Put up or shut up. That seems to be the consensus among the Irish faithful and the college football cognoscenti regarding Notre Dame's 2009 football season. The Irish return almost the entire offense from a year ago, led by quarterback Jimmy Clausen, a junior heading into his third year as a starting QB who completed 61% of his passes for over 3,000 yards last year with a 25/17 TD/INT ratio. Clausen will be playing behind an offensive line that has already amassed 100 career starts between them, which puts them among the most experienced offensive lines in the country. That line experience should translate into time to throw the ball for Clausen, and a new offensive line coach, Frank Verducci, will hopefully mean improved O-line play in the running game.
If Clausen does have time to throw, and he should, that means trouble for opposing secondaries. With Golden Tate and 2008 OC Domer Player of the Year Michael Floyd at wide receiver and Kyle Rudolph at tight end, Notre Dame has among the best receiving corps in the nation. All three players can stretch the field (they average 18.6, 15.0, and 11.7 yards per catch, respectively); none can be effectively covered by a single defender. And you can't double-cover all of them. If these three stay healthy, Clausen and the Irish offense should put up Brady Quinn-esque numbers in 2009. Tate, Floyd and Rudolph are complemented most notably by junior Duval Kamara (who has terrific size but needs to have a bounce-back year) and freshman Shaquelle Evans who has looked impressive in camp and is really pushing for early playing time.
The ability to stretch the field with the passing game should really benefit the Irish running game, led by 2008 leading rusher Armando Allen (134 carries for 585 yards; 50 receptions for 355 yds), who has been announced as the clear starter by Coach Weis. Allen will be accompanied in the backfield by James Aldridge (91 carries for 357 yds in '08), now the starter at fullback. Robert Hughes (112 carries for 382 yds in '08) will be first to spell Allen, but sophomore Jonas Gray and exciting freshman Cierre Wood will both see carries in 2009. The expectations with the running game are that the vertical threat of the passing game prevent defenses from stacking 8 defenders at the line of scrimmage, thus giving the running backs some room to work. Key will be whether the new offensive line coach can solve the short-yardage woes that have plagued Charlie Weis' offense since he arrived in South Bend. If these experienced backs, running behind an experienced group of linemen, can finally be counted on to reliably move the sticks in short yardage situations, thus sustaining drives and keeping our defense fresh, Notre Dame fans should be treated to a very enjoyable year.
In the off-season Charlie Weis shuffled the duties of his coaching staff a bit (he now has an associate head coach and two assistant head coaches), but the most significant result is that Jon Tenuta is now the defensive coordinator. Most expect that this will therefore be an aggressive, attacking defense that attempts to dictate the tempo of the game to opposing offenses and keep opponents back on their heels. In some respects the approach can be high risk - high reward, as the frequent blitzes Tenuta employs leaves defensive backs working in single coverage. Fortunately, the Irish secondary looks to be top-notch this year and should be more than capable of handling the assignment. The loss of safety David Bruton to the Denver Broncos will certainly be felt, but safeties Kyle McCarthy (110 tackles in 2008, most ever by an Irish defensive back) and Harrison Smith (57 tackles in '08 was 4th on the team) should fill in ably. Notre Dame is deep at the corners, led by Darrin Walls, Raeshon McNeil and Robert Blanton. If teams are going to move the ball on Notre Dame, it will not be through the air.
As in previous seasons, the concern with the Irish defense is up front. Once again, D-line is considered to be talented and scrappy, but probably a bit undersized. Nose Tackle Ian Williams weighs in just north of 300 lbs, but the other projected starting defensive tackle, the very disruptive Ethan Johnson, weighs just 275 lbs. The defensive ends, Kapron Lewis-Moore and Kerry Neal weigh in at 265 and 246 lbs. These players are all well suited to Jon Tenuta's aggressive defensive system, but it remains to be seen how stout they can be against teams that are content to run the ball straight at you. The defensive front seven have to show the ability to take on blockers heads-up and stuff a hole. The past two seasons have seen too many defenders trying to run around blocks, leaving big seams for opposing ball carriers to run through until a defensive back came up to make a tackle.
