Trouble Spot #10: Air Force

O'Malley's annual "Trouble Spots" countdown continues its look at Notre Dame's toughest game situations for 2013...

As explained in the bottom section, this is not a ranking of Notre Dame's opponents. In other words, its irrelevant if Purdue would beat Air Force, or if Air Force would beat Brigham Young. It's instead a ranking of the toughest "spots" or game situations, facing the Irish in 2013.

Click the links below for our previous Trouble Spots:

#12 Temple Owls

#11 Navy Midshipmen

Trouble Spot #10 -- Air Force

The consistent offensive machine from 2010-11 gave way to a 2012 Falcons offense that sputtered to 21 or fewer points in six outings last season, five of them ending in defeat. After finishing 9-4in 2010 and 7-6 in 2011, Air Force again finished 6-6 last fall, then dropped its Armed Forces Bowl battle to Rice, 33-14 for a sub-.500 final mark.

Just eight starters return from an Academy team coming off its worst season since 2006.

Entering his sixth season as the Falcons head coach, Troy Calhoun (41-24) has very few starting position's set with the likely exception of his defensive backfield where three of the team's five returning defensive starters are employed. (Though its notable that Air Force's pass defense struggled throughout 2012.)

For the second straight season, Calhoun will break in a new quarterback to run his (multiple) zone read attack. Tim Jefferson is not walking through that door…

Why #10?

One returning starter on the defensive line; two on the offensive side of scrimmage and on the opposite sidelines sits Notre Dame, with Louis Nix, Stephon Tuitt, and a defensive front seven as the unquestioned strength of the program entering the fourth season of the Brian Kelly era.

That's not a recipe for success if your a fan of Falcons football.

The Irish should manhandle the Falcons up front, especially when Bob Diaco's veteran defensive unit takes the field.

The game's slotting -- one week post-USC -- has trap potential. An evening kickoff and ESPN audience likely helps (5:00 MT) the Irish for the Colorado Springs tussle, though its the week of practice that matters most in trap scenarios, and Notre Dame will either be flying high after a nationally televised prime time win over the Trojans or deflated from a season-defining defeat (one that would be the program's sixth straight in South Bend to its chief rival).

Crucial Components

A look at the ancillary factors surrounding Notre Dame's matchup with the Falcons:

Fast Fact: Notre Dame has scored 59, 56, and 50 points, respectively, in its last three meetings vs. Academy defenses: Air Force and Navy in 2011; Navy in 2012.

Look-Ahead Factor? Non-existent, as Notre Dame faces Navy at home following its trip to Colorado Springs.

Puncher's Chance? Not on paper, but a road night game that immediately follows USC, and one against an opponent sure to be more engaged than the Irish lends a possible cause for pause. Still, its unlikely a Brian Kelly-coached Notre Dame team will again drop a decision to any of the three Service Academies.

Likelihood of an Irish defeat: Its No. 10 and therefore considered a "tougher spot" than either the season opener vs. Temple or the Air Force game's ensuing contest against Navy due largely to location. Of course, Notre Dame looked far more crisp in games outside of South Bend last season than it did inside the friendly confines of the House that Rockne Built. For the third straight installment in our Trouble Spots series, its safe to say a loss here by the Irish would be a seismic hit to the college football landscape.

Introduction to the Series

For 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.


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