The College Football Notebook

August 20, 2009 8:10 AM

Shaking Down The Thunder

Notre Dame has played in exactly three major bowl games since Lou Holtz left campus following the 1996 season. They have lost all three in decisive fashion. They haven’t won a big bowl since 1993. They are no longer even the premier Catholic football program in the country, that honor having been taken over by Boston College. Therefore, it can be seen as a strange editorial decision by The College Football Notebook to wrap up its conference previews by making Notre Dame the focal point of the final feature, while legitimate national contenders like Florida, Texas and USC share space with their conference brethren.

This approach is reflective of three key facts—first, there’s really no other good way to do it. If this were the late 1980s when Miami, Florida State and Penn State joined the Irish as power independents, they’d all be dealt with in the same section. The Fighting Irish are the last independent that aspires to big-time status. Second, Notre Dame does retain a certain cultural hold on a large segment of college football fans, a reality that’s given them their NBC contract. Third, the Notebook believes in acknowledging its biases. And while I’m not a hard-core Notre Dame fan (Wisconsin is the girl I truly love), I am an Irish Catholic who is on the pro-ND side of the aisle and think college football is more fun when the Irish are in the national mix. So Notre Dame is the lead, in which I will also touch on Army & Navy. And for the sake of keeping the rivalries of Church & State in perfect balance, I’ll give a little extra attention to Boston College & Air Force as well.

Charlie Weis is under the gun this year. He barely survived a 6-6 finish in 2008 that included a humiliating and inexcusable home loss to Syracuse in November. A bowl victory of Hawaii soothed some wounds and at least the Irish no longer have a bowl losing streak hanging over the head (they hadn’t won a bowl of any prestige level since that ’93 Cotton triumph over Texas A&M). But Weis needs a minimum of eight wins for a return to even be on the table for 2010 and you can argue that he needs a BCS bid to be truly secure.

He has the offense to make that happen. Jimmy Clausen is now a junior and in his third year as a starter. He’s the real deal and will have the support to have a big year. The offensive line is experienced and Armando Allen will plenty of room to run. Kyle Rudolph makes for an inviting target at tight end. A little re-tooling is needed at the wideouts, but nothing so serious that Weis can’t make it happen.

The defense is what will determine Notre Dame’s fate. They haven’t been tough against the run, and I don’t see that 2009 will be any different. Only three starters return in the front seven and freshmen will start on the interior. The secondary should be adequate, but after a few years of hearing that Weis had great recruiting classes on the way, the pressure is going to be on young players to deliver.. Notre Dame is going to have to win shootouts if they are to have the kind of year their coach needs.

One such shootout awaits them in the season opener against Nevada. I think they will lose this game (see column below, which projects a Nevada BCS run). The media and the alumni will go into hysterics if the Irish indeed lose at home to the Wolfpack, but it would be far more troubling if they lost at home to Boston College, or even if they lost on the road at Michigan or Pitt. In the end, I think the Irish get to 7-8 wins, which constitutes slight improvement and puts their coach squarely on the bubble.

If nothing else, ND’s status as the top Catholic program in America should return this year. Boston College took a stand for loyalty in firing Jeff Jagodzinski for even looking at other jobs. Stands on principle are admirable and I’m all for them, but we have to be realistic about what they mean in terms of bottom line results. In 2005 the Philadelphia Eagles took a stand against Terrell Owens released him. They collapsed and missed the playoffs. In 2008, the New York Giants took a stand and benched Plaxico Burress. They lost their big-play capability and were ousted in the second round. The ’08 Boston Red Sox took a stand and traded Manny Ramirez. They came up a run short of the World Series. The message is clear: stands on principle are noble precisely because they cost you something, and it will cost BC more than a few wins on the football field this year.

Just outside my hometown north of Baltimore is the Naval Academy. The Midshipmen are a thriving football program these days. Paul Johnson took the wishbone to Georgia Tech, but he was replaced by Ken Numatalolo and the Middies didn’t miss a beat. They went to another bowl game last year before losing to Wake Forest. The top runners are gone this season, but quarterback Ricky Dobbs is still on hand to run the triple option. The defense returns quite a bit and is laden with upperclassmen. If Ohio State isn’t ready for Navy’s visit on September 5 (USC comes to Columbus one week later), the Midshipmen could shock the nation. If nothing else, I expect that season opener, to be closer than the betting markets think it will be. And Navy has a real shot to upset Pitt on the road two weeks later. We can also circle their November 14 trip to South Bend. Regardless of how these showcase games turn out, Navy will end another winning season by beating Army on December 12 in Philadelphia.

Army is on very hard times. They went 3-9 last year and have brought in Rich Ellerson from Cal-Poly to take over as head coach. Ellerson ran the triple option there, and would have pulled off a mammoth road upset of Wisconsin last year had it not been for three missed extra points. But he has no offensive line to speak of and any success at West Point won’t happen this year.

Air Force will joust with Navy for the Commander-in-Chief trophy. The Falcons are coming off an 8-4 season and return sophomore quarterback Tim Jefferson, who was the MWC’s Freshman of the Year. Another team that runs the triple option, Air Force will start five seniors on the offensive front. It will be the trenches on the other side that will hold them back. A strong secondary makes them competitive in the Mountain West, but I expect the Falcons to lose at Navy on October 3 and to come in third or fourth in conference. Another bowl bid will still be there as a consolation prize.

Up Next: Complete BCS Overview & Projections on Wednesday

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