Click here for the introduction and an explanation of the rankings.
Trouble Spot No. 11 – MarylandMaryland, 9-4 last season with a nice blend of veteran and youthful talent returning, is not the 11th best team on the Irish schedule – they're a likely bowl team with a solid first-year head coach. But this is, in my estimation, an "easier" situation for the Irish than road trips vs. the next pair of teams featured on my countdown, and a touch less tricky than a home rematch with a certain service academy that's had Notre Dame's number since 2007.
As discussed in the introduction (linked above), the Irish face 10 teams that should be considered slightly below average to above average foes this fall. Maryland ranks near the middle of that pack, but could prove a stronger overall team than the likes of Purdue, Boston College, South Florida, Michigan, Navy, and even Pittsburgh. However, that has little bearing on my overall view of this singular matchup and its unique game day situation.
Situation (date, time, location): November 12 in Landover, Maryland's FedEx Field. Kick-off time is slated for 7:30 PM EST (Stadium capacity exceeds 91,000). The neutral site contest in which Notre Dame will don home uniforms will be televised by NBC and marks Notre Dame's fourth of five scheduled prime time kick-offs, with two times still to be determined (Pittsburgh and Wake Forest).
Maryland's/Irish Game Slot: The game follows a Maryland home date with Virginia and precedes a trip to Wake Forest. The Irish will take on the Terrapins following their own trip to Winston-Salem and prior to a Senior Day matchup with Boston College in South Bend. Maryland encounters its toughest stretch prior to facing the Irish, taking on Georgia Tech, Clemson, Florida State, BC and Virginia in successive weeks.
Numbers/National View of MarylandPhil Steele rates Maryland as the fifth-best team in the ACC Atlantic Division (ahead of Notre Dame's Nov. 5 opponent, Wake Forest) while Lindy's has the Terrapins as its No. 43 team in the nation, behind fellow ACC competitors North Carolina (#31), Clemson (#30), Miami (#26), Virginia Tech (#12) and Florida State (#5)
Athlon's views Maryland as the nation's No. 33 team (3rd in the ACC Atlantic) while the Sporting News slots the Terrapins second in their division behind Florida State and ahead of Irish Senior Day foe, Boston College.
My View of Maryland: A program in transition, but a team one-year away from consistently winning 8-9 games per season (the Terrapins, like the Irish, have been all over the map, winning 6 games in '07, 8 in '08, just 2 in '09, then 9 last fall). Sophomore QB Danny O'Brien ranked among the nation's best true freshmen for the 9-4 Terrapins last fall, but the ousting of head coach Ralph Friedgen and addition of two new coordinators offsets the return of seven offensive and seven defensive starters from 2010.
New head coach Randy Edsall will instill toughness, though his standard two-back power attack appears at odds with first-year offensive coordinator Gary Crowton's passing fancies.
Coaching ElementEdsall is 1-0 vs. the Irish, defeating Notre Dame on Senior Day 2009 thanks to a timely kick return, a punishing rushing attack and veteran offensive line, and typical Weis-ian generosity. It's hard to tell which team differs more: Edsall in a job-switch, or Notre Dame with the bulk of the same on-field combatants led by a new head coach.
While I balked at the idea of Edsall leading the charge at the nation's most famous football program, he's a good fit for an ACC squad looking to consistently compete with the second tier conference programs such as Boston College, Clemson, North Carolina, and Georgia Tech.
Building Connecticut, a program now just nine seasons into FBS participation, into a consistent bowl team with a BCS appearance was no small feat. UConn won 33 games over the last four seasons and will drop off the map, at least in the immediate future, without Edsall at the helm.
Maryland will be a far tougher, more disciplined team under their new head man. But as Irish fans learned last season, such transition takes time.
Trap Game Potential?The neutral site element in an NFL Stadium should again aid the atmosphere for both teams, but it can't compete with last year's green-jersey'd, pomp and circumstance affair at the new Yankee Stadium.
The Irish will have plenty of fans in Landover, though the base is unlikely to dominate the proceedings as it did vs. Army in last November's neutral, NBC telecast.
If the Irish can't get excited about a Pro-site contest vs. a decent team in the season's final month, they're further from contention than it appears.
Unique Aspect of Defense/OffenseEdsall's defense features a hybrid SS/LB aligned as what appears to be a strong-side outside linebacker position, head-up over a slot receiver. New defensive coordinator Todd Bradford (formerly of Southern Mississippi) will handle Edsall's base 4-2-5 scheme that features the "Rock" (DE/OLB) and "Star" (as noted above).
First-year offensive coordinator Gary Crowton helped defeat Tyrone Willingham's Irish in the 2004 season opener as the head coach at BYU. He spent the last four seasons running the offense for Les Miles at LSU – the Tigers ranked #11, #30, #76, and #49 over his four seasons.
Advantage Irish: Crowton does not have a veteran receiver with which to work in his first season.
Relevant StorylinesIt's the second overall meeting between the programs and the first since Tyrone Willingham's 22-0 debut victory over the Terrapins in the 2002 Kick-off Classic in East Rutherford, N.J.
The Irish have not lost a neutral-site regular season contest since dropping a 23-16 decision to a powerful Florida State team in Orlando, 1994. The program is 26-3 in regular season neutral site matchups since Dan Devine's first year, 1975, losing only Mississippi in Jackson (a national title season in 1977), and to Purdue (1984) in Indianapolis.
Puncher's Chance for an upset? The Terrapins won't be overwhelmed and could certainly take down the Irish – I just don't think it'll happen in this setting. Maryland has quality first-string talent with a developing young quarterback and the potential for consistent line play exists on both sides of scrimmage. They have a tandem of capable runners – ideal for a Randy Edsall offense – and an unorthodox look defensively, one designed to combat spread attacks.
But the date and time of the contest does the Terrapins no favors, as Brian Kelly has proven to a tremendous late-season coach at the BCS level. Landover will be an Irish town on November 12, 2011.
Final Verdict/PredictionNotre Dame will be clicking on all cylinders and after struggling mightily in evening games under two previous head coaches, the prime time kick-off is no longer a cause for concern for the program. Maryland will likely play better football in the season's second half, but they're a year away from competing with a Top 20-level team in this setting.
The Irish will win comfortably leading up to their final two contests: battles with recent rivals Boston College and Stanford.