Monday, August 25, 2003

Irish will need more than luck to be a winner

Tough schedule not conducive to title run

By David Woods
The Indianapolis Star

SOUTH BEND, Ind. - Winning college football's national championship is an annual ambition at Notre Dame. Second things first. A winning record in coach Tyrone Willingham's second year would represent improvement.

Despite all the advantages the Fighting Irish have - a network television contract, rich tradition, top-ranked recruiting classes - they haven't managed back-to-back winning seasons since 1997-98.

Willingham had the Irish in the national title race with last year's 8-0 start. He succeeded in changing their thinking, if not their record, before they struggled at the end to a 10-3 record.

Here are five reasons why the Irish can or cannot contend for the title this year:

Why the Irish can't

• The quarterback. Carlyle Holiday is bright, dutiful and gifted. He is not a polished quarterback. A West Coast offense can't operate effectively by completing 50.2 percent of the passes, as Holiday did last season. Sophomore Chris Olsen or freshman Brady Quinn might take over this team someday. For now, it's up to Holiday.

• The offensive line. The Irish had their problems with a group that had four players drafted into the NFL. How will they perform with an almost entirely new front?

• Depth. The Irish lost few key figures to injury last season and need similar good fortune. For instance, the linebacking trio of Courtney Watson, Mike Goolsby and Derek Curry is as good a unit as they have. If Goolsby, coming off a collarbone injury, can't play, Brandon Hoyte is ready. After that, Notre Dame is vulnerable.

• Luck. They beat Purdue 24-17 on two fumble returns. They beat Michigan 25-23 with the help of a Holiday touchdown that looked like a fumble. They beat Michigan State 21-17 when two defenders ran into each other and allowed the winning pass play.

•  The schedule. This slate is designed for TV audiences and alumni, not for national championships. No. 20 Notre Dame meets No. 4 Michigan, No. 19 Purdue and No. 10 Pittsburgh, all on the road, in the first five games. No. 8 Southern California and No. 13 Florida State visit Notre Dame.

Why the Irish can

• The defense. Offense becomes less of an issue if you can hold any opponent under 21 points, which this defense can. Vontez Duff and Glenn Earl are still around in a secondary that stays strong even without All-American Shane Walton .

• Julius Jones. Maybe this is placing too much on someone who hasn't played football since 2001, but Jones is what Notre Dame lacked - a runner with wiggle, a complement to slasher Ryan Grant. Academic deficiencies kept Jones away. He was once projected for NFL stardom.

•  Special teams. Nicholas Setta is the rare athlete who can handle kicking and punting. He endured a midseason field-goal slump last year but is on track for Notre Dame's all-time record. Few teams have a return duo as explosive as Duff and Jones.

• The system. Willingham took Stanford to its first Rose Bowl in 28 years with less talent.

• The schedule. If the Irish can navigate a 12-0 or 11-1 season, there will be no doubt they belong in a BCS championship game.

Notre Dame schedule

Date Opponent Time
Sept. 6 Wash. St. 1:30 p.m.
Sept. 13 at Michigan TBA
Sept. 20 Michigan St. 1:30 p.m.
Sept. 27 at Purdue TBA
Oct. 11 at Pittsburgh TBA
Oct. 18 USC 1:30 p.m.
Oct. 25 at Boston College TBA
Nov. 1 Florida State 2:30 p.m.
Nov. 8 Navy 2:30 p.m.
Nov. 15 BYU 2:30 p.m.
Nov. 29 at Stanford 8 p.m.
Dec. 6 at Syracuse 1 p.m.

All times Eastern.

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