Yes, Notre Dame, the same team that won 10 games the past two seasons, that marched to an abysmal 3-9 record in 2007 (that campaign, the worst in Notre Dame's 120-plus-year history, was so forgettable the school omitted it from its media guide), that lost to lowly Syracuse at home in 2008.
Those last two seasons have landed coach Charlie Weis on a seat hot enough to melt South Bend's 70.8 inches of annual snowfall, but the Irish could return to relevance in a matter of months. No, I'm not mad, and no, I haven't had too much to drink at Weis' annual Hannah & Friends celebrity gala (though Digger Phelps does mix a mean Tom Collins). Jumping back on the Notre Dame bandwagon is about to become as trendy as hailing Breaking Bad as the best show nobody's watching, saying you were down with Asher Roth back in The Greenhouse Effect days and picking sides in the Jon & Kate debate.
Seriously, take a look at this schedule:
• Nevada:Chris Ault runs a tricky Pistol formation and 6-foot-6 gunslinger Colin Kaepernick stands at the trigger. But last season Nevada lost 38-31 to Hawaii, while Notre Dame hammered the Warriors by 28.
• At Michigan: Yes, Rich Rodriguez now has a quarterback who fits his offense, but that QB, Tate Forcier, is a true freshman. The Wolverines will play better than last year's Misery in Michigan squad, but realistically are still a year away from a full return.
• Michigan State: The Spartans lost 90.6 percent of their 2008 offense with the departures of RB Javon Ringer and QB Brian Hoyer. Talent remains, but the Spartans will have a tough time replacing that production.
• At Purdue: The Boilermakers' quarterback, top three receivers and leading rusher from '08 are all gone. Oh, and they have a new head coach.
• Washington: QB Jake Locker returns, but he alone can't revive a team that went 0-12 last season and ranked 100th or worse in 16 different national categories.
• USC: Yes, the Irish have lost seven straight in this series, but the Trojans are rebuilding. But is even that enough to hope for a change of fortunes?
• Boston College: The Eagles lost two key pieces when ACC Defensive Player of the Year Mark Herzlich was diagnosed with cancer and QB Dominique Davis announced he was transferring after being suspended for academic reasons.
• Washington State: Like its Evergreen State brethren, the Cougars, who went 2-11 in '08 and ranked 118th in total offense and scoring offense, are a ways away from putting a scare into anyone.
• Navy: With just four offensive starters returning, the nation's top '08 rushing offense will take a step back in 2009.
• At Pittsburgh: The Panthers have a nasty defense, but it's unclear how formidable Dave Wannstedt's offense will be without star RB LeSean McCoy.
• UConn: Like Michigan State with Ringer, the Huskies lost their offensive identity when RB Donald Brown turned pro.
• At Stanford: The Cardinal do return 15 starters, including eight on offense, but the passing game is a mystery and the Irish have won seven straight in this series.
Someone, whether Touchdown Jesus or the scheduling gods, has blessed the Irish with a slate tailor-made for a coach trying to regain a school's confidence and a program desperate to show the nation it still matters. The Trojans are the only forgivable loss on the schedule; that leaves 10-11 completely winnable games, more than enough to get the Irish into the mix for a BCS at-large berth. Weis' job could very well depend on such success.
Of course, the schedule isn't the only intriguing thing about this Irish team. If the Hawaii Bowl serves as any indication, Weis will again carry the "genius" label he so smugly arrived in South Bend with in 2005. Calling plays from the pressbox, Weis directed an offense that set eight Irish bowl game records. The performance, in which Jimmy Clausen threw for 401 yards and five touchdowns in a 49-21 romp of the host Warriors, led an excited Dr. Lou to forecast a big '09 for his beloved Irish. Sure, the win came against a Hawaii team ranked 78th in passing defense, but Dr. Lou's PhD isn't exactly in logic.
Weis must have listened to the good doctor, though, because when offensive coordinator Mike Haywood left to take over at Miami (Ohio), Weis decided to fill the position himself. He hasn't announced an intention to again call plays from the pressbox, but co-defensive coordinator Corwin Brown recently earned the title of associate head coach, which likely means Brown will handle things on the field while Weis directs Clausen and Co. from the vantage point he inhabited so successfully with the New England Patriots.
Weis grabbing the offensive reins wasn't the only significant shake-up this offseason. Jon Tenuta, who espoused the "rush, rush and rush some more" credo while at Georgia Tech, will be calling the defensive plays. That, coupled with a shift to a 4-3 set and an influx of more athletic linebackers, should make this the best D of the Weis era.
The stage is unquestionably set for the Irish. If they return to a major bowl this season it won't be on the strength of their name alone -- unlike their last two BCS appearances, mirages in which they lost to Ohio State by 14 in the '06 Fiesta Bowl and to LSU by 27 in the 2007 Sugar Bowl.
The Weis era opened in the worst possible way, setting the bar deceptively high and creating the perception that Notre Dame was about to regain its elite status. We soon found out the truth: Those Brady Quinn-led teams were good, but not great, and left next to no foundation for the future.
Thanks to two straight top 10 recruiting classes, that foundation is finally in place. Nine true freshmen made starts in '07. Last year those youngsters took their lumps, blowing double-digit leads three times and losing two games (against Pitt and Syracuse) on missed kicks. Thanks to that youth movement, though, the Irish now have 11 players with at least one season of starting experience on the roster plus six more with two or more seasons under their belts. Always high on talent, this group has finally learned how to play and how to win and, most importantly, they've learned those lessons together. It's a progression that should spell danger for other teams.
If this is truly Weis' make-or-break season, he couldn't have asked for better timing. But on the off chance '09 ends with another Christmas trip to Hawaii, he might want to purchase a one-way ticket.