The most recent rankings examine Purdue, and the matchup vs. the Boilers following a potentially taxing schedule that includes two cross-Atlantic flight in five days, plus the season's ultimate "trap," a home date vs. Pittsburgh to open November.
BYU Game Slotting/SituationThe Cougars travel to South Bend following a home matchup vs. Pac-10 foe Oregon State (3-9 last fall). Road tests at Utah in Week Two and Boise State in Week Three will have provided enough of a test and a similar level of competition that awaits in the Irish.
For the Irish, consecutive contests vs. Miami (Solider Field) and Stanford in South Bend pre-date the Cougars' visit. A flight to Norman vs. Oklahoma in the season's marquee game follows. BYU betwixt Stanford and Oklahoma represents the oft-referenced "sandwich game"…one with less hype than the matchups both before and after.
Inside the CougarsBYU won eight of its final nine last fall and dual-threat quarterback Riley Nelson was the impetus for the finishing flourish. Nelson, who beat out since-transferred Jake Heaps in 2010 before missing most of the season with a shoulder injury, began last season behind Heaps. But a 2-2 start with Heaps at the helm gave Nelson a second chance and the Cougars rolled thereafter, the triggerman's 19 TD passes vs. just 7 picks, and nearly 400 rushing yards keeping defenses honest over a nine-game stretch.
Nelson does best what Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly covets most: he extends plays.
Nelson's mobility is necessary with an offense that features a middling rushing attack, though the same cannot be said of his perimeter targets, with walking mismatch Cody Hoffman and similarly sized Ross Apo tearing up opposing secondaries.
At 6'4" 208 pounds, Hoffman is a precise route runner who caught 61 balls for 943 yards and 10 scores last season while doubling as a dangerous kick returner. Apo, who dislocated his shoulder early in spring practice, secured nine touchdown receptions, a BYU freshman record; no small feat considering the Cougars ballyhooed history with the forward past.
Defensively, BYU shows a base 3-4 front with a trio of returning starters at linebacker and just one lost along the three-man front. Two former starters also return from religious missions to bolster a stout rush defense that ranked 19th in the nation last year, nearly 30 spots higher than did the Irish.
The Cougars boasted the nation's 13th best overall defense last fall, allowed fewer points than Notre Dame, and finished nearly 45 spots higher in pass efficiency defense.
They're among the most underrated Irish foes of the three-year Kelly era.
Outside Looking In: Both Lindy's Sports and Athlon Sports have BYU ranked 39th nationally while Phil Steele has the Cougars 35th, noting three tough road games (Utah, Boise State, ND) could put another 10-win season in jeopardy.
Final ThoughtsDo the Irish face a look-ahead scenario with Oklahoma on the horizon? Or if Notre Dame defeats what should be a 4-1 or 5-0 *Stanford team the week prior to BYU's visit, thus snapping the Cardinals 3-game hex over the Irish, could Brian Kelly's crew re-focus in time for the Cougars, a program that consistently wins 10 games per season?
(*Stanford hosts USC in Week Three.)
Can Notre Dame focus on BYU on the heels of four marquee games and with the trip of the year forthcoming?
Mental focus is huge for the Irish who'll entertain a dozen viable football teams in 12 games. But to the point, BYU is a football team capable of beating Notre Dame: in South Bend, Provo, or otherwise.
If Notre Dame improves significantly from last fall and plays its best football of the Kelly era, the Irish will handle BYU despite the Cougars bite. But at present, this is much more of a peer matchup than Irish fans care to admit, especially if Notre Dame resembles the scattershot offensive unit that took the field over the final games of 2012.
Next in the Series: Trouble Spot #5 will be published Friday.