Thursday, January 17, 2008

2007 Season Review: Was It Really That Bad?

I think everyone is anxious to put the 2007 season behind us. The latest batch of recruits is getting ready to sign on the dotted line, and Spring football feels like it is just around the corner. But I don’t want to just forget that the 2007 season ever happened. I don’t want to just block it out of my memory, as if the experience didn’t have a lot to teach us. I think there are some valuable lessons to be learned from a historically bad campaign, and in order to get better we have to have a full understanding of what the heck just happened back there. This post will take a brief look at our 2007 opponents, and seek to answer the question:

Were they who we thought they were?

Who beat the Fighting Irish, and what does it really mean? Who did we beat, and can we take any comfort at all from that? We’ll just take a quick look at the pre-season expectations regarding each opponent, where they were when we played them, and how they ended up their season.

Georgia Tech. The Yellow Jackets came into the first game of the season ranked #27 in both the AP and USA Today/Coaches polls, ranked slightly ahead of Notre Dame. The Irish were a 2.5 point favorite in the game, no doubt because the game was played at Notre Dame. The Ramblin’ Wreck proceeded to wreak havoc on Notre Dame’s offense, and put a 33-3 beat-down on the Irish. The loss certainly raised a lot of alarm bells for Irish fans, but based on Week 1, Georgia Tech looked like world beaters and a Top 25 team for sure. Except they weren’t. Georgia Tech went 7-6 against the 62nd toughest schedule in the country, including a 40-28 loss to Fresno State in the Humanitarian Bowl, and they fired their head coach. They were 0-2 against Top 10 teams, and 1-3 against Top 30 teams. Jeff Sagarin ranks them #57 in his final rankings for the 2007-08 season. As Notre Dame fans we can come up with a lot of mitigating factors (youth and inexperience all over the field, an utter disaster of a new offensive scheme featuring Demetrius Jones, a new defensive scheme getting its first test, etc…), but the end result was a home loss by 30 points to a mediocre football team that was barely above .500 on the year.

Penn State. The AP had PSU at #17 in the pre-season, USA Today had them at #18, and the Lions didn’t hurt themselves by drubbing Florida International 59-0 in Week 1. Notre Dame went to Happy Valley and looked better than they did in Week 1, but still lost 31-10. The good news was that Jimmy Clausen actually put up better numbers (under far more dire circumstances) than did Anthony Morelli. The defense looked much better, but got worn down in the second half. Penn State went on to post a 9-4 record, including a 24-17 win over Texas A&M in the Alamo Bowl. But the Lions were only 4-4 in Big Televen conference play (5th place), and finished the year ranked #25 by Sagarin. Penn State didn’t quite live up to its Top 20 pre-season ranking, but still finished on the fringes of the Top 25. Given the lowered expectations we had to set as the year wore on, a loss to a Top 25 caliber team was not a disaster, although the 21-point final margin was very disappointing.

Michigan. The Wolverines were the #5 team in the country in the AP and the USA Today pre-season polls and expectations were running very high. Two humiliating losses to Appalachian State and Oregon brought those lofty expectations crashing to the ground, as the Wolves came into the Notre Dame game unranked. Remind me never to wrestle with a wounded wolverine. Michigan took its frustration out on the Irish, 38-0, the first of what would be eight straight wins for UM. They finished the year at 9-4, finishing with an impressive win over the Florida Gators and Coach Urban Liar in the Capital One Bowl, 41-35. They ended up 3rd in the Big Televen, and ranked #18 by the AP and #24 by Sagarin. So, which team was the real Michigan? The team that opened the year 0-2? Or the team that won eight straight and beat Florida? It seems pretty clear that the Irish faced the Wolverine team that played in the Capital One Bowl, which was a pretty darn good football team. But nothing good can be taken from losing 38-0, even to a really good team.

Michigan State. Sparty came into 2007 an unranked team with very modest expectations. They rolled into South Bend riding a 3-game winning streak compiled against UAB, Bowling Green, and Pittsburgh. They extended their streak to four wins by defeating the Irish 31-14. Despite losing, this was the first game of the year that Notre Dame actually looked credible as a football team, and we saw a lot of improvement in this game and some things to build on for the future. But it was still a 17-point loss to a Michigan State team that finished 7-6 overall including a loss to Boston College in the Champs Sports Bowl. They were only 3-5 in the Big Televen (8th place) and finished #39 in the country according to Sagarin.

