October 13, 2009
Players, coaches and teams with the most at stake this weekend.
If you could somehow go back through every single preseason prediction for Notre Dame and count up the number of times certain phrases were used, the ratio of "10 wins" to "easy schedule" would probably be right around 1:1. The general consensus seemed to be that the Irish were a good team who had the chance to finish with a great record thanks to a slate of opponents that finished an aggregate 76-77 last season; even bullish prognosticators such as Phil Steele, who had the Irish No. 7 in his preseason rankings, made a point to mention how ND's strength of schedule, or lack of same, figured into their optimism.
The first month has born out that assumption: The Irish are 4-1, but none of the teams they've beaten currently bear a winning record. Even the pundit class doesn't seem quite sure how good the Irish really are, relegating them to the No. 25 spot in both polls after too-close-for-comfort wins over the likes of Michigan State, Purdue and Washington. To the skeptics, the record that matters isn't 4-1, but 1-18 -- the Irish's record against teams that finished with a winning record since November 2006, where the one win was last year's survival against Navy. The '09 team's only date with a winning team was a loss, at Michigan. If ND falls Saturday against USC, at home, the losing streak against .500 teams from "Big Six" conferences will reach three calendar years, and the skeptics will have ample ammunition to fire at Charlie Weis for the rest of this one..
In the Irish's futility against big fish, USC is the white whale: Notre Dame has lost the last seven against the Trojans by an average of four touchdowns. Weis deserves credit for coaching the one close game ND has played during that stretch -- the 34-31 loss in South Bend in 2005, his first season, the year SC hit the 4th-and-10 audible from Matt Leinart to Dwayne Jarrett to set up the infamous "Bush push" -- but he also takes the blame for the two worst blowouts the Irish have suffered in the history of the series over the last years, when Notre Dame was shut out 38-0 at home in 2007, then went nearly three full quarters without gaining a first down in a 38-3 bludgeoning last year that brought out the torches and pitchforks.
Irish fans have reason to hope, at least, that this year's team is good enough to avoid anything quite that humiliating. They're getting the Trojans at home, where they're only a 10-point underdog (the spread has averaged 18.5 over the last five seasons). Shockingly, they're wielding the nation's most efficient passer in Jimmy Clausen, who has the nation's fourth-leading receiver (Golden Tate) and a sleeper running back (Armando Allen) at his disposal, all operating behind an all-senior offensive line performing at a higher level than it has in years. From a talent standpoint, the Irish look like they're in better position than they've been at any point since Pete Carroll's first season on the opposite sideline.
Trouble is, they'll be going up against a Trojan defense that barely seems to have lost a step from last year despite losing eight players to the draft, while ND's defense has been a sieve since pitching an opening-weekend shutout against Nevada. Whatever heroics Clausen achieves will go for naught if yet another Trojan QB -- a true freshman, no less, on the road -- is permitted to shell the Irish secondary.
The real question here may not be whether Notre Dame is going to win, but how close Charlie Weis has to keep the final score to retain the confidence of his superiors. Weis currently occupies one of the hottest seats in the country, and the USC game should be held up as an unofficial metric for just how far he's pulled the team out of the 10-15 hole it occupied through the miserable 2007 and ultimately disappointing 2008 campaigns. Keep it close, and the case can be argued that the Irish are still Headed In The Right Direction, with Clausen, Tate, Allen, injured deep threat Michael Floyd and all but two players on defense likely coming back next year. Catch another five-TD beating, though, and not only does the 4-1 start go out the window, but usually routine November dates with the likes of Pittsburgh and Stanford loom as referendums on the immediate future of the program. That's not the mark of an elite team -- nor is it a recipe for continued employment, no matter how big Weis's buyout is.