Saturday, August 12, 2006

Keys to a National Championship Season and my Bold Season Prediction

Well the season opener is just three weeks away and I think it's about time that I made some predictions about the upcoming season. There are some extremely high expectations for the Irish this year as they currently ranked #3 in the USA Today Coach's Poll and many Irish fans believe that anything less than a national championship will be a disappointment. So before I get to my game by game predictions, I'd like to take a look at the keys for the Irish if they want to be holding that crystal football in January.

Key One: Adequate play from the defense
I figure I'll start with the most obvious key. There is no question that the offense should have little trouble scoring points. I mean I think it's reasonable to expect at least 35 points out of the offense every game. That being said, it doesn't matter how great your offense is, it's nearly impossible to go undefeated if you can't stop anybody. At the same time, one of the great benefits of having a great offense is that you don't need a world-beater defense to win game after game. But in order for Notre Dame to have an adequate defense, they're going to need some significant improvement in their pass defense. In order for that to happen, they'll need better communication and better execution from their secondary and most importantly, a consistent pass rush. The return of Travis Leiko and Chris Frome and the addition of Rasheon McNeil and Darrin Walls and having 9 returning starters in the second year of Rick Minter's defensive scheme should help bolster the pass defensive, but it remains to be seen if that will be enough to avoid Ohio State-esque disasterous defensive games.

Key Two: Having a Consistent Kicking Game
If you're going to win a National Championship, you're going to need to win a couple of close games and in many of those close games, the kicking game is the difference between a win and a loss. With the loss of D.J. Fitzpatrick to graduation, Notre Dame will have to rely on two unknowns in the kicking game with Geoff Price punting and true freshman Ryan Burkhart place kicking. Geoff Price had a pretty solid spring season, so I think Notre Dame should be fine with the punting game, but I am really concerned about Burkhart. I know he's coming in with a number of accolades, but I think its tough to win a national championship with a true freshman kicker who has not had much experience in making tough pressure kicks in front of 80,000 people. I'll be anxious to see how he kicks in a hostile atmosphere on September 2.

Key Three: Avoiding Injuries
Charlie Weis did a masterful job in his first full year as head coach in recruiting and adding some much needed depth at positions like offensive line and defensive backs. That being said, it's going to take more than one good recruiting class to undue the damage of the Willingham era. While the Irish have some significant talent on both sides of the ball, they're still thin at virtually every position and they could be relying on a lot of freshman to be the primary back-ups at various positions. You are not going to win a national championship if you have to rely on a significant number of freshman to contribute. The Irish were for the most part able to avoid the injury bug last year and they'll need more of the same this year.

Now that I've touched on my three keys for the season, it's on to my predictions.

September 2 @GA Tech-Win
Expect Brady Quinn to have a huge day against the inexperienced Yellow Jacket secondary.

September 9 Penn State-Loss
The lack of experience in the kicking game hurts the Irish in this close game.

September 16 Michigan-Win
Come on, like Man Boobs could ever win in South Bend.

September 23 @ Michigan State-Win
The defense makes a couple big stops in what will be a high scoring affair.

September 30 Purdue-Win
A return to the good old days when Purdue was just a patsy on our schedule.

October 7 Stanford-Win
This game scares me a little bit, but the Irish should be able to pull away in the fourth quarter of this one.

October 21 UCLA-Win
Brady Quinn throws for at least five touchdown passes.

October 28 @Navy-Win
Yep, same old story.

November 4 North Carolina-Win
Notre Dame should win this easily too, but may be closer than expected.

November 11 @Air Force-Win
Time to fatten up on some service academies.

November 18 Army-Win
Umm, is there any question as to what the result of this game will be?

November 25 @USC-Win
Notre Dame gets revenge for the Bush Push in an hard-fought game that probably won't be decided until the final two minutes.

So Notre Dame will finish the season 11-1, which will probably put them just outside of the national title game. I think what will do in the national title hopes of the Irish this year is the kicking game, which will be a shame because Burkhart will probably be a stud in a year or two. But hopefully I'm wrong about the kicking game and I'll be screaming myself horse in Phoenix, Arizona in early January.