The talk of Irish fans heading into the 2009 season is the prospect of an amazing, redemptive, 10-win plus season. I'm not sold. Maybe it's my natural Irish pessimism (or contrarianism), maybe it's the many times my hopes have wilted under ND's failures to deliver on expectations throughout the years; whatever it is, I just don't see this season being an overwhelming success.
To begin, the schedule is not the walk in the park so many pundits claim it to be. In essence, there are four games that Notre Dame absolutely should win (Purdue, Washington, Washington State, Navy), two games that they probably should win (Michigan, UConn), five that could go either way (Nevada, Michigan State, BC, Pitt, Stanford) and one they should probably lose (USC). If that script roughly holds, the Irish are likely 8-4 or 9-3. Unfortunately, at this point, I think even that may represent too rosy a view.
With the exception of their tremendous performance in the Hawaii Bowl, has this team done anything to inspire enough confidence to believe them BCS Bowl-bound? Yes, they're talented, but they've also proven very erratic. Bear in mind, in 2008, they blew double-digit leads in losses to UNC, Pitt and Syracuse. AND, they also blew large 4th quarter leads in wins over Stanford and Navy (28-7 and 27-7, respectively). Then, of course, they were also this close to losing their home opener to San Diego State. So, while the optimists in the group say ND probably should have won nine regular season games, I would contend they might have lost just as many. Sure, some of that is youth, but the bigger part is coaching. Well-coached teams do not lose significant leads and they do win close games. Are we to believe the coaches have improved?
So, what do I expect? Well, I will use two examples from our old friends - the execrable Michigan Wolverines. I think that, in the best case, Notre Dame ends up being Michigan 2007. That season, Michigan began with lofty expectations and a #5 ranking nationally before crashing to earth with home losses to Appalachian State and Oregon to start they year. The Wolverines then went on an eight game winning streak (kicked off with a 38-0 disembowling of ND in Ann Arbor) before ending the season with losses to Wisconsin and Ohio State. Ultimately, though, Michigan redeemed itself by stunning a very good, Tim Tebow-led Florida Gators team, 41-35, in the Citrus Bowl.
In the worst case, I believe Notre Dame ends up as Michigan 2005. That squad began the year with, arguably, higher expectations and a #3 ranking to go along with them. After starting off with a 33-17 thumping of Northern Illinois, the Irish came into Ann Arbor and secured a hard-fought 17-10 victory. That loss helped set the tone for what would be an incredibly disappointing 7-5 campaign that ended with a 32-28 loss to Nebraska in the Alamo Bowl.
So, why and how do I think Notre Dame will come up short? Let's take a stroll through the upcoming season:
9/5 Nevada, Prediction: Loss
With the exception of the stunning 42-21 blowout of Pitt that kicked off his first season in 2005, Charlie Weis' teams have been slow starters. In 2006, ND began the season ranked #2 in the AP poll and #3 in the coaches' and were lucky to scratch out a 14-10 win over an unranked Georgia Tech team in the season opener. The next year, Georgia Tech came north to South Bend and whacked the Irish, 33-3, in what would be the beginning of a historically terrible season. Then, last year, Notre Dame eked out a 21-13 win at home over a horrible San Diego State team in a game they were a goalline fumble away from losing. Enter Nevada.
The Wolf Pack are a potent offensive team that can move the ball with ease. Led by 6-6 quarterbeast Colin Kapernick (2,849 passing yards, 1,130 rushing yards, 22 passing tds, 17 rushing tds) and running back Vai Taua (1,521 yards rushing), Nevada averaged over 500 yards of total offense per game in 2008. With a defensive front seven as inexperienced as ND's, this type of attack presents serious problems.
On the flip side, Nevada's defense was fairly terrible last year, giving up over 400 yards per game, so this could be a barnburner. Unfortunately, Notre Dame's offense can only score if they're on the field and, with an offense like the Wolf Pack's, the potential exists for Jimmy Clausen and Co. to be spending a fair amount of time waiting their turn on the sideline. That, combined with the aforementioned slow-starting of Weis' teams, leads me to believe that this will represent the first big upset of the 2009 season (though, given their schedule and talent level, Nevada may be a ranked team by season's end).
9/12 at Michigan, Prediction: Loss
How badly has Notre Dame fared at the Big House in recent history? Let's take a look:
2007 - L, 38-0
2005 - W, 17-10
2003 - L, 38-0
2001 - L, 25-22
1999 - L, 21-14
For those keeping score at home, that's a 1-4 record that could very easily have been 0-5 were it not for a nail-biter of a win in 2005. Worse, thanks to two 38-0 drubbings, the average score of those games is 27-11 in favor of the Wolverines. Ah, but this year is different, right? I'm not so sure.
