By Andy Staples
March 13, 2009

Earlier this month, Jeff Steck, at the excellent Blue-Gray Sky blog, produced a fascinating analysis that put a new spin on the old chicken-egg argument that seems to dominate any discussion about Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis's recruiting versus his team's on-field production. Steck took's recruiting ratings (talent) and compared them to Jeff Sagarin's Predictor Ratings (performance) to determine which schools overperform or underperform relative to their talent levels.

This is a popular topic among Domers. Weis is either an excellent recruiter who has done a poor job developing his players, or a decent coach with below-average talent evaluation skills whose recruiting classes are chronically overrated by the Recruiting Industrial Complex. Steck's analysis found that Boise State, BYU, TCU, Utah and West Virginia overperformed more than anyone, while Notre Dame fell in with fellow underperformers Miami, Florida State and Syracuse. Despite that bit of gloom, the analysis produced a silver lining. If Notre Dame performs as expected relative to its talent level next season, the Fighting Irish will finish No. 12 in the nation.

If Notre Dame continues to underperform, however, Weis will probably lose his job. Which brings us to the first of five burning questions as the Independents and non-BCS schools kick off spring practice:

Revamping his staff was a good start. New defensive line coach Randy Hart came to South Bend after 20 years at Washington. Hart coached some teams that played in the Rose Bowl and some that circled the toilet bowl, and he still possesses the kind of infectious enthusiasm players can't help but absorb. "It's not a complicated game," Hart said at his introductory press conference. "Defensive football is strike, disengage, pursue, and tackle. No matter if you play a 3-4 or 4-3 or whatever defense you are playing, if your guys will strike a blow, get off the block and pursue the football and tackle, you are going to win. So let's not make it complicated." With that kind of attitude, the Fighting Irish should improve after a year in which they finished 106th in the nation in tackles for loss.

Weis himself will call plays, bringing his "decided schematic advantage" to an offense that ranked 67th in the nation in scoring last season. Quarterback Jimmy Clausen will still get to throw to Golden Tate and Michael Floyd, but Weis hopes that by hiring Frank Verducci to coach the line -- which returns four starters -- Clausen will have more time to throw. Verducci and first-year running backs coach Tony Alford must find a way to get more production out of a running game that ranked No. 100 in the nation last season. If Armando Allen and Robert Hughes struggle, sophomore Jonas Gray or class of 2009 signee Cierre Wood -- who doesn't arrive until the summer -- could get a shot.

Before last season, Utah wasn't even favored to win its own conference. BYU was. The Utes turned into a juggernaut and humbled Alabama in the Sugar Bowl, but cracking the BCS for a third time since 2004 could be difficult. Utah lost quarterback Brian Johnson, defensive end Paul Kruger, kicker/punter Louie Sakoda and a host of other veterans. This spring, junior Corbin Louks will try to stave off a challenge from junior college transfer Terrance Cain in the race for the starting quarterback job.

Just a short drive away in Provo, BYU returns quarterback Max Hall, leading rusher Harvey Unga and all-everything tight end Dennis Pitta. That's a lot of firepower, but the Cougars will have to replace their top two receivers and four starting offensive linemen. A pair of sophomores, O'Neill Chambers and McKay Jacobson, should make excellent targets for Hall, however. Left tackle Matt Reynolds is the only returning starter on the line, but the freshman All-America should make quite the cornerstone.

TCU, which finished last season ranked No. 7 in the AP poll, may finally break through the BCS ceiling this year. The Horned Frogs have won 11 games in three of the past four seasons, and their only losses last year came to BCS runner-up Oklahoma and at Utah.

TCU lost seven starters on defense, but the returnees include consensus All-America Jerry Hughes, who led the nation in sacks last season, and both corners. On offense, quarterback Andy Dalton will receive his marching orders from co-coordinators Jarrett Anderson and Justin Fuente. Mike Schultz, the coordinator who guided the Frogs to single-season records in points (437) and touchdowns (56) in 2008, is now at Illinois.

The Broncos are young this year. They only have five seniors, but coach Chris Peterson isn't worried about a leadership void even though tailback Ian Johnson and the rest of the group that participated in the Greatest Game Ever Played against Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl and during last year's undefeated regular season have departed. "The leadership starts with the seniors, but it doesn't end with the seniors," Peterson said. "There are young guys who are natural born leaders."

Sophomore quarterback Kellen Moore, who set a school record in 2008 by completing 69.4 percent of his passes, might be one of them. Moore should get more practice throwing deep this spring thanks to the return of junior receiver Titus Young, who was suspended for 10 games in 2008. This is the first time since 2006 -- when the Statue of Liberty himself (Jared Zabransky) was a senior -- that Peterson hasn't had to find a new starting quarterback during spring practice. On defense, the Broncos need to replace Ellis Powers, a linebacker/safety hybrid who added a different dimension last season. Sophomore Doug Martin, who moved from running back, will be one possible candidate.

It's about time a Conference USA team remained in the BCS discussion into November. East Carolina looked like a possibility last year after opening the season with wins against West Virginia and Virginia Tech, but the Pirates got Russell Wilson-ed against N.C. State in overtime on Sept. 20. East Carolina brings back almost everyone, and, thanks to the sixth year of eligibility the NCAA granted, quarterback Patrick Pinkney will return as well. If the Pirates can beat West Virginia and North Carolina and take care of business during a C-USA schedule that doesn't include a regular-season meeting with high-powered Houston, a Thursday night home matchup with Virginia Tech on Nov. 5 will give the Pirates a chance to prove to a national audience that they deserve a shot on the big stage.

MORE BURNING QUESTIONSPac-10: Who has the edge in the USC QB battle?ACC: Will VaTech emerge as a national player?Big 12: Who's poised to challenge OU and UT?Big East: Can West Virginia win without Pat White?Big Ten: How will Michigan recover from a 3-9 debacle?SEC:Lane Kiffin can talk, but can he actually coach?THE REST:What has Charlie Weis done to save his job?

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