January 26, 2009
Predicting the offseason consensus.
Even coming off a wholesale collapse in which it lost to a pair of service academies and played more like Temple or Eastern Michigan than a top-25 team in 2007, Notre Dame still managed a handful of votes in last year's preseason polls. Obviously, those votes were nowhere to be found at the end of the year. But here we are again, and for all the same reasons -- the young talent, the schedule, the momentum of a strong finish -- about half the pundits who have ventured an early guess have the same vision of the Irish as a rising tide. The greenest glasses (no doubt adorned with tiny flecks of gold) so far belong to Matt Hayes, who justified his high opinion of the Irish in his first pass at a lineup for 2009 thusly:
11. Notre Dame: The confidence QB Jimmy Clausen gained from his play at Hawaii will be huge. In ND's six losses, Clausen threw eight touchdowns and 10 interceptions. In seven wins, he had 17 touchdowns and seven interceptions.
I'm not sure I agree with Mssr. Hayes that Clausen's struggles were rooted in "confidence":
That is a trend. The Irish faced two defenses ranked in the top-10 against the pass (and in total defense, as it happens), Boston College and Southern Cal, and the offense was an absolute disaster in both games: Clausen was picked four times in a shutout at B.C. and twice in an effective shutout at USC. In between those two games, ND struggled to put away Navy (the lone victory over a winning team), lost to Syracuse and generally looked like it had traveled back to 2007 during a 1-4 November. Nearly everyone who's floated the Irish as a top-25 outfit in the fall have referenced the "confidence, "excitement" and good vibes" from the bowl blowout over Hawaii, but there were very similar vibes after wins over Michigan, Purdue, Stanford and Washington, for very good reason: These teams were terrible. Still, I get the feeling that we're going to get a fair share of arguments over the next six months along the lines of the incredulous query that came in for Bruce Feldman's latest mailbag column at ESPN, where the ur-narrative for '09 is Hawaii-Bowl-as-awakening:
From Justin in NYC: How could you possibly leave the Irish out of your way too early top 10 for 2009? Did you not watch the Hawaii Bowl? The Irish might have eight No. 1 draft picks on their starting line-up and Weis finally got rid of [offensive line coach John] Latina, the guy who had been holding everything back.
Oh, the offensive line coach, holding back the unprecedented cadre of first-round draft picks against the North Carolinas, Pittsburghs and Boston Colleges of the world. Optimists seem to view these types of games against other fringe poll teams as likely wins for an improving team; there should be no shortage of references to the favorable schedule. This is the same old song: Four of the six teams that beat ND in '08 are back on the slate in '09, with Michigan bound to be veering back toward competence and UConn replacing Syracuse (I'll back off speculation about the relative merits of Purdue and Stanford, for now). Given that ND has averaged seven wins per season since its last serious national title bid in 1993, and has achieved that almost exclusively against the lower end of the schedule under Charlie Weis, everything here just seems like par for the course.