Purdue. Another mediocre Big Televen team, Purdue was 4-0 against a weak schedule when the Irish came calling. Pre-game analysis of the match-ups indicated that this was the Notre Dame’s best chance for a win. Notre Dame played its best game of the year (so far). After falling behind 23-0 at half time, the Irish pulled to within one score (26-19) with 7:58 remaining in the game, only to lose 33-19. While the running game was still deplorable, the ND QBs were 34 of 52 (65.38%) for 377 yards, 3 TDs and 2 INT. The Purdue win elevated them into the Top 25 for the only time all season. But after starting 5-0, the Boilers lost 5 of their final 8 games. They won the Motor City Bowl against Central Michigan, and at 8-5 finished 7th in their conference. Jeff Sagarin put them at #54 at season’s end. To play your best game of the year to that point but still lose to a team that isn’t even in the Top 50 is a big disappointment.

UCLA. The Bruins entered the season ranked #14 in the AP pre-season poll, and #17 in the USA Today poll. They returned ten (10) starters on both offense and defense from a team that shocked the world with a 13-9 win over the USC Trojans in Pasadena in 2006. UCLA was 4-1 going into the Notre Dame game, and had been ranked as high as #11 in the AP poll before a devastating loss to Utah in Week 3 knocked them out of the polls. Proving that a stopped clock is right twice each day, my pre-game expectations for the UCLA game were right on the money as a fired-up defense and a very conservative ball-control offense combined for the first Notre Dame win of the year in the Rose Bowl, 20-6. The Notre Dame game was the beginning of an eight game run that saw the Bruins winning 2 and losing 6. UCLA ended the year with a 6-7 record, including an exciting loss to BYU in the Las Vegas Bowl. On the other hand, the final Sagarin rankings have the Bruins at #27, playing the #1-ranked toughest schedule in the country. You have to count the UCLA game as a quality win against a very credible opponent. It only took six weeks.

Boston College. The Eagles entered the 2007 season ranked #28 in the AP poll and #26 in the USA Today poll. By the time they rolled into Notre Dame Stadium they were 6-0 and had worked themselves up to #4 in the AP, although OC Domer strongly felt they were overrated at the time. Despite playing another horrific offensive game, the Irish defense was dynamic enough to lead Notre Dame to a loss by just 13 points, 27-14. The Boston College win moved them up to #3 and Matt Ryan started getting a lot of Heisman hype. The Eagles ultimately fell back to earth, after losing a couple of conference games to Florida State and Maryland, finishing the year 11-3, ranked #10 by the AP, #11 by the USA Today, and #30 by Jeff Sagarin. No shame in losing to a very good BC team. The shame was that if we had played well at all we could have beaten them.

Southern Cal. The Trojans were pre-season #1 just about everywhere. When they came to town to play the Irish, they were 5-1 (ugly loss to Stanford!) and had fallen to #13 in the AP and had debuted at #14 in the BCS poll. Sadly, no blizzards or freezing rain appeared on game day and a very meek Irish squad lost 38-0. By the end of the season the Trojans had finished 11-2, were ranked in the Top 5 in most polls and many were wondering if they weren’t the best team in the country again. Losing to this USC team is one thing. But 38-0 is something else.

Navy. Unranked Navy went 8-5, and finished at #77 (against the 89th toughest schedule) in the Sagarin rankings. A loss to Navy, even an overtime loss, is not acceptable at Notre Dame.

Air Force. Unranked but still credible USAFA went 9-4 and finished at #51 in the Sagarin rankings (about 40 spots higher than ND). Irish lose 41-24. There’s nothing like back-to-back home losses to two service academies.

Duke. The Blue Devils went 1-11 on the year, defeating only Northwestern. They finished at #105 in Sagarin. This should have been the most lopsided win of the year for the Irish, and it was. ND wins 28-7. For the first time this season, the Irish did what they are supposed to do. After an ugly first half, the Irish took physical control of this game and pushed around an inferior opponent. We dominated the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball, and our skill players made plays. We out-blocked them, out-threw them, out-ran them, and out-hit them. But it was Duke, which is nothing to write home about.

Stanford. Stanford was 3-7 going into the Notre Dame game. They ended the season 4-8. Notre Dame’s 21-14 win on the road to end the season was nice, given the alternative, but otherwise not very noteworthy. Stanford ended the season #69 on Sagarin’s list.

Analysis. Notre Dame fans knew their team faced a very tough schedule going into the 2007 season, and our expectations were realized. But going 3-9 may have caused the Irish faithful to lose sight of the fact that our schedule actually ended up being a little softer than expected. Only Boston College exceeded expectations on the year. Georgia Tech finished lower than expected, as did Michigan, UCLA, and even USC. By season’s end, Jeff Sagarin’s computers had dropped Notre Dame’s “brutal” schedule all the way down to #24. That’s still a very respectable schedule, but it isn’t the reason we ended up 3-9.