Without question, Michigan was terrible last year. Much like the Irish in 2007, the Wolverines struggled to a 3-9 finish thanks, in large part, to a woeful offense. Then, in the offseason, they lost a QB who had started eight games in 2008 (Steven Threet - transferred to Arizona State) and a RB who put up over 130 yards against ND (Sam McGuffie - transferred to Rice). Even with that, though, I think Michigan will have a markedly better offense than a year ago. That's because they return all five offensive linemen, running backs Brandon Minor and Carlos Brown and bring in a QB, Tate Forcier, who is much better suited to Rich Rodriguez's offensive scheme than either Threet or, this year's back-up, Nick Sheridan ever were. Add receivers Greg Matthews and Martavious Odoms to the fold, and the Wolverine offense should certainly do much better than last year's #109 national ranking.
In 2008, Michigan's defense was somewhat underrated. As a group, they finished 67th nationally but, as Irish fans may remember, did manage to hold Notre Dame to their third lowest yardage total (260) of the season (MSU held ND to 258, USC to 91). However, unless new defensive coordinator Greg Robinson (last seen leading a horrid Syracuse team to victory over Notre Dame in the most embarrasing loss in program history) can manage to work wonders in the offseason, this year's team will be hard-pressed to replicate last year's rank as six starters will need to be replaced.
In spite of the score (35-17), last year's game in South Bend was a relatively close affair - Michigan's six turnovers made the margin much wider than it might otherwise have been. Given that: this year's game is in Ann Arbor, the Wolverines should be a bit better than in 2008 and it's a rivalry game that Michigan will be pumped for; Notre Dame could be in for a surprisingly tough day. Homefield advantage gives the Wolverines the edge and upset here.
9/19 Michigan State, Prediction: Loss
While Notre Dame has done poorly against Michigan on the road over the last decade, they've done poorly against Michigan State, regardless of venue, during that time. Since 1997, the Spartans are 9-3 against the Irish, which includes a 6-0 record at Notre Dame Stadium.
In spite of losing running back Javon Ringer, quarterback Brian Hoyer and two offensive linemen, the Spartan offense should still be able to move the chains in 2009. That's because seven starters, including receivers Mark Dell, Blair White and BJ Cunningham, as well as tight end Charlie Gantt, will be back. That's good news for whomever ends up winning the battle to be Michigan State's starting QB (it's currently a fight between last year's back-up Kirk Cousins and Oklahoma transfer Keith Nichol).
Defensively, MSU should be very tough. They return eight starters from a defense that stifled the Irish a year ago and have a chance to be just as formidable this season. While the defensive line won't scare anyone, the linebackers, led by Greg Jones, are a talented group who will wreak havoc on opposing rushers. The Spartan secondary, while losing S Otis Wiley, returns three starters and will almost certainly improve upon last year's 70th ranked pass defense.
In 2008, MSU coach Mark Dantonio led the program to their best record (9-4) since the 1999 season, when the Spartans went 10-2. What's more, he has his team set to challenge for Big Ten primacy in 2009. While their quest for a Rose Bowl may fall short, they have a great chance to, once again, knock off the Irish. Michigan State has a huge mental advantage, having already firmly convinced themselves of their dominance over Notre Dame. Unfortunately, ND has done nothing to dispel them of this opinion and likely won't in 2009.
Fear not, Irish faithful, the Irish will not suffer two 0-4 starts in three years. Luckily for Notre Dame, Purdue is going to be a train wreck in 2009. Last season, the Boilermakers limped to a 4-8 finish in spite of both an experienced and talented offense and a longtime coach in his last season with the program. This year, a new head coach and a depleted offense operating without its quarterback, leading rusher and four of its five top receivers from a year ago, will yield an outcome that's no better.
On the defensive side, Purdue does return seven starters, but that's from a group which gave up nearly 175 ypg on the ground, including 201 to an anemic Irish rushing attack. Worse for them, among the few players they do lose is last year's leading tackler, LB Anthony Heygood.
While the Irish are only 2-3 at Ross-Ade Stadium over the last decade, this year's trip should be reminiscent of the 2005 game. That year, an explosive Irish offense racked up seven touchdowns and over 600 yards against the 22nd ranked Boilermakers in a 49-28 rout. This year, Notre Dame should have an equally large advantage in terms of overall talent and, as a result, the outcome should be no closer than in '05. Oftentimes, the best tonic for a struggling team is a team that's worse. For many squads in 2009, including ND, Purdue will be that team.