The top tackler among defensive linemen last season was the departed Pat Kuntz, whose 42 was 6th best on the team. The next D-lineman in tackles was nose tackle Ian Williams with 40 (8th best in '08). Digest that for a minute. Notre Dame's top five tacklers in 2008 did not include a defensive lineman. You might argue that it's the scheme, that the D-line is supposed to occupy blockers and let the linebackers run to the ball. I'd buy that, if the stats backed it up. But the top two tacklers for ND last season weren't linebackers. They were safeties. And it wasn't close. Kyle McCarthy led all Irish defenders with 110, David Bruton was 2nd with 97. Linebacker Maurice Crum was a distant third with just 65 tackles. Notre Dame's front seven needs to be much more effective this year stopping the run, so that the defensive backfield can worry less about run support and concentrate instead on defending the pass.
While the loss of Maurice Crum's leadership in the middle of the defense will be felt, the fact is that the guys replacing Crum are much more talented. Super-recruit Manti Te'o will get on the field early, likely playing alongside junior Brian Smith and sophomore Darius Fleming, although the competition for starting linebacker jobs is intense this season, and that's a good thing. Whoever plays, the linebackers have to step up this year in both stopping the run without DB help and in getting home and sacking opposing quarterbacks on Coach Tentuta's blitzes.
On special teams, freshman Nick Tausch came into camp and took control of the kicker position, winning both the kick-off job and the place-kicking job. I am very anxious to see the young man kick. Lack of a consistent place-kicker has plagued the Irish for two seasons, and the inability to kick the ball into the end zone for touchbacks has been frustrating. If Nick Tausch can bring Notre Dame's not-so-special teams up from "awful" to "average" it will be a big boost to Irish fortunes in 2009. Eric Maust remains the ND punter.
So how do I see this team shaping up in 2009? As I wrote in an earlier post:
With respect to Notre Dame football, there just isn't much uncertainty this year, other than the ultimate uncertainty of how many wins the Irish will put in the books. [...] For 2009, there just aren't many unknowns. The players in 2009 are almost without exception the same guys we watched lose at home to Syracuse and then win impressively in Hawaii. Same quarterback, same running backs, same linemen, same receivers. Same defensive players, with the exception of an opening at linebacker and an opening at safety.So, given that we're going to see what is essentially the same group of players, each of them a year older, a year more mature (physically and emotionally), a year more experienced, what can we realistically expect?
The 2008 Fighting Irish posted a 6-win, 6-loss regular season and had a dominating performance in winning the Hawaii Bowl 49-21. That's a 7-6 overall record. Digging just a little deeper, however, one quickly learns that the 2008 squad, from a talent perspective, should have posted a 9-3 regular season record. The losses to Michigan State (argh), Boston College and USC were never really in doubt. But ND blew double digit leads against North Carolina, Pittsburgh, and Syracuse. A team with a little more experience, and a little more maturity, doesn't lose those games in 2008. So while they fully earned their 6-6 mark, from a talent and ability standpoint the Irish were arguably playing at the level of a 9-3 squad.
Is it unreasonable to expect the 2009 Fighting Irish, with the added maturity and experience, to play at least at that 9-3 level this season? I do not think that's unreasonable at all. And that's before you even begin to look at the 2009 schedule.
Let's go ahead and look at that schedule. (Confidence level is my subjective prediction of the percentage chance of a Notre Dame win).
