Sunday, July 15, 2007

College Football Preview Rags: Athlon Sports

Quick re-set: The college football preview magazines for the 2007 season have come out. I grabbed a few of this year's editions off the shelf at my local supermarket, and this is the second of a sporadic series of posts reviewing the preview rags, from the perspective of a rabid Notre Dame fan. First up was the Sporting News, which apparently has very little respect for Notre Dame generally, and Head Football Coach Charlie Weis in particular. This time it's the National Edition of the Athlon Sports College Football preview. As with the Sporting News, I'll generally work from the front of the magazine to the back.

First Things First. I'll remove any suspense, Athlon did a very nice job with their preview. Factually accurate, fair presentation, no cheap shots. As a result of Athlon's professional integrity, I have very little material to work with from the standpoint of scathing criticism or witty commentary. But, the magazine is chock full of interesting information, so I do have some thoughts and observations I want to share.

1. Cover Boy Zibby. Athlon has four different covers for their National Edition, and Zibby appears on each one. Being in Southern California, my edition has Zibby and USC QB J.D. Booty on the cover. Athlon also releases seven different regional/conference magazines, and no Notre Dame player is featured on any of those. As a Notre Dame fan, you always like to see a Domer on the cover. I'm sure it's also a good way to sell magazines. My only comment is that the picture they use is kind of odd. What is he doing exactly? If he had a ball in his hand, he might be throwing a pass. As it is, he looks like he's directing traffic.

2. Photogenic. The magazine opens with a big 2-page photo of Notre Dame versus Michigan last year. The picture shows Michigan running back Mike Hart diving diving over a pile of Notre Dame defenders and into the end zone. Although it's better UM shot than ND shot, it's a great college football action photo.

Athlon has a very nice gallery of photos from that game in the "Scenes From Saturday" section of their website.

3. The 7th Annual Athlon Awards. Athlon ranks the "best units" in college football. Given the youth and inexperience the Irish will have all over the field this season, it is not surprising that Notre Dame failed to make the Top 10 for any unit (QB, RB, OL, WR, DL, LB, DB). That stings a little. It was mostly the usual suspects that made the lists, but there were a few mentioned that were pretty hard to swallow as an Irish fan. Both Boise State and Rutgers have Top 10 offensive line units. That's right, Boise State and Rutgers have better O-lines than Notre Dame. Missouri has a Top 10 corps of wide receivers (ND doesn't). And Western Michigan has a Top 10 group of defensive backs. W-E-S-T-E-R-N M-I-C-H-I-G-A-N. It is very tempting to argue that Notre Dame's secondary is actually better than Western Michigan's. But I have more pride than to stoop to that level.

4. All-Americans. Like everyone else with a printing press, Athlon has their own list of All-Americans. As far as the Irish go, it's pretty standard fare. Tight End John Carlson and Safety Tom Zbikowski are first teamers. Center John Sullivan is second team. I have no doubt that Carlson will be super, assuming there are no lingering effects from last year's minor knee injury. Zibby is getting a lot of love because of his reputation a a big hitter, and because of a great 2005 campaign. But he did not play like an All-American last season. It seems accepted wisdom now that he was hampered by a shoulder injury for most of last year, but I don't remember hearing much talk about that after mid-season. In any case, Tommy needs to have the best year of his career for Notre Dame to be competitive. He can't be seen chasing the play after Mario Manningham catches a ball on the seam route. Instead, he has to plant Mario at midfield just as the ball arrives, and make Mario not want to run around in the middle of the field any more. I can't help but feel that Sully is getting a lot of love because of the Notre Dame tradition at offensive line, and because he is the stalwart elder statesman of the group. I was so disappointed in our (in)ability to run the ball with power last year that I have a hard time believing that we had any All-Americans in the mix. But I admit I haven't watched a lot of film on offensive linemen, and the pundits seem to like him an awful lot. So maybe Sullivan is the real deal. I sure hope so.

5. We're #38! It doesn't quite have same ring as "We're #1!" But it's all we've got right now. Athlon's estimation of Notre Dame's prowess is pretty much in line with the pack right now. I can't really blame the analysts. Who can objectively project that we'll be better this year than last, when we've lost our entire offense (practically), and most of a defense that wasn't very good to begin with? So we'll have to prove it on the field. That said, it's very hard to look at a list that has Notre Dame ranked lower than Arizona (#37), BYU (#36), Boise State (#35), Wake Forest (#32) and South Florida (#31). It's even tougher to be thirteen spots lower than TCU (#25), nineteen spots behind Hawaii (#19) and twenty-eight spots lower than Rutgers (#10). Punditry aside, I'd gladly take the underdog Irish straight-up against any of those favorites.

6. Greatest Air Conditioner Ever. Totally off the subject, but there is an advertisement in the magazine for York's new "affinity" air conditioning units. For the Notre Dame fan who has everything. Be the first on your block to own this baby:

7. Conferencing. Much is made of the fact that Notre Dame doesn't play in one of the "brutal" power conferences. But flipping through Athlon I noted some interesting "conference" items.

