I looked up all the preseason polls I could find, and Notre Dame comes out the consensus No. 1 preseason pick in college football. More polls picked the Fighting Irish No. 1 than any other team.
Yet I have to wonder: What is it that makes us so enamored with Notre Dame this year? The Irish went only 9-3 last season and did not beat one ranked team. Their defense – the thing you win championships with – was not very good, and their pass coverage was horrendous. On top of that, the Irish gave up 617 yards in the Fiesta Bowl to Ohio State, the team some think they could face for the national championship. Have we been drinking too much of that Irish Kool-Aid?
Maybe so, but you had better count me in. I’ve taken a front-row seat on that Fighting Irish bandwagon. They are legitimate contenders for the national championship.
The reason is very simple – head coach Charlie Weis. What he brings to the table offensively and the confidence he instills in Notre Dame override every reason they should not be playing for the title come January. Quite simply, Notre Dame’s offense will carry the team this year, and the Irish will arrive at the last game of the regular season against USC playing for a chance to return to Arizona and play for the national title Jan. 8.
Nine starters are back on defense, and that experience should make the Irish better. Even if they didn’t get faster or more athletic in the off-season, they should have what I call more accuracy of movement. By having one more year in the system, each player should make better initial decisions in his movement to the football. And defense is about getting 11 people to the football as fast as they can get there.
All four starters return on the defensive front, and this should be a real strength. But they must get more pressure on the quarterback to help the secondary in the passing game. Look for defensive end Victor Abiamiri to make the biggest impact in this area, with defensive tackle Derek Landri leading the way against the run.
Only Maurice Crum returns at linebacker, where two newcomers will need to replace veteran leaders Brandon Hoyte and Corey Mays.
The secondary returns intact and is led by bone-crushing safety Tom Zbikowski, who had five interceptions and four touchdowns (including two on punt returns) last season. However, much improvement needs to come at the corner positions, especially in not giving up the big play.
Offensively, everything is in place, including eight starters, to have one of the most explosive units in college football. Quarterback Brady Quinn enters the season as the leading candidate for the Heisman Trophy, and he will leave South Bend as its most prolific passer. Most importantly, Quinn has the talent and leadership qualities to lead this team to a championship in much the same way Tom Brady led Weis to Super Bowl wins with the New England Patriots.
Weapons are back at every skill position. Senior All-America wide receiver Jeff Samardzija is joined by veteran Rhema McKnight, who led Notre Dame in receptions in 2003 and 2004 before getting hurt last season. Thousand-yard rusher Darius Walker is back to tote the football behind an offensive line that returns four starters from 2005.
Eighteen of the 22 starters will be seniors. This is their last season to make it happen at Notre Dame, and they will be playing with great focus and urgency. The schedule, though tougher than last season, is very manageable. If the Irish can get through their first three games against Georgia Tech, Penn State and Michigan – and they will be favored in all three – they should be undefeated going into their regular-season finale at USC.