars to donuts he's gone within two years. If not, but the D shows improvement, he'll be there three before a temping HC position comes calling.
The big question will be how Notre Dame's current players react to Brown's play calling. Brown is a fan of the 3-4 and is intent upon installing it in his first year at Notre Dame. I'm skeptical of how a bunch of kids who have only played a 4-3 will adapt. Further, the 3-4 depends on a linebacker or two that can play like a DE and a DE that can play like a nose tackle. Notre Dame's current crop of linebackers, with the exception of Crum, are at best, adequate. Further, the lack of a mammoth, experienced nose tackle who can demand a double team will make it even easier for opposing linemen to reach the second level of the defense than last year. The only person on the team who has DT or NT experience is Trevor Laws, who is being switched to DE. While I'm confident Notre Dame's players will grow into the system, the switch will ask a lot of them early on.
Notre Dame was not a stout run defense team last year. The Irish gave up almost 4 yards a carry. In Notre Dame's first four games, the lowest rushing total allowed was 120 yards to Michigan. Michigan State ran for 248 yards. LSU went for 245. Even Air Force posted 200. Losing Notre Dame's top run stuffers to graduation isn't going to help. Only one starter returns on the D-line. Combine this with two new starters at Linebacker and (a mediocre at best) returning starter in Brockington to pair with an over extended Crum, and I have no idea how Notre dame will prevent teams from running wild on them. What's scariest about the switch are the first five teams Notre Dame plays. As Blue Gray Sky points out the running backs facing the Irish in those games are veteran running backs and who are capable of grinding out all kinds of yards against the Irish. While the idea behind moving to a 3-4 defense to take advantage of speed and athleticism is a nice one, group of Irish defenders does not seem particularly well suited to it. But then again, the alternative 4-3 alignment really exposes the lack of interior depth. This will ultimately be a change for the Irish, but the growing pains will be apparent this year.
Charlie Weis returns for year three at the helm of the Fighting Irish. Weis has already proven himself to be a fairly good coach at the college level, however Weis is 0-2 in BCS bowl appearances. A streak that does not look likely to change this year. Michael Haywood returns as Notre Dame's offensive coordinator, and with the exception of Corwin Brown's arrival, Weis' staff is unchanged since he took over the Irish in 2005. Offensively, the group is fairly strong. Any deficiencies noted thus far can be chalked up to the lesser talent they inherited, the next two to three years will determine just how good they are. Defensively, meh. Jerome Oliver should get credit for piecing together a decent line last year and getting two players drafted. After that, we'll have to see what kind of a difference Brown makes.
Straight pro-style offense. Notre Dame likes the three receiver set and is more than happy to use their tight ends. The offense is very balanced, and last year ran 423 times and passed 471. Notre Dame is a "run to set up the pass" type of offense. They effectively use the pass on short yardage and are adept in identifying open space in zone coverage. One thing they are not is a power running team. That may change with some of the personnel ND has recruited, but for now, the pass is king.
Quinn's departure leaves a significant hole at a position that was rock solid for the past four years. Weis brought in one of the highest touted quarterback recruits in the country, Jimmy Clausen. Returning backup/clipboard carried Evan Sharpley was supposed to be able to handle the position, and if not Zach Fraser was supposed to be capable of filling in. Things didn't quite go as planned. Sharpley was good but not great during spring practice. Fraser said to hell with it and bailed for UConn.
Clausen, based on his press conference, based supposed to start right off the bat lead Notre Dame to six national championships, win the heisman so many times that they rename the award after him, and walk across the reflecting pool from the library to the stadium on game days. Reality can be a cruel mistress. Clausen's ascent to the Notre Dame quarterback thrown hit somewhat of a snag over the summer when he underwent shoulder surgery which was reportedly robbing him of velocity and accuracy. Whether he'll be back for the fall at full strength is somewhat in doubt.
At this point no one really knows who will start at QB when Georgia Tech comes to town. My money is currently on Demetrious Jones (Fr. Chicago). Jones is an option type quarterback with great wheels and a good arm. Jones scrambling ability will buy a young and inexperienced line some time to grow and keep veteran defenses from sending the dogs into the backfield on every play. However, if Clausen is completely recovered from his rumored surgery in June, he should be the opening day starter. How he'll fair against the veteran defenses waiting for him is debatable, but his reputation indicates he'll be okay. Personally, I'm in the wait and see camp on Clausen. He is, after all, a Clausen.
