Friday, June 30, 2006

2006 Spring Opponent Preview - UCLA Bruins

Top player: Justin Medlock, Sr., K (yes, the kicker)
Make-or-break player: Chris Markey, RB
Biggest offensive strength: ?
Biggest offensive weakness: ?
Biggest defensive strength: ?
Biggest defensive weakness: ?
Spring Depth Chart

If you've followed college football, and I told you that Olson was the quarterback for the Bruins this year, you'd probably scratch your head, count up the last four years un which QB Drew Olson started for the Bruins, and start screaming about NCAA violations.

However, Olson is in fact starting at quarterback this year - BYU transfer Ben Olson. A sophomore, he is expected to step into the shadow of the QB that preceded him and even has to wear the same name on his jersey.

And he will have his work cut out for him this year. Last year, the Bruins had a very good season behind a pair of Drews - Drew Olson, the QB that threw for over 3,000 yards, and RB Maurice Drew, the stud RB that shined in 2004 with a 6.4 yard per rush average, but sputtered a little in 2005 - not breaking the 1,000 yard plateau.

Ben Olson is a little old for a sophomore at 23, and will bring some poise and maturity with him to the position. The stud of the 2002 BYU recruiting class, Olson will finally get to start - for UCLA. He was unable to beat out Drew Olson last year because of his accuracy, and he will have to improve to be an effective leader of an inexperienced offense.

Replacing Maurice Drew is Chris Markey, who was the second leading rusher last year, and had a coming-out party against Purdue last year in the Sun Bowl, rushing for 160 yards in the win. He is a versatile and competent back, who should provide Olson with the production necessary to keep the defense honest.

The biggest drop-off this year is that the Bruin offense won't be able to ride stud Tight End Marcedes Lewis again, arguably the biggest loss for the team. And it's not a great sign that their tight end is the biggest loss - that means that they were lacking any truly explosive receivers, and this should be their biggest offensive weakness this year.

The biggest question mark for this entire team is, well, this entire team. They lost their leading passer, leading rusher, leading receiver, leading tackler, and leader in interceptions. Their only major statistical leader returning is their sackmeister, DE Justin Hickman. Probably the running game and defensive line will be the strengths, respectively, on offense and defense, while the receivers and defensive backfield will be the respective weaknesses. However, so much turnover makes it hard to predict what they will do.

One prediction I am comfortable making is that this squad will take a step back from last year's 10-2 finish. The young, inexperienced players will make mistakes and take time to develop. By the end of the season, this has the potential to be a very good team, but by then they will be fighting just to go to a bowl game, not to get into the BCS.

Against the Irish, their defense will (like most teams not in the SEC or Big Ten) be ridiculously overmatched. Their offense may move the ball, but I expect this game to be one where the Irish defense can start to build some momentum going into the late season, capitalizing on Olson's inaccuracy and the receivers not-so-sure hands.

The game should be fun, though, simply because we haven't hosted the Bruins at Notre Dame Stadium before (if I recall correctly) and their fans are rumored to be good-natured and fun. Look for the Irish to give up some points late in the game, making the score more respectable looking than it really should.

9/23at WashingtonW
10/14at OregonL
10/21at Notre DameL
10/28Washington StateW
11/4at CalL
11/11Oregon StateW
11/18at Arizona StateL
12/2Southern CalL

2006 Spring Opponent Preview - Stanford Cardinal

Top player: Trent Edwards, QB (followed closely by his 2 receivers)
Make-or-break player: Trent Edwards, QB
Biggest offensive strength: Passing the Ball
Biggest offensive weakness: Running the Ball
Biggest defensive strength: Safety
Biggest defensive weakness: Everything else
Spring Depth Chart

Stanford's season last year was, well, an enigma. At the beginning of the year, it looked as if the Cardinal were bad. Really bad. I mean like Baylor, Duke, Kentucky bad. Worse, even. The lost to the University of California. No, not the Golden Bears from Berkeley - the Aggies from Davis, a Div. I-AA team.

Then they win 5 games, including a shootout against Arizona State and (in a flukey game) put a scare into the Irish - a top 5 football team - at the end of the season, losing in the last minute.

Walt Harris got his team turned around, and now this Stanford team reminds me of the Stanford teams under Willingham - good enough to get to a bowl game most years, with the occasional chance of biting a big program in the ass or gatting to a major bowl.

Their offense like much of the Pac-10, is a passing offense. Problem is, somebody forgot to tell Coach Harris that you're supposed to run the ball, too. Stanford finished last year 110th in rushing offense, with a pitiful 2.8 yard per carry average. Stanford's passing offense was respectable, but not great. This year should see the passing offense improve, with veteran signal caller Trent Edwards throwing to one of the better receiving duos in the country in Moore and Bradford. They'll put up points by the bushel if they can develop a rushing attack.

