Sorry, Charlie. Notre Dame’s season is going down in flames. The Fighting Irish had a laughable schedule this year, one that looked so easy that a team most knew was no better than mediocre, that would be middle of the pack if it played in a major conference, was thought to be a contender to play in a BCS bowl.
Notre Dame’s season is going down in flames. The Fighting Irish had a laughable schedule this year, one that looked so easy that a team most knew was no better than mediocre, that would be middle of the pack if it played in a major conference, was thought to be a contender to play in a BCS bowl.
The logic went that as long as Notre Dame didn’t go down in flames and wound up winning nine or 10 regular season games, one of the major bowls would pick the Fighting Irish, who have so many fans nationwide that they pack stadiums in the postseason.
But Notre Dame did crash and burn.
Saturday’s overtime loss to Connecticut was the third in a row for the Fighting Irish, and it dropped them to 6-5. Three of those five losses - Michigan, Navy and UConn - have come against unranked teams, and there have been close calls against unranked teams like Michigan State, Purdue, Washington and Boston College.
Charlie Weis is finishing up his fifth season as head coach in South Bend. When he arrived after helping the Patriots win three Super Bowls in four seasons as their offensive coordinator, he replaced Tyrone Willingham after a 6-5 Notre Dame season.
At his introductory press conference, Weis said, “You’re a 6-5 football team, and if you think they hired me to go .500, you've got the wrong guy.”
Weis was given a 10-year extension before his first season was finished, a year when the Fighting Irish reached the Fiesta Bowl with Brady Quinn at quarterback - a Willingham recruit. The next year they were 10-3 and reached the Sugar Bowl, still with Quinn at quarterback.
But then Quinn - and most of the players Willingham brought to South Bend - were gone, and Notre Dame’s record plummeted to 3-9 in 2007. The Fighting Irish improved to 7-6 last year, and this year the progression of players like junior quarterback Jimmy Clausen plus the strikingly weak schedule figured to result in an impressive win total, and BCS contention.
Instead, with a trip to play a strong Stanford team this Saturday night plus a bowl game, it’s possible Notre Dame will finish below .500. It’s almost a moot question now whether Weis will be fired. There’s the matter of his contract, which runs though 2015 and pays him a reported $3 million per year, but a buyout didn’t stop Notre Dame when it fired Willingham after the 2004 season or Bob Davie three years earlier.
Even Weis seems to know his time as Notre Dame’s head coach is just about up.
“If they decide to make a change, I’d have to say I’d have a tough time arguing with that because 6-5 is not good enough,” Weis said after the loss to UConn. “Especially when you’ve lost five games by a touchdown or less and several three-point games that went down to the wire.
“My intent is to be here. But if that were the rationale ... it would be tough to argue with that point.”
So with Weis’ fate just about sealed, with Notre Dame about to embark on finding its fourth coach since Lou Holtz left South Bend after the 1996 season, what happened? Why couldn’t Weis win once Willingham’s recruits graduated and he had only his own to coach?
The answer likely lies on defense.
Notre Dame’s offense has done what was expected coming into the season. With Clausen - who was the nation’s top-ranked quarterback coming out of high school - and weapons like Golden Tate and Michael Floyd, the Fighting Irish average 452 yards of offense per game, which is 11th in the nation, and while their 29.4 points per game are just 45th nationally, that’s more than teams like Ohio State, West Virginia and USC and just behind Penn State, Virginia Tech and Ole Miss.
Defensively, however, Notre Dame can’t stop anyone. The Fighting Irish allow 24 points per game, which ranks 56th in the nation and isn’t ahead of a single team in the BCS Standings, and the 388 yards they allow per game ranks 80th.
Notre Dame has had highly ranked recruiting classes under Weis, with two classes ranked eighth by Rivals.com and one ranked second. But a closer look shows that just 38 of the 102 players in Weis’ five recruiting classes were on the defensive side of the ball.
Weis, who was known as an offensive whiz when he came to South Bend, has done a solid job leading the Fighting Irish attack. But the defense has suffered on his watch. While the offense has improved from 119th nationally in 2007 to 65th last year and 11th this year, the defense has declined from No. 39 in both 2007 and 2008 to No. 80 this year.
The other reason for Weis’ likely departure is the expectation that exist at Notre Dame, expectation upheld by Weis himself.
As Weis said, 6-5 is not acceptable, not at a place as hallowed as any in all of college football, not at a place where seven Heisman Trophy winners played, not at a place where eight teams have been crowned national champions. Weis was hired to resurrect Notre Dame from doldrum days of Davie and Willingham, who both had winning percentages of .583 when they were fired. After last weekend’s loss to UConn, Weis’ winning percentage sits at .573.
With losses to Navy two of the last three years - the first to the Cadets since Roger Staubach was quarterback at Annapolis in the early 1960s - a defeat at the hands of a horrendous Syracuse team last year and struggles that show no sign stopping, Weis has decidedly not restored Notre Dame to its past glory.
Weis might get a reprieve because of that asinine contract extension he was given before he had any real track record as a coach, but it’s likely this is his final season. If so, his downfall will be the result of failure to live up to expectations, and deficiency on defense.
What We Learned
Two years ago, nobody was undefeated.
Somehow, two teams had to be selected from among nearly 10 candidates with legitimate arguments for reaching the BCS Championship Game, and ultimately a two-loss team - LSU - was not only one of the chosen ones but wound up winning the national championship.
This year, somehow, six unbeaten teams remain.
How in the world, when two years ago there were none and last year the only team with a perfect record came from outside the six BCS conferences, are there still six teams striving for a perfect season, four from the Big Six and two from the outside?