Returning to the offensive side of the ball is RB turned LB turned RB Travis Thomas. Thomas spent last year playing linebacker in an effort to spell a depleted linebacking group. Even so, he still managed 13 carries for 78 yards last year. This year he's slated as the primary mail carrier for the Notre Dame offense. Thomas put up 248 yards in 2005 and isn't a break away type back. He is a solid blocker and a good hard nosed runner. He'll pick up the difficult yards for Notre Dame this year.
Immediately behind him is five star sophomore James Aldridge. Aldridge was one of the top running back recruits in the 2005 high school class and saw plenty of playing time last year as Walker's primary backup. He's not a burner, but he is fast and very strong. Good combination of speed, size and strength. Aldridge is just as capable of making you miss as he is of running you over. If he's not starting out of camp, he'll be starting by the third game.
The Domer's change of pace back will be Hemi loaded speedster Armando Allen. Allen isn't the biggest back in the world but ran a 4.35 forty and reportedly has ballistic missile type acceleration. Aldridge and the afore mentioned Robert Hughes are solid running backs. But Allen, if he can take the pounding (185 pounds), could be something special.
The concern here is while Notre Dame's two/three deep is incredibly talented, they are very inexperienced. I expect they'll grow with whomever becomes QB, but they're going to miss an assignment or two which ends up getting their quarterback killed. Aldridge and Hughes will likely share the load by midseason, but if Allen gets his legs under him he could supplant them all.
Man does this unit take a tumble. The Shark is pitching for the Cubs and Rhema McKnight is taking orders at Wendy's (not really, he's a WR for San Diego). Notre Dame's top returning wide out is Junior David Grimes. Grimes caught 26 balls last year for 2 TDs and 336 yards. A decent recruit out of high school, Grimes continually came up third on the ND depth chart behind McKnight and Samarjzida. Now he's the veteran receiver. While he won't blow past you Grimes is a decent receiver who hasn't lost a fumble as a receiver. The knock on Grimes is height. At 5'10" he's not going to win a lot of jump balls.
Joining him will be sophomore DJ Hord. Hord was a four star receiver out of high school who had abdominal surgery prior to the 2006 season and redshirted. Hord was a 4.4 forty guy before the injury, but with over a year to recover he should be back to normal. Hord will be the tallest starting receiver on the field at 6'1". Finishing out the starters will be speedy but short (5'8") George West. West is lightning fast. Notre Dame will try to get the ball in his hands as often as possible, but his inexperience (2 catches total) could keep him from being an early factor.
Help will come from the bench. Duval Kamara will see plenty of playing time. At 6'4" he should get plenty of red-zone time. Produce there, and the big speedster should horn his way into the starting lineup by mid-season. Also challenging for playing time will be, snicker, Golden Tate. Best name on the team. Hands down. Start him on the name alone. Tate is a six foot speedster that Weis will use to stretch the defenses. He was a wideout and db in high school so there is plenty of raw athleticism. He'll push for playing time and should get plenty.
Off the tackles Notre Dame sports two excellent tight ends. John Carlson will be one of the best tight ends in the country this year. As the most veteran receiver on the team look for Notre Dame's as yet unnamed QB to lean on Carlson, and lean hard. Backing him up is Bond villain Konrad Reuland. Reuland is 6'6" and remarkably Caucasian. Even for a tight end. Don't let his honkiness fool you tough, he's a top end talent who can block and catch. If both Carlson and Reuland are in the game at the same time it could be trouble for opposing defenses.
Fortunately for Norte Dame, despite the losses to graduation, they do have rock solid returnee Sam Young at Right Tackle. Young is the King of the line. A five star recruit who started out of high school, which in case you're keeping score at home, is absolutely unheard of at Notre Dame or any other top program. Young has three years left at Notre Dame before he leaves for the NFL to claim a salary on par with the GDP of Zambia. Could be an HM All-American this year if things go right. He'll be one the best linemen in the country his junior and senior years.
John Sullivan took over the Center position last year and returns as the second solid piece to the O-Line puzzle. Sullivan started 12 games at Center as a red-shirt Frosh and handled calling the line last year very well. His presence will be a huge boost for Notre Dame's freshman quarterback.
