(Click here for Trouble Spot #12, the season-opener with the Temple Owls.)
Trouble Spot #11 -- NavyThe Midshipmen bounced back from the first losing season of head coach Ken Niumatalolo's five-season tenure with an 8-5 mark in 2012, winning eight of 11 in the regular season following their 50-10 loss to Notre Dame on the Emerald Isle. Navy then finished its season with a 62-28 blowout loss at the hands of Arizona State in the Fight Hunger Bowl.
Only two projected Navy regulars -- wide receiver Matt Aiken and slot-back Marcus Thomas -- have participated in a win over Notre Dame, a far cry from the Midshipmen rosters of the previous five seasons.
Why #11?The ranking isn't a reflection of Navy as a football team. Nine wins? 10 wins? Neither would surprise me as an end-season effort by Niumatalolo's 2013 Midshipmen.
But there's a tell-tale statistic that places the always confident and game Mid's at the back of the pack of Notre Dame's 2013 "Trouble Spots" if not the rear in terms of expected overall season performance:
106 to 24.
That's the combined score of the last two meetings between the Irish and Midshipmen, including a 76-10 advantage in the first halves. Irish fans are happy to point out those two contests occurred after defensive coordinator Bob Diaco "figured out" how to defend the option. But while Diaco's defense is no doubt well-prepared for the attack, the truth is those two blowout Notre Dame victories -- 56-14 in 2011 and 50-10 in 2012 -- came ARD…After Ricky Dobbs.
The since-graduated Navy triggerman and his graduating class owned Notre Dame, nearly winning in 2008 then prevailing in both 2009 and 2010 -- that on the heels of a 2007 season as plebes watching their varsity break Notre Dame's 44-season stranglehold on the series.
Yes, Navy won three of four and two straight in South Bend. And no, Notre Dame is unlikely to win for four more decades as retribution. But they're also unlikely to lose again in the Brian Kelly/Diaco era.
The two-deep regulars on Notre Dame's defensive front has a combined 22 games of experience vs. Navy's triple option attack. The lone newcomer among the starters, Mike linebacker Jarrett Grace, was brought up to the Irish varsity as a true freshman because of his high school experience vs. the option offense.
The Irish defense is a well-prepared, better developed group of college football players in comparison to Navy's 2013 offense -- neither claim would have been accurate in relation to the 2009 or 2010 matchups.
Final ThoughtsPotential pitfalls to the Mid's #11 slotting: Aside from the fact that Navy is likely a solid football team, of course -- how about attrition?
The matchup with the Mid's follows an Irish trip to the Rockies to take on Air Force and a Falcons offense with option principles. (Though myriad differences exist between the team's attacks, its nonetheless fortuitous scheduling for the Irish, who can focus on defeating cut blocks for consecutive practice weeks.)
Facing Navy 10 weeks and nine games into the season is a far cry from opening with the Midshipmen. There was no chance Notre Dame would be caught sleeping last September in the hyped Dublin season-opener -- by contrast, this sleepy early November tilt promises the most tame Stadium atmosphere of the 2013 season.
It shouldn't be labeled a "trap game" as several Irish starters remember the past sting of a 2010 blowout defeat at the hands of the Midshipmen (Zack Martin, T.J. Jones, and Carlo Calabrese the most notable participants in that contest), but it isn't one the Notre Dame crowd will likely embrace from the outset.
The majority of high-profile matchups next season occur in Notre Dame's first seven games, with Michigan, Michigan State, Oklahoma, Arizona State, and USC all occurring by mid-October. Navy is second in a series of sleepers that will test Notre Dame's focus as it emerges from that early gauntlet either a major BCS contender or disappointment.
But Game Nine will inevitably test Notre Dame's depth at key positions -- its better for Navy's machine-like triple-option/spread attack to draw the Irish late than early as they did last fall.
Introduction to the SeriesFor the last, oh, 32 seasons, I've been off. Off by at least one, usually two and often three games in a comparison of my pre-season prediction for Notre Dame's end-season record and the actual mark. And then there was 2007 when I missed by five, but hey, who's counting?
But if you need someone to identify a trap game on the Irish schedule, one in which the South Benders will inexplicably struggle, then this is the column for you.
In 2009 this annual summer series pegged Purdue (a last-second Irish win). 2010 identified Tulsa (straining to pat myself on the back). 2011 it was Air Force (way off, 59-33 ND) and Wake Forest (a fourth-quarter Irish win, 24-17). 2012? Both Brigham Young and Pittsburgh, two games in which the Irish prevailed by a total of six points with three overtimes included.
Why does Notre Dame -- and for that matter, nearly every other college and pro football program -- struggle vs. lesser teams? Its a game played by humans. The ebb and flow of a season is often overlooked as fans and media attempt to predict outcomes.
But not here -- we have you covered.
I can't tell you if Notre Dame will win 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, or 8 games next season, but I can rank, from #12 through #1, the biggest Trouble Spots on the Irish schedule.
Taking into account the game's timing on the schedule (Is it a trap? The dreaded "sandwich" game apply?). Projecting the home crowd for Notre Dame (predictably dead vs. both BYU and Pitt last year), and of course considering the location of the contest and ability of each opponent, we present the fifth annual Trouble Spots for 2013.
Consider yourself warned.