Sept. 5: Nevada. The danger in this game is that the Irish fail to take this good team from the wacky WAC seriously enough while looking ahead to the Michigan game. In 2008 the Wolf Pack's offense was potent and balanced, led by QB Colin Kaepernick who is a true dual threat with 1,100 yards rushing and 2,800 yards passing last season. 2009 will be his third season as a starting QB. The Irish defense's speed and athleticism should be able to slow Kaepernick enough to allow Jimmy Clausen and the ND offense to win the game by scoring at will against a poor Nevada defense whose main weakness is in the secondary. Key to the game will be the Irish defense getting off the field on 3rd Down and the Notre Dame offense controlling the ball and avoiding costly turnovers. (Isn't that always the key?). The point is, Nevada is dangerous and if you don't take care of business they are good enough to ruin your entire season in Week 1. I will be watching this game closely to see if the 2009 Irish dominate a less talented team like they should, rather than playing down to the level of the opponent and keeping the game "interesting" far longer than they should (see: 2008 season opener against San Diego State). Prediction: Win. Confidence: 80%
Sept. 12: @Michigan. It was a party in Notre Dame Stadium as the Fighting Irish blew out the Wolverines in what must have been a cathartic 35-17 victory following the travesty that was 2007. While Notre Dame looked impressive that day, they were helped by 6 UM turnovers and actually had some problems slowing down the Wolverine running game in the person of Sam McGuffie. I expect UM to cut down on the turnovers and put up a better fight in the Big House, but they are still in a serious re-building mode and are expected to start a freshman at quarterback. Add to their already substantial problems the exploding controversy about the Wolverines and Dick Rod being a bunch of cheaters and I expect UM to be distracted and confused enough for the Irish to get a nice road win in a physical game. Prediction: Win. Confidence: 70%
Sept. 19: Sparty. I hate those guys. Coach Weis is 1-3 against Michigan State which, to coin a phrase, is not good enough. In 2007 MSU beat ND by 17 pts. In 2008 the margin was 16 pts. This is not progress. Notre Dame's problems against Sparty have been in the trenches. MSU has been more physical than the Irish on both sides of the ball and that has told the tale. ND has been unable to run the ball with any success, and has had difficulty contending with the Spartan power rushing attack. This game will be an important test against a very good team. Will the experienced Irish O-line finally be able to assert itself in the running game? Will the Irish front seven on defense be able to man up and compete with MSU's power game? MSU will be a very good team and probably the second toughest game on the Irish schedule. But Sparty will badly miss the leadership of talented QB Brian Hoyer and the production of RB Javon Ringer. Irish win a battle at home. Prediction: Win. Confidence: 60%
Sept. 26: @Purdue. Notre Dame beat Purdue 38-21 last season. Purdue's top three rushers, top two passers, and top two receivers from that team are gone, to be replaced by untested players led a by a first year head coach. The defense does return a lot of experience, and talent, but Purdue is going to have a tough year. The Irish defense should force some turnovers and lead Notre Dame to a convincing win in West Lafayette. Prediction: Win. Confidence: 75%
Oct. 3: Washington. The once proud Huskies were winless in 2008 and own a 14-game losing streak. But they got rid of Coach Tyrone Willingham and brought in former USC offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian to be the new head coach. No doubt they will eventually get better, but the Irish crushed UW last year 33-7 in Seattle, and one would have to expect a similar result when the Huskies visit Notre Dame Stadium in '09. Sarkisian will have the team playing with more heart and pride, no doubt, but even with touted QB Jake Locker healthy again, Notre Dame fans know all too well how hard it can be to overcome a Ty Willingham-created talent deficiency. Prediction: Win. Confidence: 90%
Oct. 10: -Bye-. Great spot for the bye week. Five games played and USC next up on the schedule. Gives the coaches and players a chance to re-group, get healthy, and take some time to prepare for the Trojans.
