Wake Forest Game Slotting/Situation1990, 1991, 1993, 1999, 2004, 2008, 2009. Notre Dame's talent level varied greatly (or more accurate: wildly) during that string of seasons. But each shared one common trait -- a Senior Day upset loss.
Last season, Brian Kelly's second squad escaped Senior Day with a snore-fest victory over punchless Boston College. Nevertheless, the Irish are 2-0 under Kelly in the team's final home game (ripping #15 Utah 28-3 in 2010). Maybe its time for a new era of dominance in South Bend as the senior class takes its final bow?
The Irish enter this Game 11 contest following a trip to Boston College and preceding the annual Thanksgiving trip west, this time for a showdown with likely Top 5 foe USC. Conversely, Wake will travel to South Bend on the heels of its final conference contest, a road trip to NC State. The Irish and then Vanderbilt conclude Wake's 2012 slate.
Rarely would I list Senior Day vs. a well-coached team as the season's 11th toughest game, but Notre Dame's 2012 schedule offers little evidence to the contrary.
Inside the Demon DeaconsDefensive depth is an issue for 2012 as is a an inexperienced offensive line, but head coach Jim Grobe annually deals with plenty of lemons and regularly churns out lemonade. There are pieces in place including junior lefty quarterback Tanner Price, running back Josh Harris, and returning wide receiver Michael Campanaro who secured 73 catches last season (6 for 74 yards vs. the Irish). Sophomore runner Orville Reynolds provides some lightning to Harris' thunder in the backfield.
The Demon Deacons lost their identity a bit in recent seasons, dropping to 99th nationally in rushing offense last fall. A return to offensive balance is essential even with a promising third-year signal caller.
Defensively, Nikita Whitlock and his 14.5 tackles-for-loss are back on the nose to anchor a veteran front seven, one with six returning starters. Ballhawk Merrill Noel, who broke up an astounding 21 passes last season to tie for first in the nation as a redshirt freshman, returns at cornerback as does regular Kenny Okoro. Irish head coach Brian Kelly spoke in glowing terms last year about the Demon Deacons back seven, noting that Notre Dame's back end depth paled in comparison.
Only five teams finished with fewer sacks than Wake's paltry 11 last fall and just 20 offensive lines yielded more sacks than Wake's 35 takedowns of Price.
Outside Looking In: Wake Forest was rewarded for its 2011 season with the modern football version of "Everybody Gets a Trophy Day": finishing a sub-.500 bowl team, losing to Mississippi State 23-17 in the Independence Bowl. The loss dropped Wake to 6-7 after a promising 5-3 start and at the time, a halftime lead vs. the Irish in Game Nine.
Lindy's Sports has Wake ranked #54 national, highest among pre-season annuals. Athlon Sports has the Demon Deacons 57th and 4th in the ACC Atlantic Division. Peerless pre-season prognosticator Phil Steele has Jim Grobe's squad struggling to become bowl eligible and finishing below .500 in the regular season.
Final ThoughtsNotre Dame's matchup with Wake follows the season's only true road tilt in which the Irish are sure to be favored, a Game 10 trip to Chestnut Hill vs. Boston College. There's a mild look-ahead factor at play with USC looming the following Saturday, but rarely has that affected the Irish who've traditionally been "upset" the week after a big game/rivalry game rather than before.
The Demon Deacons are at best the 8th best team on Notre Dame's schedule and because of the potential of great variance from Navy, Boston College, Pittsburgh and Purdue, conceivably the worst of 12. They're not likely to be awful with Grobe, a veteran QB, a veteran front seven and solid corners, but if Notre Dame can't win this game at home, I shudder to think what might transpire in the weeks preceding the contest.
Aside from the general Senior Day malaise, this has few makings of a true "Trouble Spot."
Next in the Series: Trouble Spot #10 will be published Friday.