The big problem with Stanford winning is that their defense gives up points by the truckload. Returning safety Brandon Harrison is as good as they come, but he can only do so much. 105th in total defense, 89th in scoring defense, 110th in passing defense.

110th. The only team worse than the Cardinal at stopping the pass last year on our schedule was Purdue. Of course, 110th in the country in pass defense was better than three of their Pac-10 opponents in the pass-happy conference.

Because of that 110th ranking, no balance on offense, and the talent differential between the two teams, I expect the Irish to score twice for every Stanford score in a game that will finish something like 56-28 Irish.

9/2at OregonL
9/9at San Jose StateW
9/23Washington StateW
9/30at UCLAL
10/7at Notre DameL
10/21at Arizona StateL
11/4Southern CalL
11/11at WashingtonW
11/18Oregon StateW
12/2at CalL

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

2006 Spring Opponent Preview - Purdue Boilermakers

Top player: Dorien Bryant, WR
Make-or-break player: Curtis Painter, QB
Biggest offensive strength: Wide receiver (if Ingraham is back on the team) or Offensive line (if he's not)
Biggest offensive weakness: Quarterback
Biggest defensive strength: ...
Biggest defensive weakness: Defending the other team's offense
Spring Depth Chart

Last year was supposed to be a banner year for Purdue - a returning QB, lots of talent and positively LOADED with experience (20 returning starters). They didn't have to play either Michigan or Ohio State. Many preseason prognosticators picked the Boilermakers as Rose-Bowl bound, and a few even muttered the words "National Championship game" and "Purdue" in the same sentence (I don't think anyone was crazy enough to say they would win the Championship, though). After back-to-back wins to start the season, the Boilermakers were ranked #11 in the AP poll.

Then the wheels came off. The season started downhill with a double overtime loss to the Golden Gophers. Six straight losses later, the Boilermakers were asking themselves "What Happened?" Only wins over a November MSU team (who is traditionally a bottom feeder in the Big Ten by then) and major renovation projects Indiana and Illinois allowed the Boilermakers any remaining self respect. The season ended as Tiller's first losing season, going 5-6.

And then the entire friggin' train exploded.

Since the end of the football season, much of the coaching staff (5 coaches) have been replaced, Purdue is leading the (Div. I-A) race for the Fulmer Cup (award for the most offseason behavioral problems by a team, named for Tennessee Coach Phil Fulmer), and their second best player (WR Ingraham) is currently ineleigible due to academics. Anyone who has been following Purdue athletics this year has seen a complete implosion of the athletics department. The institution has come completely unglued - football, basketball, you name it, they are having major issues.

Of course, most of the mainstream prognosticators are once again calling for the Boilermakers to win 7-8 games and go to a bowl game. However, the mainstream prognosticators are crazy and gullible.

If Tiller can find some super-glue to craft this team back together, they have the talent to win six games and become bowl-eligible. However, if the on-the-field and off-the-field distractions have any effect on team confidence and morale, this team could just as easily drop every Big Ten game, and only get wins against Indiana State (Div. I-AA) and Ball State. And I wouldn't count out Ball State just yet.

The offense should get back to the traditional Purdue spread (if Tiller has any sense) even without a more traditional QB at the reins. The new offensive coordinator, Zaunbrecher, is very good at developing quarterbacks. The offensive line is excellent, allowing only 9 sacks last year, and should give the inexperienced signal caller plenty of time to throw the ball to some very talented receivers. If the pass offense struggles, don't be too surprised to see redshirt freshman Joey Elliott get a look, as he is a more traditional QB. Kory Sheets is a fast running back that is a constant home run threat. Offensively, if Tiller goes back to what he knows, Purdue can be very productive.

The defense is another story entirely. After finishing last year at the bottom of the Big Ten in pass defense, there seems to be nowhere to go but up. But with insufficient experience, depth, and talent, this could be a very long year for the Boilers. They have an excellent safety, and a very good linebacker. Everyone else is average at best. The corners in particular are suspect, and against the Irish, that's not a good thing.

"It's 49-21, sweetheart." This year, that quote could very easily become "It's 56-0, sweetheart." The Irish offense is going to be very potent, and the Purdue defense should be the weakest we face outside of the service academies.

9/2Indiana State (Div. I-AA)W
9/9Miami (OH)W
9/16Ball StateW
9/30@ Notre DameL
10/7@ IowaL
10/14@ NorthwesternL
10/28Penn StateL
11/4@ Michigan StateW
11/11@ IllinoisW
11/18@ IndianaL
11/25@ HawaiiL

2006 Spring Opponent Preview - Michigan State Spartans

Top player: Drew Stanton, QB
Make-or-break player: John Masters, Center
Biggest offensive strength: Quarterback
Biggest offensive weakness: Offensive Line
Biggest defensive strength: Linebackers
Biggest defensive weakness: Defensive backfield
No depth chart available, Official Personnel Breakdown

Michigan State has been living their life the last decade according to an unerring script. Come out of the gates strong, upset a couple of big teams (usually Notre Dame) and then stumble down the stretch in October and November, occasionally stumbling into a low-tier bowl game (come to think of it, that is quickly becoming the M.O. of their basketball team, too).

