I've seen a lot of discussion in the past week (essentially since signing day) about expectations for the 2009 season. It seems like the range has been in the 9-11 win range partially based on experience and partially based on the fact that we're playing one of the weakest schedules in the recent history of Notre Dame football.
Let's say for hypothetical purposes that we had discarded the Kevin White/Swarbrick model of 7-4-1 scheduling and had adopted a more traditional Notre Dame schedule for this 2009 season.
- Instead of playing Washington State in San Antonio, substitute Georgia Tech
- Instead of playing 7 home games and using that 7th game for UConn, we were playing our traditional "home and home" arrangements and had Tennessee on the road
- And while we have no control over this on our current schedule, let's say for hypothetical purposes that Michigan was a typical top 15 Michigan team
The 2009 schedule looked something like this instead. 6 home games, 5 road games, 1 neutral game against a quality opponent
S12 @ Michigan
S19 MICHIGAN ST.
S26 @ Purdue
O17 SOUTHERN CAL
O24 @ Pittsburgh
O31 Georgia Tech(San Antonio)
N14 @ Tennessee
N21 BOSTON COLLEGE
N28 @ Stanford
How would your expectations change?? Would they still be at 10-2 or 11-1 or would you be more inclined to talk about 9 wins or even 8 wins considering how difficult that schedule would appear to be on paper? If we were playing USC, a top 15 Michigan team, Tennessee on the road, a quality ranked GT team at a neutral site, and all of the other traditional thorns in our side (BC, MSU, etc), that would be a difficult schedule but also something closer to what we have played in the recent past under Davie and Willingham and even Weis until this year.
I understand obviously that our final record is important, but I almost feel like too much is being made of what our final record is going to be this season. I'm really more interested in seeing HOW we look this year. If we go 10-2 with some squeakers over a bunch of 6-7 win teams and get plowed in our bowl game, it would be hard for me to get real excited and call it a "great" season. It would feel a lot like the 2006 season. On the other hand, if we played the schedule above and went 9-3 with a win at Tennessee and over a good Michigan team but got tripped up by GT and USC and maybe MSU, I think I might still classify that as a successful season. And if we won the bowl game under that scenario, you could make an argument that it would be the best ND football season since 1993.
This season is sort of shaping up in my mind to be a lot like the 2000 season under Bob Davie. The schedule that year was unusually soft with Nebraska as the only truly "great" team on the schedule. We were very fortunate to go 9-2 against a pretty weak schedule, and the abomination at the Fiesta Bowl against Oregon State confirmed that we were really not all that great. If anything, Bob Davie's support was probably at its weakest level after that season ended even though that was probably his best year. He had done enough to save his job that year, but you culd sort of see the writing on the wall heading into the 2001 season. Although I'll be honest in admitting that I was probably predicting a win at Nebraska that year and an 11-0 season under the leadership of Matt Lovecchio.
I know everyone has decided that 2009 is the "make or break" year for Charlie Weis, but this current schedule will almost make it hard to determine how good we are. If we go 10-2 next year, will we even be ranked in the top 15?? I guess we would be if we dominate people like in 2005, but there are going to be very few (if any) quality wins on the schedule if we end up 10-2.
With that said, I certainly would not advocate firing Charlie Weis after this year if he goes 10-2 or even 9-3 against this schedule. I think a 10-2 season would be a great improvement from last year, and it might even be a sign that we are on our way to consistently excellent teams. Weis' biggest difficulty thus far has been that he has needed a long time to understand what it takes to be a head coach in college, so a 10-2 season would be a sign that the learning curve for Weis is getting easier.
My opinion of Charlie Weis is that he is going to be the John Cooper of Notre Dame football. A guy who took longer than expected to get comfortable in his surroundings but recruited well and then eventually started to produce some really really good teams. Ohio State had some outstanding and very talented teams in the 90s under Cooper, it took him almost ten years to get to that point. I think that might be what happens with Charlie (although hopefully much sooner than that of course). Cooper has somewhat of a bad name in Columbus, but I think he laid the foundation for what Ohio State football has become under Tressel. I think Weis is doing that as well at ND, and maybe he'll eventually do even more.
In the long term, I think the investment in Charlie could pay off. But I think it will be tough to tell whether Charlie is truly a "great one" just based on the 2009 season. A successful 2009 season could be a springboard to a series of great seasons, but it could also be a mirage that gets exposed in the years after (like the 2000 season under Davie).