10/3 Washington, Prediction: Win
After finishing 0-12 in 2008, Washington has nowhere to go but up in 2009. Getting a new head coach in Steve Sarkisian and a healthy Jake Locker at QB will provide immediate boosts to a team that had nothing going for it last season.
While getting Locker back should be a big help to the Husky offense, they may experience something of a learning curve adjusting to Sarkisian's offensive scheme. In addition, Washington will need to replace three offensive linemen and their leading rusher from 2008. Adding to their woes, it was recently announced that running backs David Freeman and Brandon Johnson would be leaving the program "for unspecified reasons." This leaves the Huskies with just four scholarship backs heading into camp.
For Washington's defense, the upside is they return 10 starters. The downside, however, is that they come from a unit that finished #118 against the run, #117 in scoring and #112 overall. What's more, the one area in which they were relatively competent (#62 against the pass) is also where they lose their only starter - CB Mesphin Foster. It's fair to assume that the Husky defense will be improved in 2009, but they may only mean cracking the top 100 nationally.
It appears that UW has found the right coach to help bring the program back to respectability. Sarkisian has already proven to be an outstanding recruiter and his coaching work as both offensive coordinator and QB coach at USC speaks for itself. Unfortunately, the Huskies will still be pretty awful in 2009. This is a team Notre Dame should easily dispatch while running their all-time record against Washington to a perfect 9-0.
10/17, USC, Prediction: Loss
Yes, 2009 will be a reloading year for USC, as they have to break in a new QB and eight new defensive starters. No, this will not be a bad year for the Trojans. As they've proven time and again, the SC program stockpiles obscene amounts of talent and simply replaces pieces as needed.
Even with a new QB at the helm, the Trojan offense will be a juggernaut this season. Their new signal-caller will be either sophomore Aaron Corp or freshman Matt Barkley. Both are incredibly talented and, in spite of his age, Barkley reportedly had a great spring. Whomever lines up behind center for USC will be surrounded by a wildly talented supporting cast. Southern Cal returns six (six!) of their top rushers, nine (freakin' nine!!) of their top receivers and all five offensive linemen from 2008. This is an offense that is deep, spreads the ball around brilliantly and is an absolute nightmare to defend.
The defense is a different story. They return just three starters from last year's incredibly dominating unit. To highlight just how much USC has lost, consider that NFL teams drafted eight Trojan defenders in April. When you are #2 in total defense, #1 in scoring defense (9 ppg), #5 in rushing defense (87 ypg) and #1 in pass defense (134 ypg), this should come as no surprise. Needless to say, replacing that many stars and that much success will be a significant challenge but, if any program is capable of rising to it, it's Southern Cal.
So, what does this mean for Notre Dame? Well, this year's game should be much closer than last year, but not nearly as close as 2005. Notre Dame loses by two touchdowns.
While 2009 may not be the year the Irish get the Michigan State monkey off their backs, it will be the year that their woes against Boston College (six straight losses) come to an end. With a new head coach and key personnel losses, BC should be ripe to fall to ND this season.
With the exception of QB, the Eagles will have an experienced offense in 2009. The offensive line returns four starters, both running backs (Josh Haden and Montel Harris) are back and the receivers, led by senior Rich Gunnell, are veterans. Unfortunately, this group was not the strength of BC's team last year, finishing #93 nationally in total offense. In 2009, the quarterback situation is also likely to be cause for concern. Projected starter Dominque Davis left the program this spring and the Eagles have few good options in his place. At this point, it's a three-way race between Justin Tuggle, Codi Boeck and Mike Marscovetra; with Tuggle likely to get the nod. None has starting experience, so they'll have to endure their growing pains in a tough spot.
BC's defense, usually a strength, actually may be cause for concern in 2009. That's because star linemen BJ Raji and Ron Brace are gone; as is LB Brian Toal. In May, the Eagles received upsetting news when starting LB Mark Herzlich announced he was battling a malignant tumor and, in all likelihood, would not be back for his senior season. Herzlich tallied six interceptions to go along with 110 tackles in 2008 and represents a huge loss. The one glimmer of hope is that three starters return from a secondary that gave up just 177 ypg in 2008 (and also managed to intercept Jimmy Clausen four times in a 17-0 BC win).
With a suspect offense, a thin defense and a new head coach, this is likely to be a year filled with growing pains for Boston College. Of course, last year was also supposed to be a transitional season after star QB Matt Ryan and a host of experienced players departed. The Eagles responded to that challenge by winning nine games. Repeating that performance is unlikely, however and the Irish will have both homefield advantage and the payback factor going for them in 2009. This, plus a big edge in talent, should be enough to get Notre Dame the 'W'.