The answer, at heart, is simple.
Only one of the six remaining undefeated teams has played a single team that sits in the top 10 in the BCS Standings, and just one more has played a single team that is in the top half.
Florida, which started the season at the top of the polls and currently holds the No. 1 position, has beaten just two teams that appear in the current top 25 (15th-ranked LSU and 25th-ranked Mississippi). Alabama, which is now No. 2, has similarly beaten LSU and Ole Miss, as well as No. 14 Virginia Tech, but that’s merely three ranked teams, all in the bottom half.
Texas, ranked third, has a win over No. 12 Oklahoma State, but no other ranked team. And Cincinnati, the fourth unbeaten team from a BCS conference, has not played a single currently-ranked team. Not one. None. Zero.
The best win among the six undefeated teams actually belongs to Boise State - a convincing victory over No. 8 Oregon the first night of the season - but the Broncos, members of the WAC, haven’t merely not played a single other ranked team but have played just four other teams with winning records, two of which are 6-5.
TCU, the sixth still-perfect team, has wins over three ranked teams, but Clemson, BYU and Utah all fall between 18th and 21st.
It’s not easy to run the table, no matter what the schedule. Two years ago Ohio State had a loss because of an inexplicable afternoon at home against Illinois. USC had a loss because of a shocking evening at home against Stanford. LSU lost to Florida, but also was beaten by Kentucky.
And in the case of most of the six unbeatens, circumstances beyond their control resulted in such easy schedules. Texas’ slate suffered because of the never-expected struggles of Oklahoma, and both Missouri and Kansas were strong in recent years but weak this fall. Similarly, Florida and Alabama’s schedules would be a whole lot more impressive if teams like Georgia, Tennessee and Auburn weren’t suffering substandard seasons.
But the lesson of 2009 is clear, if a team wants to be undefeated, start with an easy schedule.
Game of the Week
The Pac-10 title comes down to one game, to Oregon State’s trip to Oregon in their annual Civil War. The winner goes to the Rose Bowl. But bigger things are at stake elsewhere. The games themselves aren’t as interesting, and likely won’t be as close, but the stakes are higher.
Three teams hold their fate in their own hands, and all three play their top rivals this week.
If Texas can win at Texas A&M on Thanksgiving night, the Longhorns will have just the Big 12 Championship Game between themselves and a spot in the BCS title game. One night later, if Alabama can win at Auburn in the Iron Bowl, they’ll be merely a victory in the SEC Championship Game away from filling out the other side of he BCS Championship. But of course Florida has the same claim - if the Gators can beat visiting Florida State on Saturday afternoon, they merely need to top the Crimson Tide to play for their third national championship in four years.
Simply, Texas, Alabama and Florida each control their own fate. If they win two more games, they’ll play in Pasadena on Jan. 7. If they win three more, they’ll be national champions.
But this weekend’s games aren’t so simple.
All three are favored, and deservedly so, but funny things happen against rivals. Teams that shouldn’t lose, sometimes do.
The best chance of an upset seems to be in the Iron Bowl, where 7-4 Auburn, which has had two weeks to prepare since a close loss at Georgia, hosts Alabama. The Tigers have a mediocre defense, but at 34 points per game can score with just about anyone. The Tide, meanwhile is second in the nation in scoring defense but doesn’t have an explosive offense.
Match-ups might just make this one uber-close.
“This is one of the best rivalries in college football, two great schools in a state that have had the opportunity to play for 100 years now,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said at his weekly press conference on Tuesday. “We have a tremendous amount of respect for their team and what they have done. They have made a tremendous amount of improvement this year. There is really nothing outside of this game that really matters this week.”
Texas, meanwhile, plays a team that’s just 6-5. But the Longhorns have to travel to College Station to play Texas A&M, which is never easy. The Aggies have been mercurial, scoring 52 in a win over Texas Tech and more than 35 on five other occasions, but they’ve also allowed 65 to Oklahoma and 62 to Kansas State.
“They will be Jeckyll Thursday night,” Texas coach Mack Brown said on Tuesday. “We won’t see Hyde. They’ve got tremendous skill, and they continue to get better each week. I think it showed in the way they dominated Baylor last week.”
Finally, Florida seems to have the easiest game of the three, playing at home against 6-5 Florida State. Then again, if Seminoles can somehow knock off the No. 1 Gators it would make their season, one in which legendary coach Bobby Bowden has come under serious fire and which longtime defensive coordinator Mickey Andrews has said will be his last.
All three rivalries are mismatches to the naked eye. But if just one of the top three teams slips, the entire complexion of the national-championship race changes.
If I Had a Ballot ...
Alabama (11-0): Auburn’s offense will test the Tide.
Texas (11-0): No trip to Kyle Field is easy, but the ’Horns should stampede into the Big 12 title game next week.
Florida (11-0): The ’Noles probably won’t pose a threat.
TCU (11-0): With only 1-10 New Mexico left to play, the Horned Frogs will play in a BCS bowl.
Georgia Tech (10-1): The Yellow Jackets can make a statement about the strength of the ACC when they take on Georgia.
Cincinnati (10-0): Perfection probably comes down to next weekend against Pitt, but Illinois could surprise.
Boise State (11-0): A trip to Nevada could be tricky.
Oregon (9-2): The Rose Bowl is on the line at Autzen Stadium against Oregon State.
Ohio State (10-2): A strong finish for the Buckeyes, who now wait for the Rose Bowl.
Pitt (9-1): The Panthers finish with the tough one-two of trips to West Virginia this week and Cincinnati next.
Eric Avidon is a Daily News staff writer. He can be reached at 508-626-3809 or email@example.com.