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Debunking myths (cont.)

Posted: Monday August 14, 2006 12:30PM; Updated: Monday August 14, 2006 9:06PM
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Myth No. 3: Notre Dame didn't prove anything last year.

OK, so this one's not entirely a myth. Notre Dame managed to go 9-3 while beating only one major-conference opponent with a winning record (7-5 Michigan). In fact, the Irish played a direct role in eliminating four of their opponents from bowl contention -- Pittsburgh, Purdue, Tennessee and Stanford all finished 5-6.

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But you can't blame Notre Dame for the quality of its opponents. By some bizarre coincidence, the Irish managed to catch traditionally formidable foes Pittsburgh, Michigan, Washington, Purdue, Tennessee and Syracuse in each of the programs' worst stretches in recent memory. The only thing the Irish could control was the score, and they did, winning seven of their games by at least three touchdowns. The only victory that was closer than it probably should have been was the regular-season finale against Stanford (38-31).

And then there were the three losses. Two, to Michigan State and USC, came in OT or at the last second. And two of their three conquerors, the Trojans and Ohio State, finished the season among the nation's top four teams. Was it the season to end all seasons? Hardly. But it also wasn't nearly as forgettable as some would have you believe.

Myth No. 4: Notre Dame's coach isn't the genius he's cracked up to be.

There's no way to know the answer to this one. Would Weis have gotten a reported $30 million-$40 million contract extension after six games if he didn't have four Super Bowl rings? Not likely. Would he already be a household name had he come in and improved, say, Auburn, from 6-6 to 9-3? Of course not. But you've got to be either blind or stubborn if you can't see the dramatic effect Weis has had on the ND program in just one season.

Last year's Irish offense ranked 10th in the country, producing 477.3 yards per game. A year earlier, with practically the same group of players, ND had finished 81st (345.5). Quinn, a 50.8 percent passer his first two seasons with 26 TD passes and 25 interceptions, jumped to 64.9 percent and threw for 32 TDs and just seven picks in '05. Samardzija, after barely getting on the field his first two seasons, morphed into an imposing deep threat who finished third in the country with 1,249 receiving yards. "They're much different," said Purdue's Spack, whose team beat the Irish 41-16 in '04 and got drilled 49-28 a year later. "[Weis] knows how to attack your weakness, and he'll keep going there until you prove you can stop it."

But Weis' impact reaches beyond X's and O's. Neither Willingham nor predecessor Bob Davie could be said to exude confidence, and it showed in their players. Weis, though generally mild-mannered, is beyond confident -- he's downright cocky. He constantly references his coaching abilities both in public and, according to several sources, with his players. They must be buying into it. After years of maddening inconsistency (beating Michigan and Tennessee, losing to Boston College and BYU), the Irish, if nothing else, looked prepared every week last season. They appeared outclassed only once, in the Fiesta Bowl, and exhibited not a hint of intimidation against a USC team that at the time had won 27 straight games and clobbered the Irish the previous three seasons.

"I guarantee those kids playing for Notre Dame right now believe they can win every time they step on the field," said SuperPrep's Wallace. "They play so much more competitively now."

How much more? We'll find out soon enough. The Irish open with four straight challenging games: at Georgia Tech, home against Penn State and Michigan and at Michigan State. If they can survive that stretch with one loss or better, watch out. While schedules rarely play out as predicted (see Notre Dame's last year), the Irish appear to be in for smooth sailing from their fifth game all the way up to their final game -- at USC.

Now wouldn't that be fitting? Could the same game that put Weis' program on the map last season end up determining its national championship destiny? In today's landscape, there couldn't be a more telling barometer for Notre Dame's supposed resurgence than whether a senior-laden Irish team could stack up with the young, reloading Trojans.

"We did well last year, but we really have a long way to go," said Quinn. "I'd be lying if I told you [a national championship] isn't in the back of my mind. People talk about it and write about it, but we want to make it a reality."

It's already closer to reality than much of the country would like to admit.

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