Sunday, July 12, 2009

Reflections On Negativity: A Preview Reconsidered

The other day, I put up my 2009 season preview and, admittedly, ended up being a bit negative in handicapping the Irish prospects this season.
In response, I was greeted with feedback that was as strong as it was disparaging. For those of you who took me to task because you felt my perspective was wrong, thanks for your opinion. I always appreciate hearing from readers, regardless of whether or not we agree. For readers who issued instructions like, "go kill yourself, we will all be better off", I just want to say you bring a truly amazing level of wit and intellectual vigor to the table. Stay classy!
In any event, I took the opportunity to re-read what I'd written and, I have to say, I think I was wrong. While I do still have concerns (let's face it, there are always concerns), I think I might have overstated them. In essence, they boil down to the following:
  • The Team: While exceptionally talented, this squad has yet to prove itself consistently.
  • The Coaches: Did Weis plateau in 2006? Can he take this program to the next level?
  • The Bowl Factor: The Hawaii Bowl was phenomenal, but it was just one game (afterall, the 2003 squad won a game by 50 points on the road - Stanford, 57-7- then lost the following game in ending 5-7 on the year).
  • The Schedule: While the schedule in 2005 looked very difficult at the start of the season, thanks to the failings of several teams on it, was viewed to be much lighter by the end - this season has the potential to be the inverse.
  • Historical Precedent: By season's end, in each of the last three seasons, Notre Dame's record/season performance ended up being worse than I had expected prior to the first game.
I do think that every one of these is valid and will need to be addressed during the course of the year; however, this team has enough going for it that it should be able to overcome most, if not all, of them. Here's why:
  • The Team: In spite of still being a youngish group, this team has gained a huge amount of game experience in the the last few seasons which will pay big dividends during the 2009 campaign. Yes, this team blew too many leads in 2008. No question about it, they left three wins on the field (UNC, Pitt, Syracuse) and allowed two other games (Stanford, Navy) to be alarmingly close prior to securing victory. While difficult to watch last year, those types of games will end up being instructive as this team moves forward. Part of their growing up was figuring out how to win close games. Sometimes the best way to learn is to lose a few. Simply put, should this team find itself in a hard-fought, back-and-forth contest in 2009, they will be prepared. Moreover, this team is tremendously talented. This is the finest group of athletes to take the field for the Irish since, at least, the 1995 season, if not earlier. The WRs and DBs are among the best in the country, the LBs are young, but stacked and the RBs are deep. Add to that, a veteran QB just coming in to his own and an offensive line that has logged a ton of time together and you have a team that is loaded. One area of the team that has been a bit overlooked, but also bears mentioning - special teams. Both punter Eric Maust and kicker Brandon Walker return this year and will help ND tremendously. In two seasons, Maust has averaged 42 and 41 yards per punt, respectively, and will be a big help in the field position game in '09. Walker, after having started terribly last season (1 for his first 7) ended the year making 13 of his last 17 and looking much more confident. He will be a huge X-factor in any close games. Quite simply, with the exception of USC, this team is better than every team on their schedule. That, combined with the aforementioned experienced level, should be enough to guarantee at least eight wins.
  • The Coaches: Like so many Irish fans, I am still uncertain as to whether Charlie Weis is the right man to coach this program. That hasn't changed. What has is who is surrounding him and what roles people will play. To begin, Jon Tenuta might be the best assistant coach at ND since Joe Moore (yes, I know Urban Meyer was at ND in the intervening years, but his best coaching occurred after his time in South Bend). This season, Tenuta gets more control of the defense and, with a season in his system under their belt, the players will be better able to execute his schemes. Corwin Brown, conversely, was named Associate Head Coach and will be picking up some slack from Weis as he re-takes the reins at offensive coordinator. To me, this is a good choice as Brown already seems to enjoy a good rapport with the players and will be a nice conduit between them and Weis. Additionally, it helps better prepare Brown to, eventually, become a head coach. New to the team this season are offensive line coach Frank Verducci and running backs coach Tony Alford. Both will be coaching units that have been areas of concern and, I believe, in both cases, will lead their charges to better results than that which they'd previously achieved. Finally, as mentioned, Weis will, once again, be calling the offensive plays. This seemed to work really well in the Hawaii Bowl and, with Brown taking over some of the "big picture" responsibilities, should allow Weis to bring his strengths fully to bear.
