Its an exercise in futility, but one that feeds football fans over a long, hot summer.
Never will a Notre Dame football season play out as planned. And rarely do the Irish beat all the teams they're supposed to beat and lose to those deemed better in the off-season. (2006 is a recent exception, though even then Notre Dame lost to superior Michigan when deemed a touchdown favorite by Vegas oddsmakers.)
In fact, the Brian Kelly era already includes three major upset losses among10 defeats, though if you read this annual column, you might have seen at least one coming:
Tulsa 2010 -- "The Golden Hurricane is one season removed from an 11-3 record (and 10-4 before that), but the only way this contest isn't considered an afterthought nationally is if Tulsa enters the contest 6-1, or somehow upsets rival Oklahoma State in mid-September. It's a no-win situation for ND from a perception standpoint, and the type of game that should avoided in the future.
Its not that I thought Tulsa was better than Notre Dame, just that I've seen my fair share of face plants from Notre Dame football and every other team I've followed with fervor my entire life.
The Irish aren't alone in this regard, nearly every school annually loses a game its fans never saw coming, and that's why this annual series was created: 12 opponents ranked over 12 days, not by overall strength, but how they'll fare against Notre Dame given crucial elements such as location, schedule slotting, is it a trap game? a sandwich game? etc.
The 12 opponents' overall strength won't always match its slotting in our fourth annual "Trouble Spots" series counts down.
Trouble Spot #12 is the season opener vs. Navy in Dublin, a matchup with its upset potential mitigated by the favored Irish having extensive preparation available to work against the triple-option.
Navy Game Slotting/SituationRarely has an Irish team had a better situation to prepare for Navy's vexing triple-option as it does for the season opener in 2012. Defensive coordinator Bob Diaco has at minimum two weeks of preparation to school his defense on the particulars of Navy's attack and its likely passing game wrinkles.
Notre Dame will leave South Bend after Wednesday's late-afternoon practice, using late-day Thursday to work out the kinks along with Friday's walk-through. Expect all physical preparation for the Middies to be completed when the Irish board their plane stateside.
In short: neither team is catching the other in an adverse situation, a scenario that should heavily favor the Irish exiting August camp. First game follies could be an issue for Kelly's Irish, a group that played its worst in last year's season opening loss to South Florida. The 23-20 defeat was Notre Dame's fourth opening loss over the last 10 seasons (2001, 2004, 2007, 2011) after an impressive 13-2 W-L effort in 15 previous openers. Navy has lost two of its last three openers, winning last year vs. Delaware with close losses vs. a solid Maryland team in 2010, 17-14, and a BCS-bound Ohio State group, 31-27, in 2009.
Though Navy has the following week off, a reality that could allow for more time spent studying the Irish offensively (rather than standard drills, and prep), any on field advantage gained can nonetheless be attributed to three areas: late-August health of the team's respective starters, their ability to handle game pressure, and coaching. Nothing else matters in Week One.
Inside the MidshipmenThe system and thus potential to scare remains, but the names aren't the same. At least not for Irish fans that remember a three for four run by the Midshipmen against a pair of coaching staffs in South Bend. A recent talent drain at the Naval Academy has seen Irish killers such as quarterback Ricky Dobbs, fullback Alexander Teich, defensive end Jabaree Tuani, linebacker/turnover machine Ram Vela, safety Wyatt Middleton and cornerback Kwesi Mitchell move on. In their stead are fine prospects but each of the departed gave Notre Dame fits in Navy wins and close defeats over recent seasons.
The 2012 triple-option triggerman is Trey Miller, who earned his first career start in last year's 56-14 Irish romp in South Bend. Miller adds a passing dimension to the unit, something that could cause pause for Irish fans, but Diaco's defense fared well vs. more experienced dual threat Tim Jefferson of Air Force last fall (a different system to defend but many of the same defensive principles apply). Slotback Gee Gee Greene enters his final season. The shifty South Carolina native has scored touchdowns in consecutive seasons vs. the Irish and added an outside presence to the option as a true freshman in an '09 upset of the Irish in South Bend.
(At least one sentence should be dedicated to the following: fullback Alexander Teich has graduated. All nightmares associated therein can be summarily suppressed.)
Navy brings back the bulk of its back seven, defensively, but wholesale replacements are needed up front with Tuani the crucial loss. It was Navy's ability to compete, or at least discourage, the scattershot Irish running games of the late Charlie Weis era and first season under Kelly that kept each upset win possible. If Notre Dame can run the ball vs. Navy, the Midshipmen have little chance at an Emerald Isle upset.
Outside Looking In: A publicly tough 2011 hit its apex in South Bend and Navy's fall to 5-7 after a string of 8/10 win seasons has dropped Navy's appeal nationally entering 2012. Lindy's Sports has Navy rated 80th, lowest among pre-season annuals, while Athlon Sports has the Midshipmen as its 65th best team. Highly respected prognosticator Phil Steele has the Middies becoming bowl eligible (at least six wins) after a 5-7 2011 campaign.
Final ThoughtsIn addition to being an excellent college football coach, Navy head man Ken Niumatalolo is a competitive sort, one that will have something special planned for the Irish. I never got the feeling Niumatalolo considered the 2009 or 2010 victories over Notre Dame as "upsets" as much as two teams playing and the better squad winning.
While Navy's triple-option offense falls into the category of: "This is what we do, try to stop it," its relevant that the Mid's have extra camp prep time as well. In other words, its not just Notre Dame's defense that can devote another week to the task at hand. I don't expect the battle at Aviva Stadium in Dublin to be a walk in the park similar to last season's mismatch, one in which the Irish played inspired football on both sides of scrimmage just 24 hours after Kelly divided his roster in a post-practice conversation with the media and his players took to Twitter in response.
But predicting the final score isn't the point of our Trouble Spots series. Its an attempt to look at the game's situation relative to the opponent and how much trouble Notre Dame could have, considering.
It's hard to argue the season opener vs. a rebuilding service academy lower than #12 on a daunting slate.
Next in the Series: Trouble Spot #11 will be published Wednesday.