By Nick Skepkowski
When you look at changes from Notre Dame's disappointing 2007 when comparing it to what is in store for 2008, the biggest may not even have anything to do with the Irish playing roster or depth chart. Instead the schedule that was set up by Kevin White before his departure has Irish faithful thinking going from 3-9 to a New Years Day Bowl is not that unrealistic.
Last year the Irish started off with a schedule of Georgia Tech, at Penn State, and at Michigan. With two of the three teams now being replaced, lets look at how much different the first three weeks of 2008 will be.
Instead of opening against Georgia Tech, in 2008 the Irish find their first true warm up game since 1999 when they opened the season with a tune-up game of sorts against a former slouch, the Kansas Jayhawks. This year the Irish welcome San Diego State to South Bend. Many experts feel the Aztecs will be amongst the worst teams in college football's highest level this coming season.
Michigan remains on the schedule this year as they come to South Bend as well, this time in week two. Getting Michigan out of The Big House makes things better on its own, couple that with Michigan likely being a much weaker team than last year and Notre Dame is two-for-two in the schedule difficulty lessening.
Michigan State is a spot on the schedule which is going to be more difficult than in 2007. The Spartans will likely be improved and going to Spartan Stadium is never easy. However, remember that the visiting team in this series has won each game since the 2000 season when Michigan State defeated the Irish in East Lansing.
Purdue and Stanford remain on the schedule in 2008 as well, this time both teams come to South Bend. Purdue seems to be a toss up at this point but there are very few doubts that this years Boilermakers squad is not as talented as that of the 2007 version. Stanford continues to improve under Jim Harbaugh but remain a team that Notre Dame is still years ahead of talent-wise.
A three week stretch of traveling to North Carolina and Washington before hosting Pitt finds its way on the Notre Dame schedule in 2008. Figure an ever-so-improving UNC team replaces a struggling Duke team from a year ago and the schedule gets more difficult here. However, replace where the Irish found a road trip to UCLA last fall with a trip to Seattle to face the Huskies and things once again seem to be headed for better. Finally, Pitt will not be a national title contender when they come to South Bend like Boston College was a year ago, figure the schedule is easier once again in this slot.
Finally this year we see Notre Dame traveling to Baltimore to take on the Naval Academy. Everyone remembers a year ago when the planets seemed to align and the Irish finally lost to Navy. Based on the improvement nearly everyone expects to see in the Irish this year you have to figure despite the Irish having to go on the road, this game will not be as daunting of task as it was a year ago.
It seems pathetic to say facing Navy a year ago was a daunting task but that just speaks for how poor the Irish were.
You can say that Syracuse replaces Air Force from a year ago. No offense to the Orange and not to say AF was great a year ago by any means, but Syracuse will enter amongst the worst of all BCS Conference teams in 2008. It will be an easier game than what was the 2007 contest against Air Force.
Finally the dreaded USC Trojans find their way onto the season finale in 2008 as the Irish travel to Los Angeles. Home or away USC is a much better team than Notre Dame will be in 2008. This game is a draw, it was a tough pill to swallow in '07 and will be just as tough to swallow in '08.
Say what you like, drink all the kool-aid Irish you can but the fact of the matter is USC is still a much better team than the Irish will be in 2008. 38 points better? Time will tell but for now we will call this a draw compared to the USC team the Irish faced a year ago.
To sum it up, the Irish schedule shows room for improvement in 2008. There are a few better teams they play than opponents we saw on the 2007 schedule. However, couple the progress of Notre Dame with the demise of some teams featured as well and the schedule does not seem nearly as daunting.
While looking at the schedule and breaking it down I have it going something like this:
Sept. 6 vs San Diego State - ND WIN
Sept. 13 vs Michigan, Sept. 20 at MSU, and Sept. 27 vs Purdue (1-2 likely)
Oct. 4 vs Stanford - ND WIN
Oct. 11 at UNC, Oct. 25 at Washington (1-1 a fair estimate, personally I feel they will go 2-0)
Nov. 1 vs Pittsburgh - ND Loss
Nov. 8 at Boston College - ND WIN
Nov. 15 at Navy - ND WIN
Nov. 22 vs Syracuse - ND WIN
Nov. 29 at USC - ND Loss
That's how I see things going in 2008. The Irish likely will not pull any major upsets in 2008 but will be much more competitive against average teams and will walk out with a season that brings in eight wins.
Depending on how the team matures the win total could easily bolster all the way to ten realistically. However, if the team does not mature as much as many expect the Irish could very well be 5-7 or 6-6 and go bowl-less for a second straight year.
As I stated I feel this team will be as good, if not better than eight of the teams on the schedule. If the Irish take care of business in these eight games a New Years Day Bowl could very much be in the works and if not a New Years Day Bowl, a bowl game nonetheless will seem like magic after the train wreck known as 2007.