Heading into 2009 the national media, bloggers and Notre Dame fans all seem to be thinking something relatively similar. The Irish should be considerably better this season and thus far most of the predictions I have heard range between 8 and 11 victories. Over the weekend Lou Holtz himself predicted the Irish will play Florida for the BCS National Championship. While I’m not quite that optimistic I am in the glass half full contingent. I have spent quite a bit of time looking at this team, their opponents and the greater college football landscape as a whole. After absorbing all of that information my take on the 2009 season is still true to the last line of my Blue Gold Game Wrap-Up from April.
At the end of the day the only team that can keep Notre Dame out of the 2009 BCS mix is Notre Dame.
Here’s why. On paper the Irish really "should" win 11 games. Period. But we all know that you have to actually play the games and very rarely does a team actually win all of the games that they should. USC is case in point as they tend to drop one a year that they have no business losing. Keeping that in mind here’s a quick look at the games themselves.
Nevada- The Wolfpack have 7 returning starters on both sides of the ball to include dual threat QB Colin Kaepernick. This is also the biggest game in the history of Nevada so the Wolfpack will come out fired up with both guns blazing. The Irish need to take them out of the game in a hurry and the offense should be able to do just that. The Wolfpack defense was 119th in the country against the pass in 2008 giving up 321 yds/gm. Nevada will score some points and be a good early test for the defense but unless the Wolfpack miraculously produced themselves a pass defense over the summer Clausen should have a field day. WIN.
@ Michigan- The Wolverines have 10 returning starters back on offense but will be breaking in a new QB. Right now freshman Tate Forcier, freshman Denard Robinson and junior Nick Sheridan are all in the mix. Rich Rodriguez made comments this weekend about possibly playing all three in the opener against Western Michigan. The bottom line is that if you have 3 quarterbacks you really don’t have a quarterback. Not to mention whoever is under center against ND will be facing a defense that is considerably more capable than the one they see in their share of snaps week one. The rest of the offense should be much better so if the QB’s can just manage the game this won’t be a cake walk. On defense Michigan has 5 returning starters to include DE Brandon Graham and a solid linebacking corps. The secondary remains suspect so Clausen should again have a field day. WIN
Michigan State- This game is dangerous and I expect the Spartans will test the Irish. They have 7 returning starters on offense but like Michigan will be breaking in a new QB as well with Keith Nichol and Kirk Cousins in the mix. The Spartans also have to replace offensive cornerstone Javon Ringer. The Spartans return 8 starters defense from a unit that allowed 22ppg in 2008. In short I think the Spartans will keep getting better in a very blue collar fashion under Dantonio and as per usual they will show up ready to trade punches with the Irish. This game will be tough but winnable. WIN
@ Purdue- The Boilers are in sad shape heading into 2009 and should not be a factor. The Danny Hope era begins as does a new version of basketball on grass with new OC Gary Nord coming over from Florida Atlantic. The Boilers insert a new QB in senior Joey Elliot and have Jaycen Taylor back in the mix at RB after he missed last season with an ACL. The defense returns 7 starters but lost DC Brock Spack. The Irish won this game by 17 last season and the margin should be at least that big again in 2009. WIN
Washington- Steve Sarkisian takes over a team that went 0-12 in Tyrone Willingham’s fourth season. QB Jake Locker is for real and that’s about it. They
do have 18 returning starters and will be better with much improved coaching across the board including former USC DC Nick Holt. I expect Sarkisian and Holt will attack ND with schemes very similar to those that worked against ND while they were at USC but they don’t have USC talent just yet. The up side to that is that schematically the Irish inadvertently gain an additional week of USC prep as the instillation etc. for Washington should require little to no tweaking heading into USC. As for Washington the Irish should cruise to a relatively easy victory. WIN
USC- This game will be the culminating point of the season and perhaps the Weis era. USC returns 9 starters on offense and only 3 on defense but back fills with 5 star talent pretty much across the board. Quarterback is a question mark as freshman phenom Matt Barkley continues to duke it out with Aaron Corp. Either should be adequate with their supporting cast. Pete Carroll replaced both coordinators after Sarkisian and Holt left for Washington but promoted from within so that transition should be smooth. Regardless the Trojans will arrive in South Bend with another outstanding football team that always gets up for Notre Dame. The Irish weren’t anywhere near competitive vs. the Trojans the last two seasons but they need to be in 2009. Heading into this game with Washington and a bye week the Irish will essentially have 3 weeks to install and practice what they are going to see against USC. At the end of the day the competitiveness of the game will come down to whether or not the Irish players believe they can trade punches with these guys. If they do it has the potential to be a great game. I’m not calling for any upsets this far out but I expect the game to be competitive. LOSS
Boston College- BC should have a down season in Frank Spaziani’s first year. The Eagles return 7 starters on offense but have no Quarterback to speak of. As of now it looks like it will be 25 year old former minor league baseball player David Shinskie. BC is also breaking in a new offensive system under the direction of OC Gary Tranquill. The defense has 6 returning starters but must replace two disruptive DT’s and linebacker Mark Herzlich who is still occupied winning the war against cancer. All that said BC is the jinx and the Eagles have definitely had ND’s number for what seems like forever. The fact that I’ll be at this game probably even adds to the jinx factor. That said BC will probably put up a decent fight early but the Irish should be able to take care of business in this one so that I can head over to the Backer to celebrate. WIN.
