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Commentary: Notre Dame can enjoy the new year

So Notre Dame can finally enjoy a football off-season. The nine-bowl losing streak is over. The offense has been reborn. The defense has Steel-curtain possibilities. Quarterback Jimmy Clausen finally looks like a future Heisman Trophy contender.

And Coach Charlie Weis? Well, he might be able to go to the grocery store in peace.

Still, does crushing a mediocre Hawaii team in a minor bowl to finish 7-6 mean anything for next season's win-big-or-else prospects? Let's take a look.

Weis and his staff must be at their best next season because talent and experience are everywhere you look. Notre Dame figures to be BCS bowl ready and if it's not, Weis probably won't be around after next year to spin his way out of it.

Freshmen and sophomores dominated this team.

Despite a late-season slump of two touchdowns and eight interceptions, Clausen threw for 3,177 yards, 25 touchdowns and 17 picks this season. To put that in perspective, Brady Quinn threw for 2,586 yards and 17 TDs as a sophomore.

Clausen would instantly be even better if Notre Dame develops a strong, consistent running game to provide offensive balance.

Also back are receivers Golden Tate (six catches, 177 yards, 3 TDs against Hawaii) and Michael Floyd, tight end Kyle Rudolph, all the tailbacks and most of the offensive line, defensive tackle Ethan Johnson (he had three of Notre Dame's eight sacks against Hawaii), linebackers Brian Smith and Darius Fleming, safety Sergio Brown and a whole lot more.

Tate, by the way, caught 58 passes for 1,080 yards and 10 touchdowns. He's the sixth Irish receiver to surpass 1,000 receiving yards. Floyd probably would have joined him if he hadn't missed the last three regular season games with a knee injury.

Ten true freshmen played this season, and the Irish are bringing in another top-15 recruiting class next year.

The schedule is rich in BCS potential. Notre Dame has seven home games next season, starting with Nevada (7-5) on Sept. 5. The remaining home games are against Washington (0-12), Southern California (11-1), Boston College (9-4), Navy (8-5), Connecticut (7-5) and Michigan State (9-3).

Road games come against Pittsburgh (9-3), Michigan (3-9), Purdue (4-8) and Stanford (5-7). The Irish also play Washington State (2-11) in San Antonio, Texas. The four key games are USC, Boston College, Michigan State and Pitt. Notre Dame was 0-4 against them this past season, and that's not acceptable.

Finally, don't underestimate the benefits of ending the season with a bowl victory. That hasn't happened since 1993 and, while it doesn't guarantee anything for next season, it does suggest that maybe, just maybe, this is the start of something big. If not, grocery shopping will be the least of Weis' worries.

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