Prediction #14 – The season's lowest scoring contestIts likely that the 2011 season's lowest-scoring game will involve a blowout, a la the 2009 season opener vs. Nevada, a game in which the Irish lit up the scoreboard, but prevailed 35-0.
Do you think of that 35-point finish as a "lower scoring game" than the 20-16 win over Boston College later that season? Of course not, so for the purpose of this prediction, we're looking for the lowest point total from the winning team.
But first, a look at the matchups that missed the cut as well as others considered for the final prediction.
No Chance: MSU, Navy, Wake Forest, MarylandMichigan State was my choice for the season's highest scoring contest (both teams), as explained here.
Navy (October 29): Let's put it this way: Someone is scoring in this annual battle; and I think it'll be the Irish, but after the merciful 35-spot the Naval Academy put on Notre Dame last October, I hold no delusions of grandeur regarding this year's host's ability to stop an effective triple-option.
The Midshipmen lost eight starters from 2010, and a two-year talent drain from Navy's 2009-10 defenses will catch up with the Academy this fall.
Notre Dame didn't punt in a 2009 home loss to the Midshipmen; it scored 28 regulation points (and 44 overall) in the '07 defeat, and finished with 27 in an '08 victory. With the exception of last fall, Notre Dame has always produced offense vs. Navy. In 2011, that trend will re-start…look for 30-plus from the Irish in a revenge outing on October 29.
And if I'm wrong, then Navy's option will once again riddle the Irish front seven, and the Midshipmen will help prove the prediction accurate...for the wrong reasons.
At Wake Forest (November 5): Most view the contest in Winston-Salem as Notre Dame's easiest contest – the only true break on the schedule. I don't disagree, and figure the Irish can hit the mid 30s to mid 40s with the offense clicking by Game Nine. Wake Forest's 2010 defense, though littered with redshirt freshmen and stocked with returning starters, finished 110th nationally – worst among Irish opponents this fall.
Maryland (November 12): The Terrapins finished 38th in the nation in scoring defense last season but there were plenty of hiccups: 31 points allowed at Clemson; 31 at West Virginia; 28 vs. Florida International; 30 to FSU and 31 to NC State.
With returning ACC Freshman of the Year Danny O'Brien at the controls of new offensive coordinator Gary Crowton's offense, the Terps should be able to score some points this fall.
This antiseptic neutral site battle – an ND home game played at FedEx field in Baltimore, MD – hardly screams defensive slugfest. In fact, this could prove to be one of the three or four highest-scoring contests of Notre Dame's regular season.
Too much offense on both sides: Michigan and StanfordNotre Dame scored its two lowest point totals of 2010 vs. Stanford and Navy (14 points), but I don't see either of those contests unfolding in a similar manner in 2011.
At Michigan (September 10): Michigan's defense was epically poor last season (108th of 120 FBS teams), but I assume it will be at least average this year with new defensive coordinator Greg Mattison (back) in the fold. Hitting should be at a premium in this rivalry atmosphere, replete with throwback uniforms and the first game under the lights in the history of the Big House – with a national television audience, to boot.
The emotion and atmosphere will be off the charts, but the winner on September 10 will score at least 24 points, and I foresee 34 as a realistic target.
Simply put, and leaving the Irish out of the equation entirely: how can Denard Robinson + Michigan's defense = the season's lowest scoring game? It can't.
At Stanford (November 26): The Cardinal return the nation's ninth-best scoring offense from 2010, with ample pieces in place to make a run at another 40-plus point per game campaign in 2011.
Further, Notre Dame's offense in Week 12 this fall will in no way resemble the wayward group that floundered around the field in South Bend last September in a 37-14 defeat.
I considered that Stanford boasted the 10th-best scoring defense in 2010, and that Notre Dame's defense should be better than its offense for the bulk of the '11 season, but the winner of this potential BCS play-in game will find a way to score three touchdowns – plus a few boots from its kicker – en route to victory on Thanksgiving Saturday.
In short: I couldn't predict an Andrew Luck-led team would struggle to score as much as others listed below.
Just missed the cut: Pittsburgh, Air Force, USCKick-off for Notre Dame's contest in the Steel City has yet to be determined; a Week Seven bye separates the latter pair of mid-season matchups for the Irish.
At Pittsburgh (September 24): The Panthers finished 15th nationally in scoring defense last season, but the bulk of key personnel from a two-year run of 4-3 defensive excellence has exited the Steel City.
New head coach Todd Graham will feature a 3-4 scheme defensively and shotgun spread offense, one that averaged better than 40 points in two of his last three seasons as Tulsa.
"High-Octane Football" (their phrase, not mine) won't be in full effect by the time the Irish hit the Steel City in Week Five, but unlike last season, the Panthers and Irish won't embark on a close-to-the-vest (23-17) snoozer, either.
It's more of a gut-feeling than stat-based projection, but I think Notre Dame's defense will dominate the Panthers in Week Four, providing a short field, and plenty of points, for the offense throughout the contest.
Air Force (October 8): I considered the Falcons for four reasons:
- Their triple-option attack bleeds the clock, thus limiting both team's scoring opportunities. When a 10-minute drive results in a field goal, the game is often played tight by default.