10/31 Washington State (at The Alamodome), Prediction: Win
In 2008, Washington State was only slightly less awful than their cross-state rivals - winning two games to UW's zero, including a narrow 16-13 victory over the Huskies. This coming year, both will still be terrible but, it's likely, the Cougars will be the ones dredging the bottom of the PAC-10 barrel.
Properly evaluating Washington State's prospects for 2009 depends on whether you are a "glass half-full" or "glass half-empty" kind of person. The optimist will point out that the Cougars return fourteen starters from last season (eight offense, six defense). The pessimist will counter that this is the same group who finished 119th out of 120 teams in total offense and 109th in total defense in 2008. Needless to say, much remains to be done in order to make this an even remotely competitive team.
Unfortunately, whatever gains WSU may make in the offseason, it will not be nearly enough for them to best the Irish. The last (and only) time these programs met, Notre Dame overcame a 19-point deficit to sneak past Washington State, 29-26 in OT in 2003. This time, no dramatic comebacks should be required. Simply put, the Cougars are the worst team on Notre Dame's schedule this season and the Irish should be able to have their way with them. Even with back-to-back games against rivals USC and BC preceeding this one, the talent gap between the teams is far too great. Even a sub-par performance should guarantee Notre Dame no less than a two-touchdown victory.
11/7 Navy, Prediction: Win
Over the years, the Navy/Notre Dame rivalry has involved some very close calls and tight finishes. In just the last two seasons, each team has won a game that was decided in the waning moments. This pattern will not hold in 2009.
Over the years, the Navy/Notre Dame rivalry has involved some very close calls and tight finishes. In just the last two seasons, each team has won a game that was decided in the waning moments. This pattern will not hold in 2009.
This season, Navy's offense will be inexperienced and undersized. Facing off against a speedy and athletic Irish defense will create serious problems for this group. Notre Dame's defensive linemen should be able to dominate Navy's much smaller offensive line, while an aggressive group of Irish linebackers and d-backs will stifle the best efforts of the Midshipmen backfield.
The Navy defense brings back eight starters from last season, but it is a unit that will not fare well against a much more talented Irish offensive group. Much as is the case on the other side of the ball, the Irish possess far too much size and speed for a gritty Navy team to hang with long.
While this rivalry has heated up in recent years, 2009 should be a year in which Notre Dame is able to secure a much more comfortable margin of victory over their long-time rivals. I see Dayne Crist getting significant playing time for the second week in a row and Irish running backs sharing many carries in running down the clock.
Tell me if this sounds familiar: Notre Dame goes on the road in November to play a team with a sub-par offense and a very good defense and ends up losing. While I could be talking about last year's tilt with BC in Chestnut Hill, I am actually referring to this year's matchup with Pitt.
Like the Eagles a year ago, Pitt is likely to struggle offensively in 2009. While they were not world-beaters in 2008 either, this year could be worse. Yes, Bill Stull returns at QB, but that may not be such a huge benefit. Afterall, Stull did manage to throw more interceptions (10) than TDs (9) last year. Worse, Stull will not have TJ Porter (25 catches, 357 yards in '08) to throw to as the receiver left the program in the offseason following a suspension. The strength of the Panther offense in 2008 was their running game but, that will see a very big drop-off in 2009. That's because star back LeSean McCoy, his back-up LaRod Stephens-Howling and fullback Conredge Collins are all gone. The two positives for the Pitt 'O' in 2009 will be the return of three senior tight ends and four starters on the offensive line.
Pitt's defense is almost the polar opposite. With USC's defense having to replace so many starters, this may be the best defense the Irish will face in 2009. The defensive line is the heart of this unit and may prove to be the best in the country. The group's three returning starters combined for 121 tackles and 17.5 sacks in 2008 and will be led by All-Big East selection, Greg Romeus. Pitt's linebackers have the most to replace, having lost two of three starters, including All-American Scott McKillop. The secondary, however, only loses one starter (S Eric Thatcher) and may allow the Panthers to be even better against the pass than last year when they finished 38th nationally.
As the old saying goes, "games are won and lost in the trenches." If that's true, Pitt has a big advantage here. Their offensive line is experienced and their defensive line is tremendous. Combine that with the game being played at Pitt and this is a tough spot in which to pick the Irish. I see the defense holding Clausen and Co. in check and the Panther's offense doing just enough to sneak out a win.
