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College Football Over/Under: Notre Dame

9.5 wins.

In this over/under series, we’ll preview some of the top college football teams with BCS aspirations, and set an over/under win total, discuss the relative pro and con arguments, and then get off the fence and pick a side.  Today: the Fighting Irish.

flickr.com/maveric2003

flickr.com/maveric2003

The number one argument both for, and against, the Irish this year has to do with their schedule.  It’s notably softer than in any of the past seasons.  I mean, just look at preseason top-25 teams they have played in past seasons:

2005: Pitt, Michigan, USC, Tennessee

2006: Penn State, Michigan, USC

2007: Penn State, Michigan, UCLA, USC

2008: Pitt, USC

2009: USC

What was once a tough road has significantly softened.  Or has it?  What exactly makes a top 25 team a quality team, while a top 35 team is simply a rollover opponent?  The truth is nothing.  A “ranked” team is in no way better or tougher than a non-ranked team of similar quality.  Sure, this year’s Notre Dame schedule has Syracuse on it, and without reading too much into their upset win in Notre Dame Stadium last year, they figure to be a W.

flickr.com/SD Rebel

flickr.com/SD Rebel

But the rest of the bunch might not have a pushover in it.  Both Washington and Washington state are games the Irish should win, but neither figures to be Syracuse bad.  But after that, where are all the Armys, Indianas, Iowa States, and Dukes we would expect to be on the softest schedule in the history of Notre Dame football?  They’re absent.  Even if you don’t give Washington or Washington State a fighting chance, Notre Dame will take the field nine times this year against teams that have a chance to beat them.

Maybe if they were a real program, like Florida, they could schedule Charleston Southern, Troy, and FIU.  Oklahoma will attempt to handle Idaho State.  Or, like everyone’s favorite Pennsylvania program, they could open against Akron, Syracuse, and Temple, and then throw in a mid season battle with Eastern Illinois for good measure.

The cold, hard truth is that Notre Dame will line up against 8 opponents this year who fully expect to be bowl eligible.  No team, not even from a major conference, will face a similar schedule.  Every conference has it’s pushovers to play, and when teams start scheduling Division 1-FCS teams on their schedule, the regular season seems to lose a lot of it’s meaning.  As an independent, the Irish typically see a harder schedule than most teams, and this year is no exception.

With that said, the stigma of the “winnable game” will weigh heavily on the Irish.  10 wins will probably get them to the BCS, hence the 9.5 over/under from the top of the article.  But with top 35-40 opponents in Michigan, Michigan State, Pitt, Boston College, and perhaps Stanford as well, not to mention the one game it seems like they’ll never win, USC, 10 wins is guaranteed to no one, least of whom the Fighting Irish.

So what do they have going for them if not the schedule?  Well, for one thing, Jimmy Clausen has been statistically more impressive in his development than Brady Quinn to the same point.  Subjectively, however, Clausen’s jump from mechanical, fundamentally-sound pocket passer with poor field vision to playmaking super star quarterback at ND is going to be a lot more difficult than simply “being Brady.”

Head Coach Charlie Weis expects his running game to handle most of what opposing defensive coordinators can throw at it.  It was a major weakness last year after being the only way they could move the ball in 2007.  Tailbacks Robert Hughes and Armando Allen will carry the load, which is an improvement over those two and former five star recruit James Aldridge playing situationally, with no one playing well in any situation.  With Aldridge’s move to fullback, you’d have to think he’s going to make a bigger impact then in past seasons, if for no other reasons than playing time and questionable fullback play in past years.

Notre Dame’s best chance to win though is to use it’s receiving duo, among the best receiving tandems in the country with Michael Floyd and Golden Tate.  A lot of Clausen’s high YPA numbers were actually adjustments to the ball by Tate, who often makes defensive backs look foolish for trying to cover him.  Floyd was inconsistent as a freshman, but as far as true freshmen go, he was among the most prolific receivers in school history.  The third target is tight end Kyle Rudolph, who is a receiver first and a blocker second, and is only a true sophomore.

Don’t count out the defense either, particularly the run defense.  For the first time in seemingly ever, the defense was the better of the two sides of the ball, and with top recruits maturing, looks to only be stronger in 2009.  The best players are DT Ian Williams, LB Brian Smith, CB Robert Blanton, and 5 star Hawaian recruit, LB Manti T’eo.

Given Notre Dame’s schedule and talent, not to mention the positive indicator of a veteran offensive line, a large jump in team quality seems almost inevitable.  The problem is that even while improving to a top 15 or 20 team, 10 wins is still a tough feat for an independent who plays as many competitive teams as Notre Dame.

So on the Irish, I’m going to take the under and predict 9-3, with losses to Michigan, USC, and Boston College.  That won’t get them into the BCS, but a four game winning streak to close out the regular season should give them a nice shot at the Gator Bowl, Cotton Bowl, or Capital One Bowl, and with a strong showing in that game, the Irish should be noticibly improved enough to earn Charlie Weis an extended stay, and a run at the BCS next year with the current group.

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