Friday, September 01, 2006

IT'S TIME

8 months has seemed like an eternity. But ever since Notre Dame walked off the field in Tempe with the wind taken out of their sails by a 34-20 Fiesta Bowl loss to Ohio State, September 2nd has loomed large. So now we're just 25 hours away from Kickoff, 2006.

This is the most hyped Irish squad since the 1992 team. In fact, there are some intriguing similarities between the two:

-- Each had a cover boy QB with devilish good looks and a golden arm (Rick Mirer; Brady Quinn).
-- Each had a defense that sagged throughout the previous season yet brought back almost every key starter for another go round.
-- Each defense was coached by Rick Minter.
-- Each had a number of high-profile freshman tossed into the starting lineup from the get-go (Bobby Taylor; Sam Young)
-- Each was expected to bring home Notre Dame's 12th national championship.

Of course, the '92 squad battled to a memorable tie with Michigan, saw its title dreams dashed in a 33-15 shocker to Stanford, then rallied for an amazing 17-16 win over Penn State and a 34-24 triumph over USC to close the year. (The Penn State game was particularly memorable, not just because Reggie Brooks' fingertip grab of the 2-point conversion with 20 seconds left stands out as THE play in Notre Dame football from my younger years, but because it was considered to be the last game the two schools would ever play. Next week's opponent for the Irish? JoePa and the Nittanies.)

So first up for the Irish is Georgia Tech, the fifth team in the ACC with a knack for playing like the first when the situation calls for it. They topped Auburn and Miami last season, but also got thumped 51-7 against Virginia Tech, squeaked by Clemson and dropped games to underachieving Virginia and North Carolina State. And that was before they lost their bowl game to Utah 38-10.

So, without further ado, here's your first of 12 Notre Dame football game previews...


#2 Notre Dame vs. Georgia Tech
8:00 PM EDT
Bobby Dodd Stadium -- Atlanta, GA


Why Georgia Tech Will Win

Calvin Johnson. Calvin Johnson. Calvin Johnson. Did we mention Calvin Johnson? The Yellow Jackets most potent weapon is a freakishly good 6'5" specimen with hands of glue and a 4.4 40-yard dash. With all due respect to Dwayne Jarret and Jeff Samardzija, Johnson certainly is the most talented wideout in the country. Will he have the best season? TBD.

At the very least, though, Georgia Tech will need Johnson to bring his 'A' game in order to spring the upset. Despite a lighter Chinedum Ndukwe and more seasoned Ambrose Wooden, Mike Richardson, & Tom Zbikowski, the four returning starters in the ND secondary ought to have their hands full.

Ought is the operative word in that sentence. The wild card in the Ramblin' Wreck's plan is 4th-year QB Reggie Ball, who after 4 years in The ATL still has happy feet and an unflattering ability to run 30 yards for a net gain of two on a scramble. Still, when Ball is on he's a nightmare - just ask Auburn. If Chan Gailey and his staff were smart, they spent plenty of time with the Fiesta Bowl game film, which spelled out perfectly how to exploit Notre Dame's defensive weaknesses thanks to an athletic, scrambling QB.

Despite what Ball can potentially due with his legs, he still is going up against an experienced defensive unit with a lot to prove. Victor Abiamiri surged late last season and is looking to finish with a flourish. And as an acknowledgement to how thoroughly humbling the Troy Smith was against Ohio State, slash back Travis Thomas switched to linebacker to boost the unit's overall speed. If the Yellow Jackets win though, it'll be because of a steady diet of Calvin Johnson.


Why Notre Dame Will Win

Simply put: "Have you SEEN the Irish offense?" And before everybody chimes in with the chorus of "They didn't beat anybody last year!", let me say it for the 7,000th time: the 2005 schedule had the #1, #3, and #4 teams among its 8 ranked opponents when the season started. A 9th opponent, Michigan State, climbed into the Top 10 before a last-second loss to Michigan and a meltdown against Ohio State sent them spiraling to a 5-6 record. You don't get to have it both ways - you can't chide Notre Dame for it' murderous schedule, inflate your opinion of its opponents, then discredit Notre Dame's victories as meaningless. If the Irish had lost to Michigan and Tennessee, the howls of how impractical the ND schedule is would be in full swing, and the Irish would enter the year with significantly less hype.

But I digress. Offensively, look for things to diversify in Year Two under Charlie Weis, as Brady Quinn will add another element to his arsenal - complete freestylin' at the line. Weis says it isn't quite "Peyton Manning" type freedom, but Quinn has gained a comfort level inside the complicated pro-style attack to the point where he'll no longer be checking off, but changing the entire play right at the line.

And then there's his weapons. Jeff Samardzija, Darius Walker, a healthy Rhema McKnight, four returning starters on the offensive line. The Irish are built to win because they can match and beat what any team on their schedule puts on the scoreboard. The biggest factor working in favor of the Irish - Georgia Tech is breaking in a brand-new secondary against a Heisman-caliber quarterback, two top-flight receivers and a 3rd-year starter at running back.

Pratfalls still exist, however. One in particular: Tech defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta, who deserves most of the credit for Tech's five upsets over ranked opponents in the last two years (Tech has allowed an average of 15 points in those wins). He prides himself on variety of inventive blitz packages and coverage schemes. Ordinarily that would be alarming, particularly if this ND squad was still coached by You-Know-Who.

THE PREDICTION

It's not hard to see Georgia Tech turning in a competitive game. It is hard, however, to see them winning the in-game strategic chess match long enough to pull out a victory. For all the fears of complacency and talk of an overconfident Irish squad, the "overrated" whispers may leave them more motivated than anything else.

FINAL SCORE: Notre Dame 37, Georgia Tech 20

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