- Air Force returns nine starters from the nation's No. 2 ranked pass defense last season – notable for a team that plays in the pass-heavy Mountain West. The Falcons finished 28th in scoring defense last season (Notre Dame was 23rd).
- This Week Six battle is my trap game of the season for Notre Dame – it follows five consecutive games vs. BCS conference opponents, including three annual rivals and a pair of road games preceding. I don't trust the home team's focus for this sleeper foe.
So why not the Falcons for the final prediction? They're capable of scoring, too, averaging 30 per game last fall with two of their three backfield keys returning this season…and I'm not convinced Army 2010 should be our deciding factor as to how Notre Dame will defend the option in 2011.
It's also possible Notre Dame is better than a 10-win team, capable of throttling Top 35-range units such as the Falcons.
USC (October 22): The Trojans ranked 63rd last season, their worst national finish since 2001. But that wasn't the nation's 63rd best defense that showed up vs. the Irish in a 20-16 defeat last Thanksgiving weekend.
USC will come to play in South Bend this October, well-rested after a Thursday battle vs. rival California precedes their trip east (the Irish have two weeks to prepare for the Men of Troy).
And though I wouldn't be surprised to see fewer than 50 total points scored for the second straight season, there's too much speed on the field – and both teams will be far better at quarterback than during their 2010 matchup of backups – to predict a low point total from the game's winner on October 22.
Final Three: South Florida, Purdue, Boston CollegeI waffled among each during the summer, actually re-writing my final choice as late as August 1 . With the exception of the first team highlighted below, I don't think the Irish will score more than three touchdowns vs. any member of the trio.
at Purdue: Why does a team that lost its best player from the nation's 74th-best scoring defense from 2010 rank among my final trio of choices?
Consider the rivalry's recent history, and then of course, my favorite deciding factor: the matchup's slotting on the schedule:
- Last year's tussle nearly qualified as the prediction's winner: a 23-12 finish that tied as Notre Dame's second-lowest point total among its eight victories.
- Just three touchdowns were scored in last year's matchup, and though Purdue lost defensive end Ryan Kerrigan, one of its best defensive players in more than a decade, the bulk of what is now a veteran, quicker Boilers defense returns this fall.
- A 2009 matchup under the lights in West Lafayette produced the second-lowest scoring contest of Charlie Weis' high-scoring final season. As well, neither the Boilers nor the Irish topped 385 total yards in either 2009 or 2010 battles.
- After four consecutive matchups vs. what should be considered peer or near-peer foes, a trip to West Lafayette is unlikely to have the full attention of Brian Kelly's squad. It's a top tier trap game: a road tilt under the lights in front of a national television audience vs. a perceived lesser foe – but one that will have nearly a month of warm-up, tomato-can opponents to feed on…while the Irish are forced to fight for every yard during the season's first month.
- Finally: the Boilers must play this one close-to-the-vest, relying on a fired up defense to overcome one of the least impressive offenses the Irish will face in 2011.
Why aren't the Boilers my final choice?
If the Irish are 2-2 rather than 3-1/4-0, this will be an epic blowout, reminiscent of the Brady Quinn/Jeff Samardzija clinic of 2005.
Boston College (November 19): The Eagles are my default choice every season, and the prediction proved true in both 2008 and 2009, though decidedly false last year as the Irish rang up 21 first quarter points en route to a 31-13 road win.
Boston College returns the nation's 19th-ranked scoring defense and No. 2 rush defense. The contest's late-season date could yield inclement weather in South Bend, and a Senior Day atmosphere – one that has historically felled the Irish (2010 notwithstanding) – nearly made me pull the trigger again for the final prediction.
But Brian Kelly knows he shouldn't force a smash-mouth football tact vs. the rough-and-tumble run defense of the Eagles. The Irish will again stretch the field horizontally (tough to go vertical vs. BC's Cover 2) and mix in enough of a running game to earn the win in what should be one of the two lowest-scoring contests this fall.
South Florida: The Bulls finished one spot ahead of the Irish (22/23) in scoring defense last season, yielding exactly 20 points per game, and boasted the nation's 17th-ranked total defense (which takes into account rushing/passing yardage as well).
More important, its scoring offense finished 85th, and will struggle to consistently move the ball vs. a fired-up, stout Irish front seven and experienced, talented secondary in the season opener.
I'm nearly certain Irish head coach Brian Kelly will rely on his defense and the running game in Game One, partly in an effort to protect a quarterback – whomever it is – with massive pressure on his shoulders, but also because defensive coordinator Bob Diaco's group is the most game-ready unit on the 2011 squad – by a large margin.
Week One offers a Survive-and-Advance situation for an Irish offense still fighting its identity for 2011. Notre Dame fans have devalued the Bulls ability to defend, especially the run, and head coach Skip Holtz will have his team prepared and sky-high vs. his alma mater.
The Bulls/Irish matchup will feature the fewest offensive touchdowns on Notre Dame's 2011 slate, and I'll take my chances the season's lowest winning point total will follow.