  • The Bowl Factor: It is definitely very easy to project too much significance on one game. For example, in 2005, nearly beating USC seemed to suggest that Notre Dame's program was once again ready to compete at the highest levels of college football. Unfortunately, that was not yet the case. Still, the team's performance on Christmas Eve last year does, in retrospect, seem to be something of a watershed. It's not that Hawaii was a juggernaut -they were actually pretty mediocre - it's that Notre Dame did to them exactly what a team with as much talent as the Irish possess ought to have done ...they crushed them. That may have been the best performance of the Weis era. All facets of the team, including the coaching staff, hit the right notes and imposed their will on an overmatched opponent. Do I think there will be a carry-over from that game into the 2009 season? Yes and no. No, I don't think Notre Dame will still have momentum from a game played over nine months prior to the season opener. Yes, I do think that, similar to the experience of last year's tough losses, this Irish team now has something to draw on and in which to be confident. They know the potential they possess and what needs to be done in order to fulfill it. This was not a fluke - not simply a matter of getting lucky or an opponent having a bad day. This was talent coming of age. The 2009 season will show just how far it has come.
  • The Schedule: As I mentioned in my preview, I do believe that ND's schedule has gotten a bit of short shrift. Generally, when it's discussed, words like "manageable" are used. While I don't think that's untrue, I do feel that it may prove more challenging than is generally assumed. Consider that, at least four teams the Irish face (Michigan, Washington, Washington State, Stanford) will undoubtedly be improved in 2009 (if only because, in some cases, being worse would be difficult). An additional three (Nevada, Michigan State, Pitt) do lose some key players, but are all likely to compete for their conference championships and be bowl-eligible. The remaining five will likely slip from their 2008 performance, but they include a Top 10 team (USC), one that has beaten the Irish six straight times (BC) and one that is coming off a 9-win campaign and has the advantage of a starting QB who was previously on the Notre Dame team. Of course, no one knows exactly how the season will play out, but I think these are reasonable assumptions and, if true, represent a potentially treacherous slate. Even still, there is not a team the Irish will face that possesses their combination of skill and experience. While that may not always prove decisive, it will more often than not.
  • Historical Precedent: It is absolutely true that, with the exception of 2005, Notre Dame's teams have failed to live up to pre-season expectations during the Weis era. Even if the difference was only one or two wins less than what was predicted, the results have still been largely disappointing. Due to the factors discussed above, though, I do believe 2009 has the potential to be a completely different type of season. If anything, while most preseason prognosticators have been respectful of the Irish (generally predicting eight or nine wins), few have felt them to be more than a mid-lower Top 25 team (Phil Steele has them at #7, but he is by far the exception). This clearly creates a situation, like 2005, where Notre Dame can exceed expectations and become an important part of the conversation. The key difference here is, in 2005, the Irish didn't have nearly the firepower to ultimately vault them to the upper echelons - this team does. Barring injury, transfer or any other variety of unforeseen catastrophe, Notre Dame should end up at least a 9-win team playing in a meaningful bowl game that they have a chance to win. This would represent a break with the past and position the program nicely for the future.

So there it is. While no one knows what this season will actually bring, I did think I was a bit too dour with my initial projections. Admitting you are wrong (or at least think you were), is never easy, but it is sometimes necessary. This was the case here.


JMD said...

Hell, I thought your original post was a needed glass of cold water. Seems everyone else on ND sites is predicting a NC this year. Get real!

So don't backtrack too much. Skeptics are essential to a functioning civilization!

Jay-A said...

Right you are, re: skeptics, JMD! I think both posts certainly identify potential outcomes. The first could be categorized as a "worst case scenario", the second, a more probable (hopefully) outcome. Thanks! BH

Charlie said...

Did you forget about new DL Coach Randy Hart?
Along with Bryant Young he might make a difference with our young DL.
Especially by years end.

Jay-A said...

Charlie - I'm embarrassed to admit that I did overlook both Hart and Young. You are 100% corrrect - There is a great deal of untested talent on the DL and having both Hart and Young should reap big dividends. Thanks!