In a decade's time, Randy Edsall has guided the University of Connecticut's football program from a recent entrant into the ranks of IA to a bowl-winning team that saw four players go in the first two rounds of this April's NFL draft. While Edsall has done a tremendous job in Storrs, 2009 may represent a rebuilding year for the Huskies.
Among the players who left for the riches of the NFL were 2,000-yard rusher Donald Brown and left tackle Will Beatty. With a new QB (ND transfer Zach Frazer) lining up behind center, the absence of these two will be felt tremendously. Fortunately for Frazer, he does have three returning linemen and a talented receiver in Kashif Moore to help him guide UConn's offense.
UConn's defense will also need to replace some important contributor's to the team's 2008 success. Gone are NFL draftees, DE Cody Brown and CB Darius Butler, as are S Dahna Deleston and DE Julius Williams. Those four helped form the core of a defense that ranked 6th nationally. Still, the cupboard's not totally bare. That's because LB Scott Lutrus (106 tackles, nine sacks), CB Jasper Howard and four other starters from that unit will be back in 2009. While a repeat of last year's success is unlikely, this will still be a group that causes some headaches for offensive coordinators.
Last season, Notre Dame came into its final home game of the year and suffered a nauseating loss to lowly Syracuse. This year, their competition will be better, but so will the result. UConn has enough talent to keep this game close for a while but, in the end, the Irish have too much firepower and will be able to put the Huskies away.
In four of their last five meetings, Stanford has come tantalizingly close to victory over Notre Dame only to fall short. In 2004, the Cardinal's need to settle for field goals, rather than score touchdowns, allowed the Irish to scratch out a hard-fought 23-15 win. Then, in 2005, it took a Darius Walker touchdown and two-point conversion with under a minute left for Notre Dame to avoid a huge upset that would have kept them out of a BCS bowl. In 2007, ND eked out a 21-14 victory in a game that saw Stanford miss four field goals and fail to score from inside the Irish ten on four straight plays at the end of the game. Finally, last season, Notre Dame stormed out to a 28-7 lead only to watch the Cardinal rally furiously in the fourth quarter to get themselves within a TD before running out of steam. This season, Stanford will have their revenge.
As was the case in 2008, the running game will be the key to Stanford's offense this year. Power back Toby Gerhart returns to the Cardinal backfield after having rushed for over 1,100 yards and 15 TDs last season. He will be joined by hard-blocking fullback Owen Marecic and three experienced starters on the offensive line. Unless Notre Dame's green front seven makes significant strides over the course of the year, this presents a potentially large match-up problem for them. While Stanford does return its top two receivers from a season ago (Doug Baldwin and Ryan Whalen), QB Tavita Pritchard has largely disappointed since engineering the Cardinal's historic upset of USC in 2007. Last season, Pritchard did complete a respectable 58% of his passes, but only threw for 1,100 yards and three more interceptions (13) than touchdowns (10). Still, it will be Gerhart's legs, not Pritchard's arm that will make or break Stanford's offense this season.
Stanford's defense also brings back a large number (7) of last season's starters. While the linebacking corps does need to break in two new players, the one returning starter, Clinton Snyder, is very good. Up front, the Cardinal return three linemen who will provide a stiff test for the Irish offensive line. And, though Notre Dame's receivers should certainly prove superior, Stanford's secondary, led by CB Bo McNally, will not go quietly.
Over the last decade, Notre Dame has been to Stanford what Michigan State has been to the Irish - a hump they just can't seem to get over. And, while I don't think this is the year ND exorcises their demon, I do see it as Stanford's time. The Cardinal are experienced, they are home and their offense is perfectly suited to exploiting the weaknesses of the Irish defense and keeping Notre Dame's offense on the sideline. Gird your loins now, Irish fans, Jim Harbaugh's big mouth will be running at full speed after this one.
Conclusion: Yet another year where the Irish come up short with a 6-6 record. For better or worse (depending on your perspective), Weis will get the axe at season's end, interim coach Corwin Brown will coach the team in their mid-December bowl game and the "Urban's coming to Notre Dame" rumor mill will begin churning anew.
Obviously, these predictions do not represent what I want to see happen; only what I think will. If it came down to my wishes, Notre Dame would never lose another game, their Heisman case would be overflowing and the USC football program would be relegated to the ash heap of history where it belongs. Unfortunately, wishes and predictions are different creatures born of different places.
Perhaps I'll be proved wrong. Maybe this really is the year the Irish will put it all together, overcome past deficiencies and take the college football world by storm. That would be amazing. Alas, until this team shows me that, week in and week out, they can be what their talent suggests; I just can't see them as more than mediocre.