Tomorrow, Notre Dame opens their 2010 football season at home against Purdue. Things have changed since last year. Jimmy Clausen, possibly the most talented quarterback in Notre Dame history, left early for the NFL, as did his primary receiving target Golden Tate. Head Coach Brian Kelly replaces another man who works in the NFL now, Charlie Weis. Weis was considered an offensive genius after winning three Super Bowls as offensive coordinator of the New England Patriots. However, his tenure as head coach of the Fighting Irish was a disaster.
Now, for the first time since Lou Holz led the Irish, the program has a head coach with extensive experience winning college football games. Weis had no head coaching experience. His predecessor, Tyrone Willingham, won only 55% of his games before coming to South Bend. Bob Davie, the coach before Willingham, had no head coaching experience. Kelly stands above the crowd, winning 75% of his games in twenty years as a head coach at Grand Valley State, Central Michigan, and Cincinnati.
Notre Dame's biggest problem in 2009 was a horrid defense. They will be better in 2010, simply because they can't be worse. In 2009 they gave up 26 points per game, despite having a powerful offense that seldom turned the ball over. Since Weis fancied himself an "offensive genius," his defensive recruiting left a lot to be desired. Still, there is some talent there, and sophomore linebacker Manti Te'o has a chance to become an All-American.
Notre Dame's offense should be powerful again in 2010. Red-shirt sophomore Dayne Crist will replace Clausen at quarterback, though it would be impossible for him to play as well as Clausen did last year, with 3700 yards passing and 28 TD passes against a mere 4 interceptions. Crist's offense will look different, as he is more mobile than the drop-back passer Clausen.
Other returners include two likely All-Americans: Tight End Kyle Rudolph and wide receiver Michael Floyd, two Junior receiving targets that will present match up problems for every defense they face.
Notre Dame's weakness on offense last year was a mediocre line that looked slow and poorly conditioned. Coach Kelly has addressed that, as well as the general softness of the team, by trusting his strength and conditioning program to coach Paul Longo. Longo is generally considered the best in the business, so the softness should be beaten out of the Irish this year.
The Irish schedule is somewhat unfriendly, though not unreasonable. They open with six straight opponents from the Big 10, Pac 10, and Big East, before mixing in some weaklings during the second half of the year.
Notre Dame beat Purdue on the road in 2009, and if the team has improved they should beat them again to open 2010. On paper they should have a relatively easy win. However, the Irish haven't performed well on the field in a long time, so this game will likely be settled late.
Prediction: Notre Dame 27 Purdue 23
This team has enough talent to win eleven games. They also have an underachieving pedigree. I can't see them winning less than eight of their twelve regular season games. I imagine an 8-4 or 9-3 season would be an improvement over recent history, but it just isn't good enough at a school that used to be the top college football program in America.
Update: The opener wasn't quite as close as I expected, but it wasn't decided until late in the 4th quarter. The Irish jumped out to a 20-3 lead then tripped, stumbled and fumbled into a 23-12 win.