Tuesday, August 12, 2008

A Nostalgic Look Back at August 2007

When I was in school, I had a soft cover edition of the Merriam-Webster dictionary with a tie-dyed, psychedelic 70's era cover. My kids use Dictionary.com. The Dictionary.com definition of nostalgia is: "A sentimental yearning for the happiness of a former place or time." The 2008 Notre Dame football season is almost upon us, and we are accordingly seeing in the blogosphere the traditional precursors of every football season: Pre-season predictions. Reading this year's crop of predictions and forecasts brings to mind a few thoughts.

  • First, I need to write my pre-season predictions post.
  • Second, I need to get a life.
  • Third (and the point of this post), I wonder how last year's crop of predictions held up?
I think it's essential to remind ourselves that no matter how earnestly we analyze the nuances of the recently released depth chart, how closely we watch the scarce practice video available, and how meticulous we are in reading the tea leaves on our opponents' off-season development, we know NOTHING about how the year will unfold. Until we see Armando Allen stiff-arm a defender and take it to the house, we don't know if he'll be better this year. Until we see Golden Tate catch a ball in traffic on a perfectly timed square-in route we won't know if he's picked up the offense. Until we blow the opposing D-line off the ball on 3rd-and-3 for an easy 1st-down conversion, and see the O-line pick up the zone blitzer and give J.C. plenty of time to deliver the ball to a receiver running wide open down the seam, we won't know if the O-line has matured sufficiently to give the Irish a real chance to win this season.

To satisfy my curiosity, I set the Wayback Machine for August 2007 and went back to see how my favorite bloggers did in forecasting how the 2007 Notre Dame football season would unfold.

I'm not going to exempt myself from this exercise. I wrote two fairly detailed posts last season on how I thought the season would unfold. The first post looked at my general overall expectations of the team, the second looked at my expectations for the Irish on a game-by-game basis. Looking back at last year's pre-season posts, there was good news and bad news for OC Domer. The good news is that I did a pretty good job of identifying the fact that the team's fortunes would depend on improved offensive line play:
Which brings us to the offensive line. I think most Irish fans are in agreement that the play of the O-line last season was pretty underwhelming. How often did we see Brady Quinn making plays with defensive linemen or blitzing linebackers breathing down his neck or draped over his back? Far too often. How many times, on fourth-and-short, did Notre Dame run a QB sneak? If your best power running play in short yardage situations is the QB sneak, your O-line is not getting the job done. How many times did Darius Walker make a spectacular run in just getting back to the line of scrimmage rather than taking a three-yard loss?

We don't have Brady Quinn at quarterback any more. We don't have Darius Walker, who could see disaster coming through the line and side-step it like a matador. We have three inexperienced quarterbacks who will need time to throw the ball. If they aren't given time, we will see interceptions, fumbles, and sacks. We have largely inexperienced running backs who will need actual holes to run through. If those holes aren't there, we'll see negative-yardage runs and fumbles in the backfield.

In short, Notre Dame's fortunes this year are riding on the offensive line. We have to be able to reliably run the ball for 4 yards or more on first and second downs. We can't be in third-and-long situations. Third and long means an all-out pass rush, with young running backs trying to pick up the blitzers, and a young QB throwing the ball down field to young receivers trying to find a soft spot in the nickel or dime zone defense. That is not a high percentage situation. We have to be able to mix pass and run as we choose to, not have it dictated to us by the down-and-distance situation. On short yardage, we don't want our young QBs running the sneak. We want to give the ball to TT, or Schwapp, or Aldridge, or Hughes and know that we can get two yards. Obviously, in the passing game, the QB will need more time to throw than Brady Quinn had last year. If the offensive line can control the line of scrimmage, if the Irish can run the ball with authority rather than finesse, then I think we can have a very good year.

