Trouble Spot #5: Stanford

Cardinal likely the third or fourth-best foe on Notre Dame's daunting slate, but this Week Seven matchup occurs at an opportune time for the Irish.

As noted previously, "Trouble Spots" doesn't rank only the strength of overall foes, but also takes into account the slotting of each on the Irish schedule.

Click here for the introduction and an explanation of the series, as well as Trouble Spot #12 for 2012, the Naval Academy.

Click here for Trouble Spot #11 (Wake Forest) and here for Notre Dame's 10th toughest game situation, Boston College and for the contest that finished 9th, a neutral site battle vs. Miami in Chicago.

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.

Thursday we looked at the dreaded "Sandwich Game," a home tilt with Brigham Young, one that follows the matchup vs. Stanford detailed below and precedes a trip to Top 5 power Oklahoma.

Stanford Game Slotting/Situation

Part a four-game, five week stretch during which Notre Dame plays either in South Bend or nearby Chicago without encountering a true road tilt. The Cardinal visit the Irish one week after the latter's matchup with Miami at Soldier Field and just prior to Notre Dame home game vs. BYU.

Stanford will likely be at the third Top 20 team the Irish face in 2012 with Michigan State and Michigan also likely among ranked foes in the first half of the schedule.

Stanford hosts Arizona one week prior to their trip east and previously play USC in Palo Alto in Week Three. Following their flight home from South Bend, the Cardinal square off against arch-rival California in "The Big Game," one traditionally played in late November but moved forward on the slate due to Pac-12 expansion.

There's thus a bit of a look-ahead scenario for the Cardinal except the Irish should be more formidable than the Bears.

Inside the Cardinal

The program survived the loss of its architect, Jim Harbaugh. Now it faces a new era under second-year head man David Shaw, who enters 2012 without superstar quarterback Andrew Luck, second round NFL tight end Coby Fleener, and All-America protectors David DeCastro (first round) and Jonathan Martin (second round).

With the exception of Luck, both units, tight end and the offensive line, are expected to be nearly as strong despite graduation of its stars. The running game, which despite the presence of the fantastic Luck, was the core of a program that finished 12-1 and 11-2 over the last two seasons, losing only to BCS Bowl qualifiers Oregon and Oklahoma State during that span while defeating USC twice. Senior Stepfan Taylor and Anthony Wilkerson return with H-Back/FB Ryan Hewitt leading the way through the hole.

The offense's biggest question is quarterback where redshirt-sophomore Brett Nottingham existed the spring in a battle with redshirt-junior Josh Nunes. Neither will match Luck's value, unique skill set, or leadership in his first season at the helm.

The Cardinal's strength in 2011 was its run defense (#3 nationally) and the 2012 front seven will again be tough to block, buoyed by the return of potential All-America linebacker Shayne Skov, who missed most of last season with a knee injury. Outside linebacker and Irish killer Chase Thomas returns as does the defensive line tandem of end Ben Gardner and nose guard Terrence Stephens. Gardner harassed both Tommy Rees and Andrew Hendrix throughout last November's handling of the Irish in Palo Alto.

Two-year standouts Michael Thomas and Delano Howell are gone from the secondary, a penetrable group at least when facing quality passing attacks.

Outside Looking In: Both Lindy's Sports and Athlon Sports have Stanford ranked 21st nationally and second behind Oregon among Pac-12 North teams. Phil Steele has the Cardinal ranked 18th overall, also behind USC and Oregon in terms of the Pac-12's pecking order.

Final Thoughts

Luck (Andrew, not the presence of it) ensured any drop-off from Stanford's remarkable 2011 season under fourth-year head coach Jim Harbaugh would be minimal. And Shaw's first season at the helm was nearly as impressive: an 11-2 finish with a narrow defeat in a Fiesta Bowl thriller vs. peer squad Oklahoma State.

But Stanford's underrated, highly undervalued, and incredibly balanced, potent offense will inevitably take a hit without Luck and veteran, now professional talent. Stanford's lowest point total last season was 28 (vs. Notre Dame). The number matched its lowest over its last 33 games a remarkable span during which Stanford's defense likewise ranked among the nation's Top 10 for two full seasons, only succumbing to Oregon (the Ducks' spread attack put 50-plus on the Cardinal in back-to-back victories) and the aforementioned bowl loss, 41-38 in overtime vs. the Cowboys.

Both teams should enter this season's contest with one loss: the Irish challenged by the annual Michigan State/Michigan matchups while Stanford hosts powerful USC. Notre Dame will be rejuvenated by a recent bye two weeks prior and a prime time battle vs. Miami previously. Losers of three straight in the series, all vs. the Luck-led Cardinal, no current Irish player has played in a victory over Stanford, a first in program history.

The Irish have been installed as a 5.5-point favorite in the pre-season (subject to change upon game-week release, but a viable wager nonetheless). The slotting of the contest is far more appealing than any of Notre Dame's other six games vs. opponents that won 10 or more games last season. It's not a trap, the Cardinal will be nationally ranked, there shouldn't be a letdown or look-ahead scenario (post-Miami/pre-BYU), and there's plenty to play for considering the foe's recent dominance.

In terms of a true "Trouble Spot," the outside factors involved for the Irish are minimal. The challenge for Notre Dame and the reason the Cardinal come in fifth on our list is between the lines, where Notre Dame hasn't matched the Cardinal and their physical approach for a full contest over the last three seasons, or the entire tenure of the Manti Te'o-led senior class.

Next in the Series: Trouble Spot #4 will be published Saturday. Top Stories