Last season, it was widely noted, the Irish were a very young team and, as a result of their inexperience, their record suffered. This season, the Irish were expected to be improved, but still "a year away". Now, in the wake of the closer-than-expected win over San Diego State, the "Notre Dame is too young" excuse has been resurrected and/or given more full-throated support. The question then becomes, is this view accurate? Does Notre Dame's youth play against its chances for victory? Does the the fact that the Irish have the third most freshman in its two-deep in the country doom them to failure? Can talent ever trump experience?
To try and get some perspective on this, I took a look at the 1988 national championship team (sadly, the most recent for the Irish) to see what, if anything, that would tell me about the correlation between youth, experience and gridiron victory.
First, I examined those players deemed "key contribututors" to the '88 championship. These are both starters and reserves who logged significant time or added important plays (class years are in parentheses). Here's the list:
1988 NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP TEAM
QB: Tony Rice (Junior)
RB: Mark Green (Senior), Tony Brooks (Sophomore)
FB: Braxton Banks (Junior), Anthony Johnson (Junior), Rodney Culver (Freshman)
TE: Derek Brown (Freshman), Frank Jacobs (Junior)
WR: Ricky Watters (Sophomore), Raghib "Rocket" Ismail (Freshman), Pat Eilers (Junior)
OT: Andy Heck (Senior), Dean Brown (Junior), Joe Allen (Sophomore)
OG: Tim Grunhard (Junior), Tim Ryan (Sophomore)
C: Mike Heldt (Sophomore)
DT: George Williams (Junior), Chris Zorich (Sophmore), Jeff Alm (Junior)
DE/OLB: Frank Stams (Senior), Darrell "Flash" Gordon (Junior), Arnold Ale (Freshman)
LB: Wes Pritchett (Senior), Mike Stonebreaker (Sophomore), Ned Bolcar (Junior)
CB: Todd Lyght (Sophomore), Stan Smagala (Junior), D'Juan Francisco (Junior)
S: George Streeter (Senior), Pat Terrell (Junior)
K: Reggie Ho (Senior), Billy Hackett (Junior)
P: Jim Sexton (Freshman)
While, I might have overlooked a few people, I think that covers, at the very least, the starters. What we see is a heavy concentration in the junior class, but also very significant contributions from underclassmen as well. Not including the punter Jim Sexton, at least three freshman started during the 1988 season (Derek Brown, Ismail and Ale). Overall, the team featured 10 first-time starters. As for the schedule, that year, the Irish defeated three top-10 teams during the regular season (Michigan, Miami and USC) and another in their bowl game (third-ranked West Virginia).
Now, let's see how this compares to the current squad. I tried to include roughly the same number of players in both analyses.
2008 NOTRE DAME FIGHTING IRISH
QB: Jimmy Clausen (Sophomore)
RB: Armando Allen (Sophomore), Robert Hughes (Sophomore), James Aldridge (Junior)
FB: Asaph Schwapp (Senior), Luke Schmidt (Junior)
TE: Kyle Rudolph (Freshman), Will Yeatman (Junior)
WR: David Grimes (Senior), Duval Kamara (Sophomore), Golden Tate (Sophomore), Michael Floyd (Freshman)
OT: Sam Young (Junior), Mike Turkovich (Senior)
OG: Chris Stewart (Junior), Eric Olsen (Junior)
C: Dan Wenger (Junior)
DT: Ian Williams (Sophomore), Pat Kuntz (Senior), Ethan Johnson (Freshman)
DE/OLB: Morrice Richardson (Junior), John Ryan (Junior), Kerry Neal (Sophomore), Justin Brown (Senior)
LB: Maurice Crum (Senior), Brian Smith (Sophomore), Harrison Smith (Sophomore)
CB: Raeshon McNeil (Junior), Terrail Lambert (Senior)
S: Kyle McCarthy (Senior), David Bruton (Senior), Sergio Brown (Junior)
K: Brandon Walker (Sophomore), Ryan Burkhart (Junior)
P: Eric Maust (Junior)
You can see a similar pattern with this year's squad. A strong concentration of sophomores and juniors with a sprinkling of senior leadership (hopefully) and some freshman already making their way onto the field. Ironically, for all the talk of youth, this is arguably a more veteran team than 1988. While there are the same number of upperclassmen contributing (21), there are more seniors (8 as compared to 6) and at least two are fifth-year (Crum and Lambert). Moreover, with the amount of playing time younger players received last year, there are nowhere near 10 new starters.
So, what does this all mean? Should we expect the Irish to compete for the national championship this year? No, I don't think so. For one thing, the 2008 team is saddled with the burden of getting past what might have been the worst season in school history. Conversely, the 1988 team came into the season fresh off an 8-4 season and a bowl game (albeit, a bowl game in which they were crushed 35-10, but that's another story). This team needs to get accustomed to winning before it can truly be a contender. That having been said, there's clearly enough talent and experience on this team for them to win a fair number of games (especially with this year's schedule). Arguments about the team's youth holding it back seem, to me, baseless. Per the aforementioned breakdowns, the 1988 team was similarly experienced, played a more difficult schedule and managed to win a national championship. Nobody's expecting a national championship in 2008, but 7-9 wins should be well within the realm of possibility.
For those of you who are still overwhelmingly concerned about Notre Dame's prospects after a rather lackluster start, I will leave you with one more historical footnote. The 1993 team, with 16 seniors in its line-up, struggled to a 27-12 home victory over Northwestern to start that season. It was a game in which they trailed 12-7 in the 3rd quarter and where Northwestern ended the day with more first downs and more total yards than the Irish. The following week, Notre Dame went to Ann Arbor and beat the third-ranked Wolverines 27-23 en route to an 11-1 season. I'm just sayin'....