Throughout August, we will be counting down the 25 teams (as listed here) going into the 2009 season. Today, we travel (figuratively) to South Bend, Indiana, to preview the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame.  Seeing as how this write-up was authored by Notre Dame fan extraordinaire Ty Hildenbrandt, you should expect a heavily biased and bitterly sarcastic perspective of the 2009 season.  If you can’t handle that, then go somewhere else, damn it.

First Impressions

If there were ever a year for Notre Dame to reach the 10-win plateau, it is 2009.  In fact, it MUST happen this year, otherwise the Irish echoes will be awoken not by the ghost of Rockne, but rather by the cries for Charlie Weis‘ head on a silver platter.  With an offense returning several veteran, playmaking pieces and a defense that started getting organized in the second half of 2008, the table is set for a healthy run through one of the weakest schedules the school has ever seen.  Simply put, there can be no excuses this time around.

Looming large on October 17th is Notre Dame‘s yearly gut check against USC, a game that will most certainly define their season.  Still, plenty of other questions remain.  Will this be the year that Jimmy Clausen lives up the hype?  Will this be the year that Notre Dame finally learns how to win the battles in the trenches?  Will this be the year that Notre Dame finally deserves a preseason top-25 ranking?  Only time will tell.

Last year

Though a 7-6 season with a bowl victory was a marked improvement over 2007’s 3-9 campaign, the Irish‘s 2008 season will be forever marred by a stunning loss to Syracuse that nearly derailed the Charlie Weis Train and almost sent Ty Hildenbrandt into a downward spiral of alcoholism.  Not cool.  That, in conjunction with a 38-3 bedwetting against USC, and Notre Dame‘s season couldn’t help but be viewed as a disappointment.  Wins against San Diego State, Michigan, Purdue, Stanford, Washington, Navy, and Hawaii were nice.  Losses against Michigan State, North Carolina, Pitt, Boston College, Syracuse, and USC were not.

The main problem with Notre Dame‘s 2008 campaign was its offensive line.  In two unceremonious years, Jimmy Clausen has shown signs of brilliance; however, the majority of his dropbacks have been under serious duress.  Offensively, this inability to block had a cataclysmic effect on the team’s ability to deliver a balanced attack.  Specifically, they couldn’t run the football, ranking 100th in rushing offense and averaging only 3.27 yards per carry.  Clausen was being asked to win every game — a task nearly impossible for a quarterback with no protection.

But the season was not a complete loss.  ND‘s 49-21 win in the Sheraton Hawaii Bowl was impressive, and it became apparent that Clausen could flourish with some protection and three surehanded targets (Golden Tate, Michael Floyd and Duval Kumara).  However, was this a legitimate leap forward, or just an aberration against a mediocre opponent.  We shall see.

People

You already know about Jimmy Clausen, whose 3,172 passing yards quietly put him at 23rd in the nation amid all the other hoopla surrounding Charlie Weis’ future with the team.  Clausen got a bad rap as a showboat with the way he entered college (and for his ghastly haircut to start the ’08 season), but, by all accounts, he’s a model teammate and one of the hardest workers on the team.  With more support, he will blossom into the talent that many thought he’d be.

This year, that support comes in the form of several offensive weapons.  Golden Tate had a breakout year in ’08 with 1,080 yards receiving and figures to be Clausen‘s main deep threat.  Complementing Tate is surehanded sophomore Michael Floyd, who logged 700+ yards of his own.  And not to be overlooked at slot man Duval Kumara, or tight end Kyle Rudolph.  According to Phil Steele, this is the best receiving corps in the nation.

Notre Dame’s offensive line is anchored by 6’8″ tackle Sam Young.  While the last two years have certainly fallen short of expectation, 2008 was still a major improvement from 2007, and 2009 figures continue trending upwards.  This unit is experienced and needs to step up to help Armando Allen become more effective as a running back.

Defensively, look for coordinator Jon Tenuta to be aggressive and attack opposing offenses, and the move back to a 4-3 base seems like a smart move.  The Irish defense was better than most realize in 2008.  Listen for names like SS Kyle McCarthy, FS Harrison Smith and a speedy group of linebackers with Brian Smith, Steve Filer, and freshman Manti Te’o.

This Year

This team should be able to score points, especially against a weak schedule.  The opening game against Nevada will provide an immediate test for the Irish in the form of Colin Kaepernick‘s dangerous passing attack.  On paper, outside Michigan State on September 19th and USC in mid-October, there should be no other potential losses on the schedule.  But the games aren’t played on paper, and you never know when this team is going to have a recurrence of its hiccups from 2007 and 2008.  Remaining unmentioned opponents: @Michigan, @Purdue, Washington, USC, Washington State (in San Antonio, TX… for some reason), Navy, @Pitt, Connecticut, and @Stanford.  Yeah.  Don’t be afraid to be the OVER.

Conclusions

This should be the best team Charlie Weis has fielded in his rocky tenure.  And that’s good for him, because in light of last season’s bowl victory, the standard for 2009 is a BCS berth.  No way around it.  Notre Dame has all the pieces in place to make a run at an undefeated season, and it’s not out of the question to think that this team could down USC on October 17th.  Realistically, though, you should expect a loss against the Trojans and one other wildcard team (maybe Michigan State).  As a Notre Dame fan, I am cautiously optimistic and excited about this season.

Prediction

10-2

Highlights Set To Unfortunate Music

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d7QSs27MJlU

–Ty