Washington State- The Cougars are one of the worst teams in the FBS and despite having 15 starters heading into Paul Wulff’s second season the Coogs actually being competitive doesn’t look like it will happen in the immediate future. The Irish should have the second team in by halftime in this Alomodome thriller on Halloween night. That said the San Antonio River Walk is one of my favorite places to eat Mexican Food and drink some beers! If you haven’t been there before you’ll enjoy that. WIN
Navy- I really do have a soft spot for the Mids as they have a lineup filled with great Americans. They also travel a large and savvy fan base that I always enjoy visiting with. That said this season should shift back further towards normalcy and the Irish should be able to handle the Mids without any drama. QB Ricky Dobbs will make some plays but at the end of the day the Irish Offense should have another field day in this one. WIN
@ Pittsburgh- This could be a tough game for the Irish and it will be the first true road game since Purdue in week 4. I think the Panthers will win the Big East and they should have a pretty good football team. They have 8 starters back on offense and 7 on defense with one notable loss in work horse RB LeSean McCoy. Notre Dame let Pitt get away from them last season and should come into this one focused and ready to mix it up. I’m actually going to this game as well and expect to see another win while freezing to death at Heinz Field. WIN
UCONN- The Huskies have 6 returning starters on both sides of the ball but have to replace RB Donald Brown. Former Notre Dame QB Zach Frazer takes over under center for Randy Edsall who is a pretty solid coach. That said UCONN will be fairly mediocre overall and the Irish should not have any issues keeping their offense in check or scoring points against them. WIN
@ Stanford- The finale at Stanford will be a tough game. Jim Harbaugh has these kids headed in the right direction and they’ll be ready to give the Irish everything they have in the season finale. This game could also determine bowl eligibility for the Cardinal which could give them added motivation. The Cardinal have 9 returning starters on offense and 8 on defense so experience will not be an issue. Highly touted redshirt freshman Andrew Luck takes over at QB and by this point in the season he should be clicking. The Irish will have to come prepared for this one but should still be able to keep Stanford in check. WIN
Here is how I rank the opponents top to bottom.
2. Michigan State
12. Washington State
USC is really the only game on the schedule that is not a W on paper. I think it has the potential to be a very competitive football game but going into the season most will write that one off as a loss with good reasoning to back it up. As noted above that leaves 11 games that the Irish "should" win. The real difference between a "good" season and a "great" season is winning those 2 or 3 or 4 games where that team you should beat shows up and takes you to the 4th quarter. In 05' and 06' Brady Quinn and company found ways to win most of those games. 05' Stanford and 06' UCLA are the most prominent examples that come to mind. Although this team is all "grown up" now and should win those games they have yet to prove they actually will, most importantly to themselves.
As fans we can blame the coaches and a host of other things for 2008 North Carolina, Pitt, and Syracuse, but at the end of the day those games were lost because the kids on the field lacked the belief that they could get it done. That may be over simplifying it but what I'm getting at is that the mental aspect of the game was lacking. Call it confidence, belief, killer instinct, the will to win or whatever else you want to but the 2008 version of the Irish were short on it. ND always gets everybody's best shot and this team will likely find themselves in a similar situation early in 2009. If and when the team can turn that corner mentally and find a way to win when the chips are down everything changes from that point forward. Once they do it, they will start to believe and that belief will snowball. The mental aspect of football, or most anything else for that matter, is everything. This team has the front line talent, depth and dare I say coaching to have a very special season in 2009 but that mental hump is the one that will make or break the season and ultimately be the determining factor in whether this team is good or great.
So will they win all of the 11 games that they should? I think that we will see this team mature and turn that mental corner but as previously discussed winning 11 games that you are supposed to is difficult I don’t care who you are playing. In the end I think 2009 will look very similar to 2005 with a competitive loss to USC plus one upset for 10 wins which could potentially get the Irish back into the BCS.