Like a grizzly in spring, the college football world finally wakes from a long hibernation. It's a wonderful time to be a college football fan. Nobody's lost a game yet, so hope springs eternal. However, lurking in the shadows is a silent killer of football joy. Expectations.
It's been said that expectation is the mother of all disappointment. The Irish faithful certainly understand this. With a few notable exceptions, the Notre Dame football program has largely failed to live up to expectations since the early 90's.
In 2014 it's business as usual in terms of pre-season hype in South Bend. Even with a roster stocked with unproven players, many fans are anticipating a highly successful year.
I'm here to pump the brakes a little. This team might turn out to be very good, but there are a lot of questions that still need to be answered. Let's take a look at 3 common assumptions fans are making and talk a little bit about why these assumptions might be a little too optimistic.
1. Everett Golson will pick up from where he left off in the National Championship Game.
The last time we saw Everett Golson in live action he was one of the few Notre Dame players who stood out against a powerhouse Alabama team. The common assumption has been that Golson will continue that high level of play into the 2014 season.
You might want to hold off on that prediction. The National Championship Game skewed people's perceptions. In 2012 Golson was far from a player who could carry a team against the very best competition. For the most part he was a raw, inexperienced quarterback who put up pedestrian passing numbers by today's standards. Golson had only one game (Wake Forest) where he threw for more than 2 touchdowns. Over the course of the year he completed less than 60% of his passes and his yards per game totals were nothing to write home about either:
Navy - 144 yds
Purdue - 289 yds
MSU - 178 yds
Michigan - 30 yds
Miami - 186 yds
Stanford - 141 yds
Oklahoma - 177 yds
Pitt - 227 yds
BC - 200 yds
Wake Forest - 346 yds
USC - 217 yds
My point? Don't expect Everett Golson to pick up where he left off. He's a talented football player and will provide a much needed spark for the Irish offense. But he's not ready to carry the team yet. Be prepared for Golson to be inconsistent and at times look downright skittish. He's still developing as a quarterback and missing last year set him back significantly. It doesn't matter that he worked with a famous quarterback guru during his exile. Throwing passes on the beach is very different from throwing passes in Notre Dame stadium, on national TV, while large angry men try to hit you.
In 2012 Everett Golson had multiple safety nets. He had a dependable, experienced back up. He was surrounded by excellent leaders and could rely on one of the best defenses in the country. This year he's performing without a net. It won't all be rainbows and unicorns. Be patient.
2. Aggressive defense = better defense
There seems to be a little revisionist history happening on internet message boards these days. It generally goes like this, "the Irish defense was too conservative in 2013. Too much bend but don't break, they needed to attack more. An aggressive style of defense that emphasizes man coverage and blitzing is what the Irish need."
Many people forget that going into 2013, Notre Dame vowed to play a more aggressive brand of defense. Remember Michigan? It was blitzkrieg. The Irish attacked relentlessly and played a lot of man coverage. How did that work out?
Blitzing and man coverage by themselves aren't a silver bullet. You need the right players to execute the schemes. The 2013 defense wasn't fast enough in the front 7 or proficient enough in man coverage to play this style of defense. Yes Brian VanGorder will bring a more aggressive scheme, but does he have the players to execute it?
If the defense improves this year X's and O's will only be a small part of the story. The key is the players. We need faster players in the front 7 and defensive backs who can play man coverage or the scheme won't make any difference.
3. The offensive line as a whole will be better next year.
I know, I know. The offensive line is stocked with talent and is extremely well coached. That's true. In fact, the offensive line might be the best position group on the entire team and the two deep is the best we've seen in... well, a long time.
Even so, you cannot lose players like Zack Martin and Chris Watt and expect to improve. There is no one on the roster who can replace the experience Watt and Martin brought as individuals and even more importantly as a tandem on the left side. Experience matters, especially on the O-line.
Martin will go down as one of the best linemen ever to play at the University of Notre Dame. He was also an exceptional leader. You don't get better when a generational player leaves your program.
The argument that the offensive line will be better in 2014 comes from the same strand of logic that brought us "the safety position will be better in 2013 even with the departure of Zeke Motta". This argument places too much emphasis on perceived potential and not enough on proven production.
The departure of Chris Watt and Zack Martin creates a void that won't be filled in 2014. In the final analysis, we likely won't notice the void in terms of offensive production. There is enough talent at quarterback and running back to overcome deficiencies in line play. I can guarantee, though, if you pay close attention to how the offensive line plays, you'll notice a decrease in consistency.
It's August, go ahead and drink some of the optimist flavoured Kool-Aid that is being served during camp. Just don't drink it with a funnel. A little moderation will go a long way. This is a talented but young football team. There are going to be some ups and downs. Try to enjoy the ride.