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College Football Morning: For Weis, the Must Win Game has Finally Arrived

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Tonight at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Charlie Weis will coach his 60th game as head coach of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish.  The first 59 have all been high pressure games, or at least the kind that come with the territory at ND.  The 60th game marks the first time that Weis’ job will rely on the outcome of this game.

Not just for Weis, but this appears to be a must win game for the Notre Dame football program.  At some point, you have to wonder: is this all there is?  The Irish lost 15 out of 25 games in 2007 and 2008 because they were a very young team: deep, but young.

Now, it’s 2009, and the offensive line can’t get any more experienced than it currently is.  Despite the maturity, the defense probably can’t get any worse than it has been.  The reason that the Irish need to win–and win big–down the stretch this year is because you can look at Jimmy Clausen, who is probably headed for the NFL draft, and you can look at Golden Tate who might be headed in that direction (but because he’s a two-sport athlete, he’ll likely be back), and the three seniors on the offensive line, and it becomes a legitimate question as to whether or not there’s more rebuilding in the near-term future for the Irish.

One of the biggest reasons that Weis has lasted this long is because the 2006 team was able to make a BCS bowl just a year after the 2005 team did.  Of course, without both Brady Quinn and Jeff Samardzija, it would have been much more obvious to observers that the 2006 team just wasn’t as good as the 2005 team, especially on the defensive end.  The 2006 team was able to make it back to the BCS despite the decline only because they were able to keep all the relevant parts on deck.  That’s not bound to happen for ND this time around.

So the administration in South Bend must be very convinced at the end of this month that their program is “back.”  What other chance does Weis have of coaching this team next year?  It’s likely to be a step or two below the current Notre Dame team, wherever that is.

You have Cincinnati’s Brian Kelly, who is the hottest name in college football, and according to two sources that I would have reason to believe understand his intentions, would only leave Cincinnati for the ND job.  You have an offense that is in desperate need of a scheme transition to protect it’s younger linemen next year.  The argument for keeping Weis as head coach for a sixth season rests on a program that doesn’t want to buyout the remaining 6 years of his contract, and on whatever hope for the future Weis can instil in these final three games.

Charlie Weis still has the time necessary to turn this thing around, but for the first time in his tenure as Irish HC, there’s zero margin for error.  With a win over Pitt, he can earn back some of that margin: 8-4 plus an impressive bowl victory is probably enough to signal significant progress.  But if the Irish go to Pittsburgh and lay an egg, I think it makes the decision on his future that much easier.

LiveBall had the Irish at 6-3 at this point in the season, and projected them to finish at 9-3 and just outside the BCS.  Obviously, this is still a reasonable goal.  The prediction inside the prediction was written as follows:

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.

That four (now three) game winning streak still should be enough to inspire the neccessary confidence in the Weis Process to continue the operation, but if that process takes another blow tonight–in a game where the Irish are underdogs–it may be lights out on an era in Notre Dame football.

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