Fool's Gold?

Irish have the look of BCS contenders but will have to overcome a September stumble and the requisite head-shaker to achieve post-season glory.

I've had the pair of numbers set-in-stone for the better part of six months. 10 and 2.

10-2 would feel fulfilling. 10-2 is far better than the popular, modern-era prediction of relative glory such as, "9-3 with no blowout losses." And 10-2 is a far cry from both 8-4 or 12-0.

Brian Kelly's 2011 Irish have the look and feel of a 10-2 football team.

Actually, scratch that, I should re-phrase:

Because of the last 17 seasons of inconsistent and ultimately dissatisfying football in South Bend, I can't help but shake the fact that the 2011 Irish are closer to an 11-1 unit than simply 9-3; that I think Brian Kelly's second squad is the best Irish team since 1993; or that developed talent, influx of new talent, and the apparent top tier coaching staff is all finally in place and capable of a Top 5 national finish this fall.

But I've fallen for fool's gold under the dome on multiple occasions over the last decade-plus. To be blunt, and for lack of a softer descriptive word: I think Notre Dame will blow a winnable game early this season, just as it has for each of the last 21 football seasons since winning 23 straight in the late 80s.

Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me 21 times…

If my 10-2 mark comes to fruition, the Irish will be a borderline BCS unit, one with a contest in Palo Alto vs. Stanford serving as a play-in game for both teams on November 26, Thanksgiving Saturday.

But since the journey is the thing, let's preview the season in two crucial parts:

Six before the Bye

September will tell the tale. A month during which most college football teams finds respite with and FCS foe or lower tier FBS school on its slate again brings the Irish their usual dose of solid, bowl-quality foes.

Though Michigan State (Week Three) is the lone program among Notre Dame's opening six contests that should challenge for a Top 15 finish this season, the opening sextet of contests is nonetheless filled with pitfalls.

  • South Florida (September 3): Rock-solid defensively, unspectacular on offense. The opener is a must-win game vs. a peer team that also prevailed in eight games last season.
  • at Michigan (September 10): An all-time rival and winners of consecutive heart-stoppers vs. the Irish. But Babe Ruth was in diapers the last time Notre Dame lost three straight to the Wolverines. The 2011 contest marks the first under the lights in the history of the Big House.
  • Michigan State (September 17): Winners of 10 of the last 14 vs. Notre Dame and easily the best offense the Irish will face over the first six contests.
  • at Pittsburgh (September 24): New head coach Todd Graham handed Notre Dame its last loss of 2010, guiding Tulsa to a 28-27 South Bend upset.

    Fast fact: Notre Dame has suffered at least one loss over its first four contests in 19 of its last 21 seasons.

    • at Purdue (October 1): And under-the-lights kick-off adds intrigue, but the Boilers are the least talented and least dangerous opponent among the first six foes. The mid-August loss of QB Rob Henry for the season exacerbates Purdue's existing offensive issues.
    • Air Force (October 8): More on this later. Air Force won nine games last season and lost at 12-2 BCS qualifier Oklahoma 27-24 in mid-September. The October 8 game vs. the Falcons is the season's biggest trap.

    According to Las Vegas betting lines, the Irish are pre-season favorites in 11 of 12 regular season contests (at Stanford the lone exception). Yet entering as the game's favorite has provided the Irish little favor over the last two decades.

    Fast Fact: Notre Dame has suffered a Vegas upset in 20 of the last 21 football seasons (2000 the lone exception).

    Which brings us to Prediction #19 in our pre-season series:

    Notre Dame will begin the season 4-2

    My summer prediction series offered the Notre Dame would lose at home; that they'd lose in September; and that they'd suffer an upset loss for the 20th time in the last 21 football seasons. If each comes to fruition, look for the whole gamut to be realized prior to the team's Week Seven Bye en route to a 4-2 start.

    I originally pegged the trip to Ann Arbor in Week Two and a classic trap game in Week Six vs. Air Force as two tough losses awaiting the Irish. I've since wavered on both, especially the Week Two game in the Big House where I believe the Irish could win by two touchdowns or lose yet another heart-breaker.

    And am I crazy to think Air Force will give the Irish all they can handle at home in Week Six? Does anyone else realize Notre Dame has won just 43 of its last 70 in the House that Rockne Built since the turn of the century? I'd be more confident if the game were in Colorado Springs…

    Also recently entering my equation as a possible first-loss for the Irish is a Week Four trip to Heinz Field and an always challenging noon kickoff vs. the Panthers. At 3-0, Notre Dame would be ripe for the picking for a Pittsburgh team that will have just returned from a trying road test at Iowa.

    As for Week Five vs. Purdue? Please.

    Oh yeah, I forgot to mention: ND is going to put five or more touchdowns on Michigan State in Week Three – the first of four Spartans losses over their 12-game regular season.

    And the opener this week? I'd be much more concerned if the Bulls came to town in Week Three rather than this Saturday afternoon.

    A 4-2 start admittedly puts a damper on the opening half of the season, but that disjointed beginning brings us to our 20th and final prediction of the pre-season…

    Notre Dame will finish 7-0 and win a BCS bowl game

    Similar to the 1992 Notre Dame squad that finished 10-1-1 with a Cotton Bowl victory (BCS-equivalent) after a 3-1-1 start, look for the 2011 Irish to play their best football over the season's final two months, winning their final seven contests.

    Will it be enough to earn an at-large berth in a BCS bowl? A season-ending win at powerful Stanford should do the trick. Below is a look at Notre Dame's second half slate:

    1. USC: The Week Six bye provides an ideal set-up in a college football's greatest setting as the 4-2 Irish hang on vs. the 5-1 Trojans in prime time, 30-23 (5-2)

    2. Navy: Two years of offensive frustration and defensive embarrassment help the Irish focus after a huge win over SC. The ship is finally righted vs. the coolly-efficient Naval Academy: ND 38 Navy 17 (6-2)

    3. at Wake Forest: I'm looking forward to my first trip to Winston-Salem, but unless we time warp back to 2008, this is no contest: Irish 38 Demon Deacons 10 (7-2)

    4. Maryland: Another prime-time, nationally televised contest and another Irish explosion: ND 40 Maryland 16 (8-2)

    5. Boston College: It won't be easy on Senior Day, but the Eagles can't score on these Irish: ND 20 BC 3 (9-2)

    6. at Stanford: The Irish win a classic over the 10-1 Cardinal, 27-24 to earn the BCS's final spot – an Orange Bowl matchup vs. ACC champion, Virginia Tech. Cardinal quarterback Andrew Luck plays well enough to maintain his lead in the Heisman Trophy race. (10-2)

    7. Virginia Tech: A rematch of the Kelly/Frank Beamer matchup following the 2008 season, this time Kelly prevails: Notre Dame 28 Virginia Tech 23 (11-2; the program takes home its first BCS bowl victory in the system's 14-year history.

    And as always, I reserve the right to change my mind each Friday morning...and definitely will.

    Season-end Awards

    Why stop after projecting the final record? A look at January's Irish awards winners:

    Guardian of the Year: Braxston Cave
    Defensive Newcomer of the Year: Louis Nix
    Offensive Newcomer of the Year: Ben Koyack
    Defensive Scout Team Player of they Year: Jarrett Grace
    Offensive Scout Team Player of the Year: Everett Golson
    Special Teams Player of the Year: Theo Riddick
    Rockne Student-Athlete Award: Sean Cwynar
    Nick Pietrosante Award (Inspirational Player): Dayne Crist
    Lineman of the Year: Ethan Johnson
    Next Man In: Andrew Nuss
    MVPs: Michael Floyd and Manti Te'o Top Stories