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Potential is there for 9-3 or 4-7 record this year

Joe Hettler | Thursday, August 26, 2004

The alumni have griped with another losing season fresh in memory, the student body has complained about the flurry of losses and the critics have left the Notre Dame football program for dead.It’s safe to say, in the historically-pivotal third year for Notre Dame football coaches, Tyrone Willingham has his work cut out for him.But, as any college football follower will tell you, in August, everyone is undefeated and optimism is at its pinnacle.So, with a 5-7 record in 2003 in mind, exactly what can Notre Dame fans expect from Willingham’s third team?On paper, nine wins is attainable. So are another seven losses.The 2004 opponents are less daunting than those in 2003, when Notre Dame played a schedule that would make the Arizona Cardinals shiver. Three top five teams, including the co-national champion USC, eight bowl teams and “easy” games against Boston College and Purdue. Ask a team to win with that schedule and an 18-year-old first-year quarterback, along with an inexperienced offensive line, and it’s understandable why Notre Dame struggled to a 5-7 mark.But this year’s schedule, it appears, gives Notre Dame a chance to win many more than five games. There are only three games Notre Dame shouldn’t win – on paper, that is.Besides Michigan, Tennessee and USC, the Irish have as much talent if not more than the other eight opponents.You could even argue the Irish have a reasonable shot at knocking off the Wolverines and Volunteers.Michigan has the best receiving corps in the country and a huge offensive line. But remember, the Wolverines are replacing their starting quarterback and running back from last season. Matt Gutierrez was 37-0 at De La Salle High School, but never played in front of a crowd like the one he will experience at Notre Dame Stadium Sept. 11. A rookie quarterback’s first road start and Notre Dame’s home opener is a definite advantage for the Irish. The key for Notre Dame will be pressuring Gutierrez and not allowing him time to find all those outstanding receivers.Tennessee also has an inexperienced quarterback at the helm this season. They do return Cedric Houston, who led the Volunteers in rushing during the last two seasons. Notre Dame has the advantage of a bye week to prepare for that road game, while Tennessee faces South Carolina the week before.As for USC, Irish fans should worry about that game when it arrives near Thanksgiving.But realistically, Notre Dame has the talent to win eight regular season games and a bowl, not only because of the schedule, but also because the 2004 Irish are vastly different than the 2003 version. Quarterback Brady Quinn has bulked up and returns with some very valuable experience he gained last season. The offensive line, which received the most criticism a year ago, should be an asset now and give Quinn and the running game more time and room to make plays.The running backs are underrated. People are quick to forget Ryan Grant rushed for over 1,000 yards as a sophomore, becoming just the seventh player in school history to do so. Redshirt freshman Travis Thomas looks good in preseason drills and should get his share of touches. Those two should see the bulk of the carries, with Marcus Wilson spelling them.Rhema McKnight was the most consistent receiver last season. The Irish will need players like Maurice Stovall and Jeff Samaradzija to step up in 2004. The tight ends are talented and aplenty.The defense may not be quite the same without Courtney Watson and Vontez Duff, but the unit will still be formidable. The defensive line will be led by a downright nasty duo of ends in Justin Tuck and Victor Abiamiri. Tuck may be the best defensive end in the nation and Abiamiri could be the same in another year or two. The linebackers get Mike Goolsby back after an injury-filled 2003. Corey Mays has also stepped up in preseason practice and should see more playing time.Then there are the defensive backs, a unit that has many Notre Dame fans nervous to say the least. New defensive backs coach Steven Wilks has his hands full, but he does have talented, albeit young, players to work with.The kicking game could be iffy, especially on punts. But D.J. Fitzpatrick showed improvement filling in for the injured Nicholas Setta during the second part of last season.All in all, this team is significantly better than last year’s. Does that mean Notre Dame fans can bank on eight or nine wins and a respectable bowl appearance? No. As Willingham will tell you, lining teams up on paper is only worth so much. It’s the execution during games which matters the most.But one certainty is that the team Willingham and the coaching staff puts on the field this year will have much more potential than the 2003 squad.The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.Contact Joe Hettler at jhettler@nd.edu.