Trouble Spot #1 – Stanford

The conclusion of our 2011 Trouble Spots series again ranks a season ending trip west as Notre Dame's most difficult contest. But unlike previous years, the Irish won't be in Los Angeles when pitted against their toughest foe.

#12 Wake Forest

#11 Maryland

#10 Navy

#9 South Florida

#8 Purdue

#7 Boston College

#6 Pittsburgh

#5 Air Force

#4 Michigan

#3 USC

#2 Michigan State

Click here for the introduction and an explanation of the rankings.

Trouble Spot No. 1 – Stanford

The Cardinal were likely the nation's third-best team by season's end, winning easily (40-12) over an 11-win Virginia Tech team in the Orange Bowl. Stanford boasted the nation's No. 9 scoring offense (40.31 ppg) and No. 10 scoring defense (17.38 allowed per contest) – the only BCS conference team to place among the nation's Top 10 in both critical categories.

Situation (date, time, location): Saturday, November 26, in Palo Alto. It's the season finale for both teams with kickoff set for 8 PM ET on ABC, ESPN, or ESPN2.

Stanford /Irish Game Slot: Stanford hosts chief rival California in the "Big Game" before entertaining the Irish in the regular season finale. Notre Dame will face Boston College on Senior Day in South Bend before traveling to Palo Alto to conclude its season vs. the Cardinal.

National View of Stanford

Athlon rates Stanford as the nation's 13th-best team; second in the Pac-10 North behind Oregon. Lindy's has Stanford at No. 8 nationally, also second behind Oregon in the Pac-10, while Phil Steele slots them 16th nationally/2nd in the expanded conference.

The Sporting News holds the highest opinion of the program's potential, touting the Cardinal as its No. 4 team entering 2011.

My View of the Cardinal: Top tier…for one more season. The loss of head coach Jim Harbaugh and defensive coordinator Vic Fangio will be difficult to overcome, yet mitigated by the presence of returning Heisman front-runner, Andrew Luck. The senior's a legitimate weapon under center that can dominate as a passer, but also buy time in the pocket and burn defenses that don't honor his running skills.

The Cardinal front seven was much tougher than Notre Dame's offensive line when the teams squared off last September, but the Irish defense battled a standout Cardinal front five as well as did any Stanford opponent, limiting the nation's 17th-ranked rushing attack to 3.7 yards-per-carry and more than 50 yards fewer than its weekly average.

Coaching Element

Harbaugh was a revelation, turning a previously soft program (and 11-loss team prior to his arrival) into a 12-1 bully and BCS bowl victor.

In his stead steps 2010 offensive coordinator David Shaw, whose transition to the lead role will be eased by the presence of Luck – Andrew, that is – the nation's best quarterback and top NFL prospect. Shaw coordinated Stanford's attack during Harbaugh's four-season tenure and played wide receiver on The Farm during the early 90s, competing on the 10-3 Cardinal squad that upset Notre Dame, 33-16 in South Bend.

The 2010 Cardinal offense converted on a national-best 57.6 percent of its Red Zone opportunities into touchdowns behind Shaw's play-calling guidance.

Replacing Fangio and sharing the duty of co-defensive coordinator this fall are Derek Mason and Jason Tarver, while former Irish defensive line coach Randy Hart (2009) and special teams coach Brian Polian (2005-09) both remain on staff.

Trap Game Potential

None, Stanford has beaten Notre Dame in consecutive seasons after previously absorbing seven consecutive defeats at the hands of the Irish.

Key elements of the Cardinal Offense/Defense

As a longtime college football observer, the sheer toughness, penchant for the physical, and the contentious, through-the-whistle attitude displayed by the Cardinal on both sides of scrimmage was a joy to watch last season. Add to that the presence of one of the nation's best players in Luck, and its no wonder the squad produced the best Stanford team and record in program history.

Gone from '10 are three OL starters, 2 of 3 DL starters, two-way competitor Owen Marecic (who added insult to injury in South Bend last season, intercepting a Dayne Crist pass for a touchdown one snap after hammering in a score as the Cardinal fullback), and the head coach that fostered a new attitude. That group's collective toughness and mindset will be difficult to replace.

Luck's presence keys the power rushing attack – forcing teams to respect passes to any point on the football field as well as QB bootlegs that allow the nation's best to pick zones apart on the move. Stanford often lined up last season in bunch power looks with extra offensive linemen, simply daring teams to stop them on old fashioned sweeps to the strong side. That element should again be part of their approach, with Luck providing balance as a pocket weapon.

Defensively Stanford produced its best-ever unit, one that returns a pair of key linebackers (Shayne Skov and Chase Thomas) and safeties (Delano Howell and Michael Thomas. A true 3-4 unit will need to replace undervalued nose guard Sione Fua, the anchor of a top 20 rush defense.

Advantage Irish? The Irish front seven and offensive line has improved greatly since the teams battled last September while the Cardinal lost 11 total starters, including five of its eight OL/DL. More important: both units must replace Harbaugh as its emotional leader and driving force.

Relevant Storylines

If the season plays as I expect (don't cross your fingers), the contest could serve as a BCS elimination game between the one-loss Cardinal and one/two-loss Irish.

Thanksgiving Saturday will also be Senior Day for Stanford's Luck, and the third game played outside of South Bend for the Irish in November.

Puncher's Chance for an upset? If both team's have 1-2 losses, Stanford will be a favorite of less than 5 points (the current line). Unless Stanford somehow overcomes key staff and starter losses and pick up where it left off last January, the teams appear fairly evenly matched, despite the host's decided advantage under center.

Final Verdict/Prediction

My official prediction (hot off the press) is for the Irish to lose twice prior to their Week Seven bye, but then run the table (6-0) in the season's second half.

That's irrelevant here, as I have no idea how the impact of Harbaugh's departure will effect the Cardinal, especially in late-November. But this appears to be a matchup of two-loss teams (can Stanford win two at USC, at Oregon State, and vs. Oregon in a three-week span?), or at the very least, two balanced, veterans squad with a chance to beat each team on its schedule.

At this point, I'll call it a BCS play-in game, with the loser relegated to outsider's status and a growing second tier of teams that appears to have expanded in the 2011 college football ranks. Top Stories