Trouble Spots: introduction

Our annual, unique look at Notre Dame's toughest games for the 2011 season takes into account far more than the opponents' collective talent level.

A wise man once told me, in life, timing is everything.

Since that man wis also a football fan, I assume by "life" he actually meant, "Notre Dame Football." Then again, I have a one-track mind, but I've fashioned relevant examples to kick-off our 12-part look at the Irish schedule nonetheless:

In 1997, Bob Davie's first season as head coach, a reeling 4-5 Irish squad traveled to Baton Rouge to take on LSU in Death Valley – one of the hardest places for a non-conference team to win in the college game. The Irish were flawless that November afternoon, (it was the only game in Irish history in which the team did not commit a penalty or a turnover) winning 24-6.

LSU was the better team that season but ND was far superior when it mattered for three hours between the lines.

One month later in Shreveport, the Tigers and Irish met again in the lowly Independence Bowl and a backup Tigers tailback named Rondell Mealey erupted for 220 rushing yards in a humbling of streaking Notre Dame en route to a 27-6 victory.

If you prefer a more recent span of reference, consider last fall:

Notre Dame destroyed Utah, defeated USC, and handled Pittsburgh – each of the three ranked among the nation's Top 25 at this point last summer. Conversely, they were crushed by Navy and lost to Michigan and Tulsa. How many of you predicted even half of those six outcomes last June? Did you think the Irish would be up 21-0 in the first quarter at Boston College but struggle to a 27-17 lead at halftime vs. Western Michigan in South Bend?

Remember Notre Dame's 35-0 destruction of Nevada to open 2009? The Irish then muddled their way to a 5-6 season finish while Nevada won eight straight to conclude their campaign, often in blowout fashion. Forget about destroying the Wolfpack, would the Irish have even defeated Nevada had the game been played in November rather than the season opener?

Conversely, wouldn't the late-season Irish of 2010 have buried Michigan with a dead-man-walking head coach and worn down, rather than dominant Denard Robinson at the controls had the two met last November? Or would Michigan State have beaten the Irish in 10 of its last 14 matchups had those Irish teams not previously faced rival Michigan, ranked Purdue teams, or No. 1 Nebraska in each season of that span?

Timing is everything, especially regarding a college football schedule.

Summer rankings are irrelevant

A Notre Dame football season rarely plays out as projected. Each Saturday brings a varied level of intensity from both the Irish and their foe, and the oft-publicized home game/road game element is but one deciding factor. Is a new staff implementing a system and has it had time to take root? Does the program traditionally peak or tumble when the winds turn cold?

What about the matchup's slot on the schedule? Does the game precede or follow a bye? Does the contest occur seven days before, or after, Notre Dame or its opponent squares off vs. its most hated rival?

Top tier teams excepted, for the vast majority of 120 still-developing FBS teams, each overlooked element noted above helps determine a game's outcome as much as the teams' respective talent levels.

As we enter mid-June, I view Notre Dame's upcoming 12-game slate as such:

  1. A whopping 10 Irish opponents will finish as slightly below average, to slightly above average teams, in 2011 – about a 50-team range in the final rankings. In other words: plenty of solid, but few memorable foes.
  2. Barring a rash of injuries, one opponent will be considered "very good" at season's end.
  3. One opponent should struggle next fall.

We begin with the latter. Click here for Part II and the kick-off to our Trouble Spots series – my level of difficulty ranking for each contest – not necessarily the opponent as a whole – in 2011.

Full Disclosure

Trouble Spots 2010 ranked Notre Dame's matchups as such last June: 1.) Michigan State 2.) USC 3.) Utah 4.) Stanford 5.) Boston College 6.) Pittsburgh 7.) Navy 8.) Michigan 9.) Tulsa 10.) Purdue 11.) Army 12.) Western Michigan.

And in 2009: 1.) USC, 2.) Michigan State, 3.) Stanford, 4.) Boston College, 5.) Michigan, 6.) Pittsburgh, 7.) Connecticut, 8.) Nevada, 9.) Navy, 10.) Purdue, 11.) Washington, 12.) Washington State. Top Stories