Oct. 17: USC. Toughest game on the schedule, again. It's great to get USC in Notre Dame Stadium. Unfortunately the Trojans are coming off a bye week as well. But they may well need it, having already played Ohio State and Cal, both on the road. A third tough road trip this early in the season could have the boys of Troy feeling a little ragged. Of course, USC is loaded, particularly at running back and receiver. But they just announced that true freshman Matt Barkley will be the starter at QB, and they return only three starters on defense. Recalling last year's painful game in the Coliseum, the Notre Dame defense actually played pretty respectably against the Mark Sanchez led Trojan offense. But the complete inability of the Irish to move the ball meant the defense was on the field all night, usually with their backs against the wall. Given the loss of so many 2008 Trojan defensive players, the Irish offense should fare better in 2009 (It really hurt that Michael Floyd was injured and unable to play against USC in '08). Likewise, the Irish defense should have more success this year playing against a true freshman at QB. I still can't predict an Irish victory, given that the gap between the two programs is too wide to close in the space of one season. Two things can really help Irish chances in this game. First, the students MUST go to the game. October 17 falls on the first weekend of Fall break, and it would be tough to win the game if the students go home for break and leave empty seats in the stadium. The team will be pumped up if everyone stays for the game and gets LOUD. Second, pray for snow. Or at least a really miserable cold, rainy day. Those Southern California kids HATE the cold. Prediction: Loss. Confidence: 40% (i.e., 40% chance of Irish win)
Oct. 24: Boston College. My irritation at losing to Boston College (6 straight) is probably second only to my irritation at losing to Sparty. BC has a new head coach, although he's been in the program for a while, in Frank Spaziani. They do return some experience for '09 (13 or 14 starters depending upon who you read), but will be breaking in a new quarterback and installing a new offesnive system. The Irish lost to the eagles at BC in '08 by a 17-0 score, in a lackluster game featuring awful playing conditions and reportedly an Irish QB battling the flu. Despite the score, ND had more yards and more first downs than BC, but Jimmy Clausen threw four interceptions that killed off any chance te Irish had of scoring. Bring this game home to the friendly confines of Notre Dame Stadium (and hopefully in front of the students on Fall break who stayed on campus or came back early to cheer on the team), eliminate the INTs, and sprinkle in a little payback, and Notre Dame should FINALLY get over the hump against the Eagles. Prediction: Win. Confidence: 70%
Oct. 31: Washington State (@ San Antonio). That's right, San Antonio. wtf? Presumably, a lot of die-hard Notre Dame fans living in or near Texas will pack the Alamo Dome (or wherever the game is being played), giving the Irish a nice "home field" avantage for this neutral site game. I am also presuming that Charlie Weis will be using this game as a showcase of the program for Texas-based high school recruits and potential recruits. Otherwise this game makes no sense to me. All that said, the Cougars beat Portland State and Washington last season (in OT, at home). They lost every other game, most of them by very ugly lopsided scores. They'll be better this year (they would have to be, wouldn't they?), but they won't give the Irish much trouble. Prediction: Win. Confidence: 90%
Nov. 7: Navy. The Middies had a very nice 8-5 season in '08 under first year coach Ken Nimuntuukomuntotrklo, and gave the Irish a scare last season in a 27-21 ND win. But Navy has to replace all their top offensive weapons from '08 (rushing, passing receiving). They will play valiantly but lose to ND @ ND. Prediction: Win. Confidence: 75%
Nov. 14: @Pittsburgh. The third toughest game on the schedule, Notre Dame lost at home to the Panthers last season in quadruple overtime, 33-36, blowing a game they led 17-3 at halftime. This year the game is in Pittsburgh. The Panthers return nine offensive starters (but not LeSean McCoy), and four defensive starters (but not defensive leader Scott McKillop). It should be a real tester for the Irish on the road, but hopefully the desire to atone for last season's embarrassing collapse will be the difference. Prediction: Win. Confidence: 65%
Nov. 21: Connecticut. The Huskies lose their top rusher (Donald Brown, 2083 yards in '08) and starting quarterback (Tyler Lorenzen 48.8 pct., 869 yds passing) off a team that went 8-5 with a Bowl win last season. Starting at quarterback for U-Conn in '09 is a familar face - former Notre Dame QB Zach Frazer, who was 46 of 83 (55.4%) for 536 yds, 2 TDs and 6 INTs for the Huskies in '08. You may recall that Zach was the first big recruit to commit to Coach Weis after he took over at Notre Dame. Upon his transfer out of the program I wrote:
I can only wish Zach all the best. When they write the book on the Charlie Weis era, Zach Frazer should have a small chapter in it all to himself, as he was a pivotal character in the Weis story. Zach was the first big recruit landed by Coach Weis. Zach was the answer to the question: Will this former NFL assistant coach be able to bring premiere talent into the Notre Dame program when competing against experienced college head coaches in the recruiting wars? Zach Frazer was a high school junior with a big arm, big numbers, and big hype. He was rated four stars at both Rivals.com and Scout.com. His verbal commitment sent shock waves throughout the Notre Dame community and throughout college football. It served notice that Coach Weis was a serious, energetic, and aggressive recruiter. No longer would Notre Dame wait, and wait, and wait before finally tendering offers to 4- and 5-star athletes. From now on, we were going to get into the hunt early and force other programs to play catch up. With one verbal commitment from Zach Frazer, Coach Weis (and Zach) changed the perception of Notre Dame's talent level. Zach took the Irish from being a program of mostly 3-star talent with some 4-star athletes sprinkled in, to being a program with 4-star talent sprinkling in some 5-star players. After his verbal commitment, Zach continued to help build the program by actively recruiting other top talent to come to Notre Dame. [...] Prior to the arrival of Charlie Weis, Notre Dame was losing 1- 2- and 3-star quarterbacks to transfer when they learned they either weren't going to be the starter (LoVecchio) or weren't going to be the primary back-up QB (Wolke, Olsen). Notre Dame now expects to lose a 4-star quarterback who can't crack the top 3 positions on the depth chart. That is a dramatic change, and we ironically owe that change, at least in part, to Zach Frazer.Frazer's 2 TD / 6 INT ratio last season is worth noting, since interceptions were a problem for him at Notre Dame as well. In the 2007 Blue & Gold game Zach was 0 for 4 with an INT, which set the table for his departure from South Bend. I'm guessing Coach Weis will be able to find some Zach Frazer videotape for Coach Tenuta to digest in preparation for the U-Conn game. U-Conn comes to Notre Dame after a bye week and they will be looking to get a BIG win for their rising program. Prediction: Win. Confidence: 75%
Nov. 28: @Stanford. Coach Jim Harbaugh has brought some toughness (one might say dirty play) to the Farm, and Stanford is no gimme for anyone. Notre Dame beat the Cardinal 28-21 in '08 in Notre Dame Stadium, so a road game against a team that returns 17 starters from last season, including all the key playmakers, is no picnic. Still, it is Stanford, who will be hosting the Irish the week after hosting the Cal Bears in the annual "Big Game." There's a significant chance that Stanford could have a letdown when Notre Dame shows up. This game reminds me of the 2005 game between these two teams. Brady Quinn's Notre Dame squad was highly ranked and traveling to Palo Alto in need of a win to secure a berth in a BCS Bowl game. The game was a real battle, with the Irish coming out on top 38-31 and on their way to the Fiesta Bowl to face Ohio State. The '09 ND v. Stanford game could have similar implications. If Notre Dame has the kind of season they are capable of having, a win against the Cardinal could punch their ticket to a BCS Bowl game. In that case, I would expect ND to be very motivated, and to be playing very well if they are in that position. Stanford would be pesky but ultimately no match for Notre Dame. If, however, Notre Dame does not live up to expectations and needs a win against Stanford to earn a trip to a lesser bow game, and if Stanford could improve their bowl outlook with a big win, this game could be close again. Prediction: Win. Confidence: 75%
Conclusion: You've already heard all about the predictions of Lou Holtz and Beano Cook, who each have Notre Dame playing in the BCS Championship Game against Florida, so I'm not sure what else I can add. I am as optimistic as any Notre Dame fan, but even I don't predict an appearance in the Championship game. To get there would require a 12-0 season, which of course means beating USC, which I personally think is only about a 40% possibility. I do pick Notre Dame as the favorite to win eleven of its twelve regular season games. Does that mean I think they will go 11-1? I certainly hope so, but that's where the "confidence" ratings included for each game factor in. Using the confidence ratings and a little math you can get a better idea of what outcome is more likely for the season win total, just like the guys in Vegas. Adding together the confidence ratings I assign to each game:
.80+.70+.60+.75+.90+.40+.70+.90+.75+.65+.75+.75 = 8.65 wins
Depending upon where you look, I've seen over/under win totals for Notre Dame set between 8.5 and at 9.0 wins, which is right in line with my own estimations as set forth above. I may be more optimistic or pessimistic than you, but I encourage you to try this yourself. Assign your own confidence values to each Notre Dame game and see what your personal over/under is for 2009. For me, 9 wins is what the Irish "should" achieve in 2009, all things being equal. If they earn less than nine wins, they have under achieved and only a very, very nice Bowl win would bring Coach Weis back in 2010. If they manage to win ten games, they will have beaten the odds in my view, and the extra win would have to be credited to Coach Weis who will have earned the chance to stay on as coach. If they win eleven or twelve, that would be a superior job of coaching and you'll need dynamite (or another year like 2007) to dislodge Charlie from the Gug.
What do I think will really happen? I bet the over. And got 25-1 odds on the Irish winning the Championship.