Notre Dame, IN (UHND.com) – This time of year most college football fans will sit back and let themselves imagine elaborate scenarios in which their teams can challenge for the national championship this season. Most of the time those scenarios are farfetched and only serve as a source of disappointment when their team “under achieves” the following season. After Notre Dame finished the 2007 season a dreadful 3-9, you will be hard pressed to find a fan of the Fighting Irish predicting a national championship, but what are the realistic expectations for the Irish in Charlie Weis’s fourth year?
Heading into last season most people were prepared for a rough season for the Irish. Most expected the Irish to come out and struggle at times, but have a competent 6-8 win season and then start to contend in 2008. Well, after last season’s 3-9 setback, expectations for 2008 have greatly changed, but just how much?
In order to come up with some realistic expectations for the season one needs to look at a number of things – how many starters and key contributors were lost to graduation and the draft, what changes in the coaching staff have been made, how many impact freshman will be arriving on campus, and obviously the schedule.
On the offensive side of the ball, Notre Dame lost just two starters in tight end John Carlson and center John Sullivan. Replacing Sullivan will be junior Dan Wenger who started five games last year (two at center when Sullivan was hurt) and replacing Carlson will likely be sophomore Mike Ragone who saw action in 11 of 12 games last year. This is certainly an improvement for the Irish after having to replace three offensive linemen, two wide receivers, a running back, and their quarterback on the offensive side of the ball last year.
Defensively, the Irish will also have the luxury of returning most of its unit. Unfortunately for Notre Dame, one of the three starters they must replace is defensive tackle/end Trevor Laws. Laws was an animal along the defensive line last year and the Irish will be hard pressed to find someone to come close to his production, even if Pat Kuntz is back at school and on the field this fall. Other than laws, Notre Dame lost Tom Zbikowski and Joe Brockington amongst their defensive starters. Zibby, a four year starter and two time captain, will be tough to replace, but the overall strength of the secondary will make finding his replacement a much less daunting task for the Irish coaching staff.
Speaking of the staff, the one big change this off-season that could affect this year’s win total was the addition of assistant head coach Jon Tenuta. Tenuta will be working closely with Corwin Brown on improving the Notre Dame defense this fall and as one of the brightest defensive minds in the game, his addition along could mean an extra win or two for the Irish. The addition of Tenuta only came about because of the loss of Bill Lewis, a great coach in his own right, but you’ll have a hard time finding anyone who doesn’t think the Irish staff is stronger this year.
The schedule also lightens up for the Irish this year. Off the schedule from 2007 are Georgia Tech, Penn state, UCLA, Air Force, and Duke and on the schedule for 2008 are San Diego State, North Carolina, Washington, Syracuse, and Pittsburgh – quite a nice tradeoff for the Irish.
Unlike a year ago, the schedule isn’t front loaded with tough road games either. The Irish opened the 2007 season with four of their first six games on the road with trips to Penn State, Michigan, Purdue, and UCLA. This season Notre Dame will be home for four of their first five and have back to back road games twice this year with back to back trips to North Carolina and then Washington in October and trips to Boston College and Navy in consecutive weeks in November.
So to recap, Notre Dame has at least 16 starters back on offense and defense, added one of the best defensive coaches in the country to the staff, and faces a lighter schedule with a better distribution of games all of which should add up to a much more successful season in 2008. Just how much better should things be for the Irish is the question though.
When you take into account the players Notre Dame has back with the staff in place and the schedule it will face it looks as though 8 wins should be the baseline for success this season.
- San Diego State (WIN) – There is no reason the Irish should lose this game.
- Michigan (Toss Up) – Before anyone says how is this game a toss up considering the Wolverines beat the Irish 38-0 last year, remember that Michigan will be breaking in new offensive and defensive systems and will have a quarterback who doesn’t exactly fit Rich Rodriquez’s system. They also lost 11 starters including three offensive linemen. This game will be at home for Notre Dame and the last time Michigan beat Notre Dame 38-0 in Ann Arbor, the Irish upset the Wolverines the following year in South Bend.
- Michigan State (LOSS) – Mie Dantonio might just be the coach MSU has been looking for since Saban left. He has MSU playing very sound football in 2007.
- Purdue (WIN) – Purdue lost 10 starters including both wide receivers and their TE Dustin Keller. Last season Purdue was one of the few defenses that had a tough time stopping the Irish offense. With the game at home, this should be a Notre Dame win.
- Stanford (WIN) – Jim Harbaugh could end up doing very good things at Stanford down the road, but in 2008 they will struggle again.
- North Carolina (WIN) – Butch Davis will also do some good things at North Carolina, but at least for this season, the Irish should be able to win this.
- Washington (WIN) – Some think this could be a breakout year for the Huskies, but to date they have won just 11 games in 3 seasons under Ty.
- Pitt (LOSS) – Pitt could be a very good team in 2008 as they finally have the players in place to play the type of football Dave Wannstedt loves to play. Considering the problems stopping the run he Irish will likely have, this will probably be a loss.
- Boston College (Toss Up) – The Eagles lose 12 starters including #3 overall pick Matt Ryan who held that team together last year. Even when they were #2 and came into Notre Dame Stadium last year, they had trouble with the Irish. Because the game is on the road, I labeled it a toss up.
- Navy (WIN) – Notre Dame should start a new streak in 2009.
- Syracuse (WIN) – Simply put, Syracuse football is a mess right now.
- USC (LOSS) – Baring something amazing happening, this doesn’t look like the year Charlie Weis finally beats Carroll.
Seven wins, three losses, and two toss up games. If Notre Dame splits the Michigan and Boston College games, that would put the Irish at 8-4 on the season. A record like 8-4 is hardly what people imagined this time in 2006 or 2007, but considering what happened last season such a record would be a vast improvement and is much more reasonable than predicting 10 wins at this time of the year.
Is it possible for Notre Dame to catch lighting in a bottle and have a better season than 8-4? Sure, anything is possible. Is it likely after winning just three games in 2007? Probably not.
It might be unfair to say that 7 wins or 8 wins or however many wins is the bare minimum for success in 2008, but considering the schedule and all other factors, 8 wins seems at least reasonable. The manner in which the losses occur in 2008 will also factor into whether or not the season is a success. At a bare minimum, the Irish must cut out the embarrassing losses at least be competitive.
An 8 win season would be a five game improvement upon 2007. That type of improvement isn’t seen very often in college football from year to year, but then again, three win seasons from Notre Dame aren’t seen very often either.