After Young and Sullivan some questions emerge. The line wasn't stellar last year, allowing 31 sacks. Both guards will be replaced this year, and it's anyone's guess who will end up starting. The Left guard position seems to belong to Sophomore Eric Olsen. Olsen got into 8 games last year and was the 2005-2006 NY player of the year. At 6'4" 300 pounds, he could be even more productive as a sophomore than his senior predecessors. Right guard should go to Junior Michael Turkovich, provided he can stay healthy. Turkovich was a highly touted tackle recruit who's had neck problems since coming to ND. If healthy, at 6'6" 299, he could provide some needed bulk and experience to the interior line. Finally, at Left Tackle, 6'7" 292pound junior Paul Duncan should start the season. Young beat Duncan out for the right tackle position last year and almost by default takes over at Left Tackle. He'll have to prove himself at the position quickly in order to prevent defenses from bum rushing him and the left side of the line to death. Of the starters, he's my biggest question mark.
Though the two deep isn't particularly experienced, it is talented. If Turkovich stumbles or has injury problems, look for 6'4" 284 pound redshirt freshman Dan Wenger to take over at one of the guard positions. He had a great spring and is reported to have all the tools necessary to be a top end lineman. Also stepping into the rotation will be sophomore Matt Carufel. Carufel is another highly touted recruit who was the Minnesota HS player of the year in 2005, and at 6'5" 295 pounds could and probably will shoehorn his way into the starting lineup at some point.
While the line is long on talent, it is short on experience. Two of the three departing seniors are now in the NFL, and despite me harping on the run game above, were pretty good. Even with the talent in the pipelines there will be a drop off with this unit. But beware. It will improve and improve quickly.
If allowing long touchdown passes is a form of defense, then that's what the Irish employed last year. This year the Irish switch to a 3-4 in the hopes that the linebacker position is stronger this year than last. My moneys on Notsomuch. A questionable secondary and a new scheme will make this year's defense a constant source of stress for the ND Nation.
Gone are terrors Victor Abiamiri (DE) and Derek Landri (DT). As the stalwarts of Notre Dame's defense last year, these players were everyone's top concerns come game day. Now that label falls on Trevor Laws. At DT last year, Laws racked up 63 tackles and 9.5 TFL (3.5 sacks). While good numbers, he certainly wasn't opposing offenses biggest concern. This year the pressure is on him to supply the... um... pressure. With 6 of the top10 tacklers gone to graduation or position change (Thomas), it's going to be tough. Laws is being pushed over to DE with the hopes that Blue Whale sized redshirt freshman Chris Stewart (6'5" 340!) or Junior Pat Kuntz (another simply awesome name, why couldn't his first name be Mike?) can handle the middle of the field. Kuntz is small at 275, but is reported to have a great motor and instincts (must... get... through... this section... without... another... name joke...). Stewart would normally be my favorite for this slot (dammit!), but as a converted Offensive lineman he is very short on experience. Kuntz will start, but look for Stewart to supplant Kuntz midway through the season if he can stay healthy.
At the other end of the D-Line, Junior Justin Brown and redshirt Frosh Paddy Mullen (who, with a name like that, was destined to go the Notre Dame) will battle for the second DE position. Mullen's got the wheels and size to make an impact at DE (6'3" 285), but as a converted tight end could face adjustment problems similar to Stewart's. Justin Brown should start the season at DE based on experience, but unless he shines this could turn into a rotation or end him up on the bench. After the starters and first rotation, depth is a little dodgy. True freshmen Ian Williams and Andrew Nuss could see immediate playing time in the event of an injury or underperformance. Nuss has the build to be the tackle the line needs, but will probably need a year or so to pack excess pounds onto his 6'5" 285 pound frame.
With teams keying on Laws, the start of the season could be a difficult one for Notre Dame's line. I expect they'll adapt quickly and eventually the talent in the wings will take over. However, I don't expect this defensive line to be nearly as productive as last year based both on experience/talent and on the scheme change.
There's no one close to being on Mo Crum's level. Period. Crum is the linebacking corps IMHO. Senior Joe Brockington is serviceable, but this is not going to be a very good unit.
