Irish Looking for Some Middle Ground In 2008

Notre Dame, IN (UHND) – In writing last week’s column on expectations for the upcoming season something dawned on me – since 1999 it’s been feast or famine for the Irish when it comes to on field success. Coming on the heels of 3-9 last season, it’s safe to say that some middle ground is exactly what Irish fans are looking for in 2008.

Since Bob Davie’s second season in 1999, every Notre Dame season has either ended at .500 and below or with 9 or more wins (and a bowl loss). There’s simply been no middle ground – the Irish have either over achieved or under achieved.

In 1999, Bob Davie and the Irish were coming off a 9-3 season with a loss to Georgia Tech in the Gator Bowl. Instead of turning the corner, as many pundits had predicted, Davie’s troops suffered through a 5-7 season which included 4 losses by 5 points or less. Time management, costly penalties, a torched secondary, and untimely turnovers derailed would could have been a pretty good season for the Irish.

A year later, the Irish responded with a 9-2 regular season with both regular season losses coming by a combined 9 points. Notre Dame ran into a buzz-saw at the end of the season in the form of Oregon State in the Fiesta Bowl. This year the Irish over-achieved and were placed in a bowl game against a team they did not particularly match up well against.

Coming off the first BCS berth for Notre Dame, there were again high hopes in South Bend in 2001 in what would become Bob Davie’s last season as head coach. Davie couldn’t build on the momentum he had gained during the 2000 regular season and was out as head coach after a 5-6 campaign.

The 2002 season brought Tyrone Willingham to the sidelines in South Bend, and in another prime example of over-achieving, the Irish stormed out of the gates to an 8-0 record before losing at home to Boston College. Some say the Irish were never the same under Willingham after that game and after a 31 point loss to end the season at the hands of USC, Notre Dame was in the Gator Bowl again. NC State made short work of the Irish, however, as Notre Dame was unable to sustain any offense with starting quarterback Carlyle Holiday on the bench.

The 2003 and 2004 seasons were both utter disappointments. During this two year span, the Irish were extremely inconsistent. In ’03 Willingham’s troops were embarrassed to the likes of 38-0 in Ann Arbor, 37-0 at home against Florida State, 45-14 at home against USC, and 38-12 on the road against Syracuse. In ’04 Notre Dame beat both Michigan and Tennessee, but lost to BYU, Pitt, and Boston College.

The 2005 season brought new hope with the addition of Charlie Weis as the head coach and for two seasons, the Irish were consistently in the top 20 in the country. Weis led the Irish to 19 wins in his first two seasons and back to back BCS berths. Unfortunately, the Irish showed in both bowl games that they weren’t quite ready for prime time.

Then came the debacle that was last season. After going 19-5 over the previous two seasons, the Irish stumbled out of the blocks and had one of the worst seasons in Notre Dame history. Two late season wins over Duke and Stanford pushed the Irish record to just 3-9.

If this were a poker game, the Irish would have essentially been “all-in” every season – they either win big, or lose big every year it seems.

Considering the way the last nine seasons have gone, a season in which the Irish reached some sort of middle ground would be received extremely well. While most Notre Dame fans, myself included, would love to see the Irish catch fire in the regular season and find a way into the BCS as they did in 2005, the last thing most want to see is another bowl game debacle.

The bowl losing streak is a sore subject for most Notre Dame fans. It’s almost unfathomable that the last time the Irish won a bowl game, Bill Clinton was just wrapping up his first full year in the Oval Office, but that is indeed the case. That being said, a season ending with a bowl win – no matter what the bowl – would almost certainly be labeled a success after last year’s 3-9 record.

Notre Dame fans were treated to back to back nine win seasons in 2005-06 for the first time since the 1992-93 seasons under then head coach Lou Holtz and most figured would become the norm rather than the exception under Charlie Weis. The 2007 season, however, brought back the nightmares of the previous two coaching regimes and at least rattled some of the faith Irish fans have in Weis.

In order to regain that faith, Weis doesn’t have to lead the Irish to 10+ win season – all he needs to do is find some middle ground this year and produce a solid, competitive team that can win a minimum of 7 or 8 games. Of course, if Weis could deliver a 10 win season this year, I don’t think anyone will be complaining.

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