In trying to make some sense of this season’s results, I broke down the teams we played into three categories: Ranked Teams, Mediocre Teams, and Bad Teams. Ranked teams finished the season ranked in the Top 25 of one or more of the major polls (USC, UM, PSU, BC). Mediocre teams were unranked, but still credible opponents finishing in or around the Top 50 according to Sagarin (UCLA, Purdue, AF, MSU, GT). Bad teams are a cut below mediocre, not even sniffing Sagarin’s Top 50 (Duke, Stanford, Navy). I also broke the game results into categories: Strong Wins (by 14 or more points), Close Wins, Close Losses, Sound Defeats (by 14 or more). One can certainly quibble with the categories, but I wanted to take a crude cut at it to see if any conclusions can be drawn.

Against Ranked Teams, the Irish were 0-4. Only one of the losses (BC) was a “Close” loss; the remaining three (PSU, UM, USC) were sound defeats (or even blowouts).

Against Mediocre Teams, the Irish were 1-4. The single win (UCLA) was a “Close” win, although it was right on the borderline of being a “Strong” win. One loss was “close” (Purdue), and three of the losses (AF, MSU, GT) were sound defeats.

Against Bad Teams, the Irish were 2-1. We had one strong win (Duke), one close win (Stanford), and one close loss (Navy).

Conclusions. Notre Dame had only a single truly strong win on the year, and that was against a Duke team that was by far the weakest team we faced, and which was in fact nearly the weakest team in all of Division I-A. Even against “Bad” football teams, Notre Dame could only manage a 2-1 record, barely putting away Stanford and suffering a historic loss to Navy. In five games against “Mediocre” football teams, the Irish were soundly defeated three times, won one close game and lost one close game. That’s a combined 3 wins and 5 losses against Bad and Mediocre teams. In any “normal” year of Notre Dame football those are the games on the schedule that you mark down as “Wins” when the schedule comes out. We should be 8-0 against these teams in a normal year, with the season being made or broken by the games against the ranked teams. To lose five games against Bad and Mediocre teams is a cause of significant concern. One of the most refreshing/assuring features of the 2005 and 2006 seasons under Coach Weis was that for the most part he was winning the games he was “supposed to win,” with the only glaring exception being the 2005 loss to Michigan State. Every other loss in 2005 and 2006 was to a highly ranked team. The surest sign of progress next year won’t be whether we’re winning games against ranked teams, but instead whether we return to normalcy and once again put mediocre teams in their place. It would also be nice to do better than 38-0 against USC and Michigan.

[ADDED 1/18/2008: Welcome readers! I can't read the thread you're coming from (OC Domer is a low overhead operation), so I hope the feedback is positive. Please bookmark OC Domer and check back often.]


Anonymous said... really was that bad. We sucked and then we put our tail between our legs. We fought hard, but when it was time, we rolled right over. That's how Navy beat us. That's how Air Force beat us. They had a superior esprit de corps.

I think part of the problem was the indirect message to many of the players who found their way on the field this year had not seen the field much. Which was:" You weren't good enough for the Brady Quinn era, but you are all we have."

Weis didn't dis the players directly by calling it a re-building year, but he had already done it the two previous years by lack of playing time, and then reinforced it last year by playing all those true freshman!

The 2007 team took they field knowing deep down they were not talented enough to play at this level and spent the rest of the year proving it.

Only Notre Dame pride kept ups from going 0-fer.

jack said...

Stanford could have easily beat ND, but they didn't. In the red zone passes were completed out of bounds, by fractions of an inch. Thanks! Refs, even though we were booing you. Now, Stanford is a team that beat USC. Unlike , ND!
Thanks ,ND ! We've begun a winning streak!!!!

sir john said...

Good commentary and analysis OC.

hulk said...

Agree with just about everything you say, but one little nit to pick...I would not classify Navy as a "bad" team. They were at least in a bowl and they very nearly won their bowl game. They are at least on par with UCLA, who is mediocre.

hulk said...

Sorry to bring up politics again, but thought the Fred-Heads might enjoy this.

hulk said...

Ted said...

Regarding Navy, I agree with Hulk. They were not that bad of a team.

Your evaluation of the season ND had doesn't seem to take into account the youth and inexperience of the team. CW might have been better off calling the season a rebuilding year back in August.

We attended four games, and in retrospect ND seemed to catch many of their opponents when those teams were at the peak of their seasons.

I believe the focus should be on the future not on the past.