For Better or Worse: Re-Evaluating Irish Expectations (Part 1)
Based on pre-season expectations, most Irish fans are starting to grumble about the state of the football program at Notre Dame. Some people are waiting to see if the two previous close wins will catch up to the Irish, similar to the Michigan game. Around the nation, Irish fans are starting to ask themselves “Are the Irish as good as we thought at the beginning of the season?”
Here at Clashmore Mike, we will be doing a two-part look at Irish expectations and what changes, if any, need to be made based on the first third of the season. For part 1, we’ve reached out to fellow Notre Dame analysts Sprout and Eric over at The Subway Alumni Show. Individually, they gave their opinions on the idea of Irish fans shifting their expectations:
I subscribe to the belief that any team can beat any team if they prepare and play properly. The ranking in front of your name doesn’t always mean you’re guaranteed a victory —just ask USC or Ole Miss or Penn State about that. Notre Dame has the talent and the depth to run with anyone on their schedule. Are they going to have their backs to the wall in several of those games? Yes. If they end up 10-2 are they going to be a top-five team? Doubtful. Does that mean this season will be a let down or all for naught? Absolutely not.
What I do think needs to change for Irish fans are their expectations of what Notre Dame football means. Football, like anything else, is cyclical. To say the Irish should never lose to a certain team simply because they are Notre Dame comes across as arrogant. That doesn’t mean I agree with every loss they’ve had recently…but things happen. If perfection is what fans expect from Notre Dame, then by my count Notre Dame has only ever had 11 successful seasons. It’s a wonder anyone is a fan to begin with based on all that failure.
All sarcasm aside, the college landscape is very different for Notre Dame than it was 20 years ago and it seems people are having a hard time admitting that. It’s harder to recruit. It’s harder to schedule. (A big part of the reason Notre Dame was able to schedule so many big name teams in a single season during the Holtz era was because a majority of those teams were independent also. Once everyone jumped ship for conferences, recruiting became a lot more complicated.) And to expect to be the best team based on Notre Dame’s history alone doesn’t cut it for me. It just doesn’t seem reasonable.
Overall though, I think the issues run deeper than just Notre Dame fans, but I’ll use us as the example. The way college football is currently setup is for that of failure. We have to expect a perfect season because that’s the only measure of success anymore. In any other sport, on any level, losing a single game does not hold as much weight as it does in college football. Why is that? It’s a recipe for disaster. A playoff system has to be put in place. As outrageous as ESPN’s conference realignment piece was—that was aired earlier this year—and regardless of how tongue-in-cheek they were being, a system like that makes sense for college football. And it’s under that system, in my opinion, that Notre Dame has the best shot at winning a National Championship again.
Since my counterpart took his answer to the much larger issue of the college football landscape, I’ll stay within the shadow of the Golden Dome and explain why I believe the Irish and their fans are still able to meet expectations of an 11-1 or 10-2 records.
I think most college football predictions can be pretty outrageous—like Lou Holtz’s 13-0 (upsetting Florida in the National Championship) prediction. But when Lou presented his argument he brought up the point that from the top of the schedule to the bottom, Notre Dame would field the better team athletically each week. Now some can make the argument (enter Mark May) that Notre Dame is not athletically superior than USC this year, but I disagree. I understand USC reloads faster than any school in the country, but losing players like Sanchez, Turner, Cushing, Matthews, Maualuga, and Moala—along with others—has played a huge role in closing the gap this year on USC and in my opinion are too many losses, especially on defense to be seen as superior to Notre Dame. Having virtually our whole offense back this season along with almost all of the key pieces on defense, it becomes easy to understand Lou’s bold prediction. Notre Dame should continue to field the better team in each of it’s games this year, barring of course the dreaded injuries.
As we all know, it’s not just who has the better team on paper and who’s ranked higher—that’s why they play the games (see Appalachian State vs. Michigan). It’s more about coming into each game prepared, focused and ready to execute at the highest level on every down of every possession. A pretty big request to expect out of some college “kids,” so we prepare ourselves for the miscues and the letdowns. To me, that is why so many people brushed off Lou’s prediction. He was simply calling for perfection, something that is so rarely seen in any sport, let alone in college football. However, with a down schedule for the Irish in ’09, a prediction of say 10-2, or even mine of 11-1, doesn’t seem to be so far-fetched.
Since the early slip-up against Michigan, followed with some close call victories against Michigan State and Purdue, I understand why some fans want to adjust their expectations. To make the excuse of this team not being ready for life in the top 10 or the top 5: I disagree. A mature Brady Quinn took Charlie Weis’ offense into the top 10 before and I think we can all agree that Quinn and company had less talent than the current players. Even with Mike Floyd out for what looks to be the season, I think that this group of kids should be and will be able to perform well enough throughout the remaining games to keep on winning.
There are some negative aspects that the team is currently facing (poor tackling, poor pressure by the defensive line, poor secondary coverage, and needless penalties), and although we are nearing mid-season already, I find that those are all correctable problems. People easily forget that players progress throughout the season and I don’t believe it’s too much to ask of our defensive line to improve upon their pressure or our linebackers to tackle better. The pieces could fall into place very easily for the Irish. If the defensive line is able to create better pressure consistently, the secondary’s job becomes easier since the opposing quarterback won’t have all day to make up his mind. Both of these things will then lead to players being in the right position to make the right plays. I think Notre Dame is fortunate that the negative aspects that have come out of our first four games are so few and seem to be easily correctable.
Overall, it will continue to be on the players and coaches to stay focused on their performance and improvements each week. Just because we should be beating the Washington State’s and Boston College’s this year doesn’t guarantee a victory. Will we see an 11-1 season? I believe so, but then again I predicted Brady Quinn was going to be able to win a game or two for my Cleveland Browns.
Once again, our thanks go out to Sprout and Eric at The Subway Alumni Show for allowing us to pick their brains on this topic. Make sure to check out their Purdue recap and Washington preview episode where they answer a few more questions we asked them to cover on video. Also, Part 2 of this topic will be covered tomorrow, right here on Clashmore Mike.