  • The Irish play three ACC teams. Boston College is ranked by Athlon as #2 in the ACC's Atlantic division. Georgia Tech is #2 in the Coastal. Duke is #6 in the Coastal division.
  • Notre Dame plays nobody in the Big East. Interesting, since our schedule is going to be riddled with Big East opponents in the next few years.
  • We play four teams in the Big 10. Michigan is ranked #2 in the conference. Penn State is ranked #4. Purdue is #6 and Michigan State is a surprising #10. (You'd hate to be Minnesota, who has the dubious distinction of being rated #11 in a ten team conference).
  • From the Pac 10, the Fighting Irish take on USC (ranked #1), UCLA (ranked #3), and Stanford (ranked #10).
So let's take a look at a hypothetical "conference" schedule for Notre Dame. BCS teams typically play 8 conference games. How about this for an 8 game conference schedule:
  • Georgia Tech (#2 in ACC Coastal)
  • Penn State (#4 Big 10)
  • Michigan (#2 Big 10)
  • Purdue (#6 Big 10)
  • UCLA (#3 Pac 10)
  • Boston College (#2 ACC Atlantic)
  • USC (#1 Pac 10)
  • Michigan State (#10 Big 10)
That's a pretty tough conference schedule. Sure we fill out our "non-conference" schedule with a Duke, a Stanford, a Navy and USAFA. But those are all D-I teams, and two of them are from BCS conferences. If Michigan State were at their normal level, we'd have no easy games "in conference." No Baylor, no Kentucky, no Vandy. In fact, by being Independent our "conference schedule" ends up being much tougher than if we were actually in a BCS conference.

8. Notre Dame Preview. Kudos to Athlon for writing a fair and accurate assessment of the Irish. Rather than just making stuff up, they admit they don't know who the QB will be, and that there are many other unknowns as well. Here is Athlon's bottom line on Notre Dame this season:
Charlie Weis is confident that his playcalling and teaching, a more power-oriented ground game, and the arrival of [Corwin] Brown as defensive coordinator will be a combination that surprises non-believers in '07. But the Irish likely will go as far as the inexperienced and thin defensive front allows.

If Notre Dame could ease into the season against a few patsies, it would help. But the Irish face a brutal schedule that doesn't let up until November.

An 9-3 season would be a successful transition season in Weis' third year at the helm. But a 7-5 or 6-6 record would not be a shock either.
That doesn't sound too bad. Did they really say 9-3? Not really. They seem to be hedging their bets quite a bit. Their real feelings are found elsewhere in the review. For each team in the magazine, Athlon has the season schedule along with Athlon's prediction of which games that team will win, which they will lose, and which are "swing" games (i.e., could go either way). For the Fighting Irish, Athlon predicts five wins (MSU, Navy, USAFA, Duke, Stanford), five losses (G-Tech, PSU, UM, UCLA, USC). Athlon has BC and Purdue as "swing" games. Thus, far from a 9-3 prediction, Athlon predicts no better than 7-5 if we win both swing games, and 5-7 if we lose both. In order for ND to get to nine wins, we'd have to win both swing games and then win two more upsets that Athlon predicts we'll lose.

I think we can do it. I agree that we take the five games Athlon predicts. I also think we win both swing games, which gets us to seven wins. Of the remaining five games, I feel like we should be favored against Georgia Tech and Penn State, which, if things fall right, gets us to nine victories. Obviously we're heavy underdogs to USC and Michigan. Mark May would probably have to consider a win against either of those teams a "quality" win. But you never know with him. To me, the "pivot" game on the schedule is UCLA. It falls right in the middle of the season, game number six. If the team is playing well and exceeding expectations, they will win in the Rose Bowl. If the Irish are not rolling by week six, we will go to Los Angeles and lose badly. Lucky me, I only live 45 minutes from Pasadena (without traffic)!

Conclusion. Athlon's College Football Preview is far superior to the Sporting News preview. The presentation is objective, factual, fair, and there are no cheap shots taken against the Irish or anyone else. The publication is high-quality glossy paper with good photography and is easy to read. Although there were no surprises for those who follow the Irish really closely, I think this magazine will be most useful in researching Notre Dame's opponents for the coming season. Not surprisingly, Athlon is not as optimistic about Irish fortunes in the coming season as I am. But I fully admit that whatever optimism I have is based largely on blind faith in Notre Dame and Coach Weis. I can't reasonably expect others to share my irrational exuberance.


Anonymous said...

oc, read your post on Athlon Sports, i though it was a fair story, but what struck me as odd was Michigan hart diving over for a score, ive tried to find why such a huge hole in the defensive line, he could have walked in , I just hope that we have corrected this with coach brown on board, I still look for the irish to upset them in the big house it will be a real close game , enjoy your factual comments and views, also i think the irish will get to another bcs bowl with a minium of 10 0r 11 wins , only BC and USC should give us the loss.

Quixotehan said...

Nice work, OC.

Your comparison of our theoretical conference schedule is a great response to the critics who harp on the bottom end of our schedule while dismissing their I-AA opponents because of their tough SEC/Big 10/Pac 10/ACC schedules.