Last year was no exception. After an amazing start where Michigan State was one of the most potent offenses in the country early (even ahead of the "All-time best" NC runner-up SC Trojans for a while), a "legitimate" Heisman trophy contender in Drew Stanton, and a high-scoring shootout win against the Irish, they collapsed as usual, losing 6 of their last 7 games, and missing a bowl berth entirely.

This year, Drew Stanton is also being touted as one of the year's best QBs. However, the MSU offense lost its leading rusher from last year, Jason Teague, and has been trying to completely overhaul a defense that went from decent to downright awful against the pass over the course of the season.

Replacing their veteran corners are a couple of young whippersnappers who will be tested sorely by the Notre Dame offense. Also, the defensive line lost three starters, so the pass rush will likely be lacking. They have experienced and talented linebackers, but they will either be forced to rush the QB with their linebackers, hanging their inexperienced secondary out to dry, or drop them into coverage, allowing Darius to run wild against the outmuscled D-line.

On the other side of the ball, the Spartans will take a step back this year on offense, as their running game will suffer from the loss of Jason Teague, who was a difference maker in last year's overtime win, as well as the loss of 3 senior starters on the O-line. Those lineman will be replaced by Freshman and Sophomores, and with a Freshman set to play center and call all of the protections, the Spartans will not be a very good offensive line. The Irish will pin their ears back and rush the passer, as the Spartans don't have the horses to beat us on the ground.

Stanton will probably create some plays with his feet, and Stanton's experience is worth a couple of scores by itself. The Irish defense, though simply needs to contain this offense for a little while and let the offense run all over the overmatched D.

This game will be a blowout for the Irish. After last year's blatant disrespect after a good, clean, hardfought game, the Irish will not be lacking for motivation to beat the living s#(% out of those arrogant f()@%$. I've never seen a worse display of unsportsmanlike conduct by a sports team.

In last year's game, the only reason the Irish didn't beat the Spartans soundly is that our pass defense hadn't been challenged by a decent quarterback and set of receivers yet. Once they recovered from an early drubbing, the Irish dominated the outmatched Spartans over the last quarter and a half. The Irish will come out this year's game focused and pissed off, and will take it to the house early and often.

9/9Eastern MichiganW
9/16@ PittsburghW
9/23/td>Notre DameL
10/7@ MichiganL
10/14Ohio StateL
10/21@ NorthwesternW
10/28@ IndianaL
11/18@ Penn StateL

Sunday, June 25, 2006

2006 Spring Opponent Preview - Michigan Wolverines

Top player: Mike Hart, RB
Make-or-break player: Steve Breaston, WR
Biggest offensive strength: Running Back
Biggest offensive weakness: Coaching
Biggest defensive strength: Linebackers
Biggest defensive weakness: Coaching
Spring Depth Chart

Michigan struggled through a 7-5 season last year in which they lost all five of their games by a touchdown or less. They return amazing amounts of depth on their defense, including most of the secondary that gave our offense fits last year. However, the defensive coordinator from last year is gone, and it will be interesting to see if the new defensive coordinator uses the same schemes that were in place last year or if he tinkers with a defense that wasn't broken to begin with.

Their offense should be better this year. Much like the Irish, they return all of their skill players save one receiver. They will be as loaded as ever on the offensive line, and the key to a successful season for the Wolverines will be newly crowned #1 receiver Steve Breaston taking some pressure off of the running game, and the uber-conservative coaching staff to loosen the reins on the offense. Luckily, the coaching staff hasn't changed, and the Wolverines should be as predictable as ever on offense.

Of all of the games on Notre Dame's schedule, this one has the most potential to turn into a loss for the Irish. A victory at their house last year, and two straight wins for the Irish, could translate into motivation for the Wolverines and some overconfidence for the Irish. Also, Notre Dame will be coming off of back-to-back battles against talented teams in Penn State and Georgia Tech. Michigan will have just cruised through creampuff games against Vanderbilt and Central Michigan. Their defense gave us fits last year, and their offense is full of juniors that struggled through a sophomore slump last year and should be much better this year. Oh, and the underdog in this matchup has had the edge going back to 1942. And the Irish will be the favorite.

However, as this game is being played at home, and the Irish should improve as much if not more than Michigan in year 2 of the Weis era, I expect the Irish to eke out another win, but this could be a nail-biter. The Notre Dame offense will likely test whoever steps into Michigan's second cornerback role, as whoever plays will be only a sophomore.

9/9Central MichiganW
9/16at Notre DameL
9/30at MinnesotaW
10/7Michigan StateW
10/14at Penn StateW
11/4Ball StateW
11/11at IndianaW
11/11at Ohio StateL