In just one season, Charlie Weis’ impact already is being felt at Notre Dame.
A year ago, the Fighting Irish began the season unranked. This year, they are tied for third with Southern California in the preseason USA Today college football poll, the highest Notre Dame has been ranked at the start of a season in a dozen years.
So let the hype begin. Expectations are through the roof. They are talking national championship in South Bend.
It used to be like this all the time for college football’s most storied program – preseason top-five ranking, championship aspirations – and there’s no reason why it can’t be like that again. Notre Dame should be in contention for a national championship every season.
After a 9-3 season, Weis has raised the bar. It’s only been one season, but Weis can not be more different than his two predecessors, Bob Davie and Tyrone Willingham. They always seemed so guarded in their comments and actions and coached that way. Weis pulls no punches. He learned from his mentor – Bill Parcells, the master motivator.
Under Davie and Willingham, Notre Dame had one of the most predictable and boring offenses in the country. All that changed last year. Being the offensive genious that he is, Weis wasted no time transforming Notre Dame into one of the most potent offenses in the country. Nobody benefitted more from Weis’ guidance than quarterback Brady Quinn, who was kept under wraps by Willingham’s conservative approach.
There was nothing conservative about the Fighting Irish last season. Weis brought out the best in Quinn, who responded to the coach’s demanding style and was undeniably the most improved player in the country. Quinn played like another Brady – Tom – who only won three
Super Bowls when Weis was the New England Patriots’ offensive coordinator. Last season, Quinn threw 32 touchdowns and passed for 3,912 yards – both Notre Dame records by a wide margin. His stock has improved so much that some observers now say he has a chance to be the top pick in the 2007 NFL draft or at least a first-round selection.
Quinn begins this eason as one of the Heisman Trophy favorites and may have an advantage over some of the other candidates, like Oklahoma running back Adrian Peterson and Ohio State quarterback Troy Smith. He plays the most glamorous position for the nation’s most recognizable program. No other school has its own television network as Notre Dame does with NBC. This is not to say Quinn won’t be deserving of the Heisman Trophy if he puts up numbers similiar to last season.
Notre Dame hasn’t had a Heisman Trophy winner since Tim Brown in 1987, one year before it won its last national championship. Irish fans are hungry and desperate.
But is it too much, too soon to expect Notre Dame to contend for a title this season? Weis is only entering his second year. He may
need another season or two. Some Notre Dame fans are calling him the new Knute Rockne. It does seem a bit premature. Ara Parseghian and Lou Holtz didn’t win national championships at Notre Dame until their third seasons.
With all the hype coming out of South Bend, here are two big questions regarding the Irish:
1. Will Weis be able to improve a defense that was mediocre at best last season?
2. How will Notre Dame handle the expectations?
We’ll address the first issue first. Scoring points wasn’t a problem for the Irish last season and it doesn’t appear to one this season as Notre Dame has most of its top offensive weapons returning, including wide receiver Jeff Samardzija and underrated running back Darius Walker.
Samardzija, also a top baseball prospect who was drafted by the Chicago Cubs, caught 77 passes for 1,249 yards and 15 touchdowns last season – all Notre Dame records. Walker rushed for just under 1,200 yards.
But Notre Dame’s defense, especially in the secondary, has to get better if the Irish are going to be a legitimate top-five team. Even in victories last season, the Irish gave up too many big plays and were torched for more than 600 yards in the Fiesta Bowl loss to Ohio State.
Notre Dame also needs to improve its pass rush.
Last season, the Irish ranked 103rd against the pass, giving up 264.6 yards per game – completely unacceptable. And that secondary will be tested early as Notre Dame faces three of the top receivers in the country in its first three games – Georgia Tech’s Calvin Johnson, Penn State’s Derrick Wilson and Michigan State’s Steve Breaston.
Expectations are a wonderful thing, but they also bring pressure and the possibility of a massive letdown. How will the Notre Dame players handle the pressure, the constant scrutiny? The Irish won’t be able to sneak up on anyone as they might have done to some extent last season.
There were expectations after Willingham went 10-3 in his first season, which included an 8-0 start, and Notre Dame flopped the following
season, going just 5-7. Nobody is expecting Notre Dame to flop this time but anything less than 10-2 with be a huge disappointment.
Weis already has said 9-3 isn’t good enough.