Last year Crum was the star, though he did find himself out of position quite a bit. Brockington did a good job at outside last year and now finds himself in the middle of the field beside Crum. On the flanks, the Irish are breaking in two new starters/college players. Sophomore John Ryan seems to have cemented a role at outside linebacker after a decent if unspectacular spring. He's big at 6'5" 250 and should see some time lining up at the line as a LB/DE. Opposite him expect speedy Morrice Richardson to win the fourth LB spot. Richardson was originally supposed to grow into a pass rushing DE, but stayed steady at 6'2" 235. He's got the athletic ability to be fill the position, but he's definitely a tweener who's going to have to adapt to his new position.
After the starters there's not a lot of depth. Anthony Vernaglia was supposed to start last year but was never really good enough to see the field. Toryan Smith had an excellent spring and should compete for playing time. He was an excellent recruit, but until he proves it during a live game you have to remain a tad bit skeptical. However, if he lives up to his spring billing, he could take some pressure off the top four. After Vernaglia and Smith, things get thinner. Weis pulled in a considerable amount of help in the form of Steve Paskorz, Aaron Nagel, and Brian Smith (all top 40 LB recruits), but like the defensive line, the true talent is a couple of years away from making an impact. Expect Crum and Brockington to be solid and their numbers to improve, but don't expect this unit to be better than last year. Best case scenario they're as good as last year.
Finally. The Achilles heel of last year's team. If the secondary had been even a single notch better, this might have been a national championship team. Just like last year, the stats lie. Notre Dame statistically made a huge jump in pass efficiency. Just look at the numbers. Last year 203 yards per game. 2005, 265 a game! That's a 62 ypg difference! True. But try to find a Notre Dame fan who actually believes their pass defense was better last year. You'll be looking for a while.
Last year's group benefited from the return of a good defensive line which notched 31 sacks. There is no way this incarnation pull that number off, so the onus will be on the secondary to stay with opposing receivers even longer than usual. This is not good news for returning CBs Ambrose Wooden and Terrail Lambert who couldn't cover a picnic table with a table cloth last year. Wooden and Lambert were furnace fodder when paired against decent receivers. Manningham, Jarret, anyone in an LSU jersey, etc... While both have natural ability and both are prime athletes (they do play D-1 football after all), they did not develop last year and only Lambert managed to snag an interception (3, including the game winner against MSU). Sophomores Darren Walls and Raeshon McNeil will immediately push for playing time if either of the starters falter, but neither managed to supplant the incumbents during spring practice. Either way, it's gonna be a tough season for the corners. Uber-DB-recruit Gary Gray should get a serious look and if his fall practice goes well see playing time at nickel.
I'm not going to waste words on Zbikowski. He's good. Probably will get an All-American nod. I don't think he's that great in coverage, but he's solid. He's a starter. Next to him is a question mark. David Bruton seems to be the starter at free safety by default. He a quick and talented kid, but was a special teamer until this season. He could surprise based on his athleticism and Zibby behind him. While there is some talent and depth at CB, the safety position is another matter. If Zbikowski goes down, well, so does the season. There's not a lot behind him.
Punter Geoff Price returns and the field goal kicking/kick-off duties are up in the air between sophomores Ryan Burkhart and Nate Whitaker. I have no idea who will win that battle. Return duties were handled by David Grimes (KO) and Zibby (P). I know Zbikowski is a play maker, but with your whole season basically hinging on him in the backfield I don't know that I'd risk putting him back there. To each their own.
Sept. 1 Georgia Tech
Sept. 8 at Penn State
Sept. 15 at Michigan
Sept. 22 Michigan State
Sept. 29 at Purdue
Oct. 6 at UCLA
Oct. 13 Boston College
Oct. 20 USC
Nov. 3 Navy
Nov. 10 Air Force
Nov. 17 Duke
Nov. 24 at Stanford
So How's This Going To Play Out?
I personally don't think this is going to be a good year for the Domers. Next year I think they'll be very good. This year? No. As I said, my optimistic friends think 8-4 is where the Irish will finish. I can't see it. There are just to many holes on both sides of the ball. Georgia Tech is a toss up. PSU is a loss. Michigan is a loss. MSU is a toss up. Purdue is a loss. UCLA is a loss. Boston College always gives Notre Dame fits so I'll pencil that in as a loss. USC is a loss. Navy through Stanford are wins.