But John Latina had better make sure his resume is current. Because if the O-line fails to produce this year, he will be next year's Rick Minter.
The bad news for my 2007 pre-season analysis is that I thought the O-line would get the job done. In my game-by-game analysis I had the Irish putting up another 10-win season (including the Bowl victory):
At 9 wins and 3 losses, the Irish don't get selected to go to a BCS Bowl, and instead get to play in a respectable bowl game against an opponent they can beat. Having solved our big-play problems on defense, and having healed up from the brutal first eight weeks of the schedule, Notre Dame handily wins it's first bowl game since New Year's Day of 1994. [...] With young but talented players all over the field, and with new defensive coordinator Corwin Brown, the Irish basically win the games they won and lose the games they lost in 2006 (UCLA being the exception). But we don't get blown out by anyone. We aren't a Top 5 program yet, but at 10-3 overall, we end up just outside the Top 10 in the final polls of the season. Entering 2008 we are a Top 10 team fighting to become an elite Top 5 program.
Not to tip my hand too early, but my pre-season forecast posts for 2008 will likely be equally as absurd in their optimism as last year's posts.

How did everyone else do in August 2007?
  • The crew at Blue-Gray Sky put their predictions in a handy chart for us. The most pessimistic prediction was for an 8-4 season, the most common prediction was 9-3, and a couple of contributors had the Irish at 10-2 and one at 11-1 (regular season).
  • Blue-Gray Sky ran a pre-season reader poll that got over 2,000 responses (I'm not worthy!). Roughly 75% of respondents thought Notre Dame would win 9 or more games, with only 25% predicting 8 or fewer wins. Only about about 2.5% of voters expected 6 or fewer wins.
  • Subway Domer had a computer crash last year that threw him off-stride for a while in August, but he was able to offer us his insights on the 2007 offensive line situation:
    This will be a very physical line and as the line goes, so will our running and passing game. [...] John Latina wants a unit that is versatile and interchangeable, and finally with depth we may have that. [...] This unit may surprise a lot of "national" media outlets. On paper they have a small amount of total playing time, but will make up for it with a nastiness that was lacking from last years unit.
  • Her Loyal Sons offered up a game-by-game breakdown of the season and concluded:
    The regular season is wrapped, and ND has surprised the CFB world by pulling off an 8-4 season and a berth in a respectable bowl. More than anything, the team matured throughout the year, and with the incoming talent is poised to make a serious mark over the next 2 seasons. A national championship in ‘08-’09 isn’t out of the question, and everyone’s expecting one the following year. Based on his preseason comments, ESPN donkey pundit Mark May votes Charlie Weis Coach of the Year, which he wins.
  • Rakes of Mallow offered a very balanced, reasonably objective analysis that put the Irish on a 9-3 regular season. Only missed it by that much.
  • The fellas at Section 29, Row 48, Seat 10 should be recognized for an outstanding 12-Day countdown to the 2007 season, highlighting 12 keys to Irish success. Their #1 concern was the battle in the trenches:
    I hope you flip over your handle bars and knock your two front teeth in! You selfish son of a B&*&H!!! You're leaving me in the trenches, taking grenades John!!!

    This quote from America's consummate Notre Dame fan, Vince Vaughn, neatly summarizes the one thing on which success hinges for the Irish - winning the battle in the trenches, and not merely from one side. It isn't only that the Irish front line defense, reduced to 3 in Corwin Brown's new scheme (Justin Brown, Trevor Laws, & Pat Kuntz) needs to succeed against great running backs over the first two months. Or that the Irish offensive line must break in three new starters and so quickly and without missing a beat in front of an inexperienced quarterback. Either of these things would prompt huge concern for the Irish coaching staff and become a point of emphasis. The fact that both are paramount at the same moment demonstrates why the battles along the trench line will make or break the Irish season.
  • The Rock Report ran another fan survey, with over 3,000 responses, and used some fancy statistical analysis to come up with an overall "fan prediction" of an 8-4 season. As for the Rock himself, he predicted another BCS Bowl appearance for the Irish.
Ah, memories! Times were simpler then. There certain things you could count on in this world. Like blocking, tackling, and beating Navy. But life is more complicated today.

So, when you read a pre-season prediction, forecast, breakdown, analysis, etc..., remember how smart we all were last August and take them for what they're worth. But by all means, go ahead and read 'em. The blogs I mention above, as well as the non-probationary blogs listed to the right are all doing great work covering the Irish pre-season and getting the Notre Dame nation ready for kick-off.

Go Irish! Beat Aztecs!

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