So looking at this you've got 6 losses (PSU, @Michigan, Purdue, @UCLA, Boston College and USC). If you want to argue, throw Purdue and BC in the toss up category. You've got 4 wins (Navy, Air Force, Duke, @ Jim Harbaugh Hates Michigan). That leaves 2 toss up games (G Tech and MSU), 4 toss ups if you think Purdue and BC are winnable.
For the sake of argument let's just concentrate on the four toss up games. I'll group the games in groups of two and we'll go from there. Whether Notre Dame fans want to hear it or not, Notre Dame can conceivably start the season 0-8. It's totally possible based on the quality of opponents they'll face and the composition of this year's team. Will it happen? No way. Too much has to go right for Notre Dame's opponents and everything has to go wrong for Notre Dame. It just doesn't work out that way.
Georgia Tech is going to be a very difficult opener for Notre Dame. Tashard Choice is a great running back and the absence of Reggie Ball is a huge boost to the Yellow Jackets, even if Calvin Johnson's skills are being wasted in a Detroit Lions jersey. Chan Gailey's defenses are always strong and this year won't be an exception. For the sake of argument I'll pick Notre Dame in this one simply because Tech's on the road with a new quarterback and limited receivers. Notre Dame will stuff the box and should keep Choice contained. If Demetrious Jones starts, I think the Irish will put just enough points on the board to take the game. Notre Dame wins a close one.
Michigan State will be a different scenario. JLSmith is gone. There's no way in hell MSU melts down like they did last year, or commits the mind bending screwups that haunted the team for his three year reign of terror. Caulcrik and Ringer have a decent line to run behind and I just can't see Notre Dame pulling this one out. MSU's got too much on the line. This game and Michigan make up their season, and they know it. MSU takes it to put the Irish at 1-3.
The Purdue game is another example of the difference a year makes. Purdue is relatively loaded (for Purdue). Painter is an excellent QB who threw for almost 400 yards against the swiss cheese Irish pass defense. The reason Notre Dame won last year wasn't because the defense stopped Purdue, it was because the offense wouldn't let the Boilermakers back on the field. Quinn methodically beat Purdue. This year it'll be the exact opposite. Purdue till control the ball and take advantage of the Irish corners again. Without a stout pass rush to speak of, Painter will have all day to pick apart the Irish defense. Will Notre Dame put up some points? Absolutely. Purdue's defense will be almost as bad as last year. Will they put up enough points? I can't see it. However, it's this game or BC that gets Notre Dame to 6 wins.
Boston College will be a tough one too. However, since I think Notre Dame wins 6 games this year, it's probably this game that gives them a chance to get there. I say that with a caveat. If Notre Dame already has two victories, this is a loss. BC is veteran heavy and possesses a balanced offense. I picked them 5th in the ACC because I'm predicting a vastly improved ACC not because they're full of pygmies. For some reason the Irish are snack bit when it comes to the Golden Eagles. When they last played in South Bend in 2004 I was in the corner of the end zone watching BC wideout Tony Gonzalez score the game winner with less than a minute left in the game. The Irish are 0-3 in the last three meetings. Something's gotta change. Why not pick breaking a bad streak against a Catholic rival to bring some sunshine to a bleak period in the schedule?
Best Case Scenario: 7-5 - Looking at the schedule I think its realistic to write four losses for PSU, UM, UCLA and USC. Notre Dame squeaked by UCLA with its best team in a decade. I can't see them stunning the Bruins in LA, no matter how much Dorrell sucks. As I said before, that leaves 4 toss up games. Best case they win three. I can't see this year's team taking all four. If they go 7-4 that means Notre Dame tops GTech, MSU, and Purdue. That also means the Irish go bowling someplace relatively nice.
Worst Case Scenario: 4-8 - Don't look at me like that. Look at the schedule. Don't tell me if the wheel come off this isn't a possibility. Worst case Notre Dame goes 0-8 to start the season and finishes strong. The front end of the schedule is BRUTAL. I'm not hatin. There ain't no hateration, holeration in this dancery. I'm calling the worst case scenario.
Prediction: 6-6 - There's enough talent in the wings to make up of the mediocrity remaining from Willingham's recruiting classes. The Irish front line is okay, but is by no means as talented as the kids in the wings. The season will start out rough, but this team should improve and get to a bowl. Next year, Notre Dame will be very scary. This year, however, will be scary.
pictures and fancy graphics up soon. - Ed.