Trouble Spot #7: at Pittsburgh

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

Click the links below for previous installments in our Trouble Spots series:

#12 Temple and for a full explanation of the rankings.

#11 Navy

#10 Air Force

#9 Brigham Young

#8 Purdue

Trouble Spot #7 -- Pittsburgh

The Steel City purge continues, and in this case, it has nothing to do with the Panthers head coach or staff.

Second-year leader Paul Chryst has had it rough of late, kicking two players off his squad for their involvement in heroin arrests (heroin?!) and the indefinite suspension of another player for (an unrelated) assault.

After two head coach firings (Dave Wannstedt and Mike Haywood), three hirings (Haywood, Todd Graham, and Chryst), and one defection via text message to his team (Graham) in a stunning 12-month span, Chryst is doing his best to restore order to the once (and recently) proud program. That mission continues.

On the field, the 2012 Panthers were technically a bowl team last fall, finishing 6-6 in the regular season with the highlight a nationally relevant three-overtime loss at Notre Dame. Pittsburgh was later laid to waste in its BBVA Compass Bowl matchup with Mississippi, 38-17.

Gone from the group is four-year starting quarterback Tino Sunseri, four-year star runner (and three-season Irish killer) Ray Graham as well as his promising replacement Rushel Shell. Veteran reliable receiver Mike Shanahan exhausted his eligibility though 2012 breakout target Devin Street returns.

Defensive tackle and team rock Aaron Donald returns. Donald wreaked havoc on the Irish interior line in last year's Stadium classic. Over the course of the season, Donald was responsible for nearly 25 percent of the team's sacks, hurries, and tackles for loss.

Why #7?

In 2008, Pittsburgh won at Notre Dame with Pat Bostick at quarterback. (Pat Bostick!) In 2009, a nationally-ranked Panthers squad put away the Irish in the Steel City and in 2010, Pitt pulled within six points late and possessed the football for a final drive opportunity in a game that should have been long-decided.

In 2011, Notre Dame needed late-game heroics from Tommy Rees and Tyler Eifert to beat a Panthers squad that nearly lost to Maine the previous week. And in 2012 -- well let's just say kicker Kevin Harper picked the right time to miss his only kick of the day, a 33-yard game winner that never hooked. (Harper was 4 of 5 on the day.)

Pittsburgh comes to play vs. Notre Dame. They will again in this November home tilt, one likely to be moved to prime time if the Irish are a national player. Until proven otherwise, consider the Panthers hard to kill, Notre Dame's nemesis, an annual trap for the Irish and a squad that somehow struggles to subdue.

Save your analysis of the Panthers' new offensive backfield, its four-deep/two freshmen safety crew, and its talent drain over the last four seasons (no players drafted into the NFL in either 2012 or 2013). They'll be there in the end vs. the Irish, and Notre Dame will be pressed to leave the Steel City with consecutive win No. 4 over Chryst's crew.

Crucial Components

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

Fast Fact: Notre Dame's last five games vs. Pittsburgh have resulted in an aggregate score total of 122 (ND) to 118, with seven overtimes included therein. The Irish are 3-2 vs. the Panthers in those five contests, winning three straight, or the duration of the Brian Kelly era.

Look-Ahead Factor? Not a major component. The Irish will certainly be focused on this traditional and renewed rivalry with the Panthers after last year's three-OT thriller. Notre Dame returns home to face BYU on Senior Day following its trip to Heinz Field.

In a coincidental twist, the Panthers must travel to Georgia Tech and take on Paul Johnson's triple-option offense before hosting the Irish. Notre Dame entertains Navy's option attack prior to its matchup with the Panthers.

Puncher's Chance? Considering Pittsburgh should have won last season, and could have won in 2011, you bet.

Likelihood of an Irish defeat: Unless the Panthers bottom out, the Irish are unlikely to be favored by more than seven points in this road tilt. A loss would surprise no one, especially as annual November dominoes begin to fall in the BCS Championship hunt.

Consider Pittsburgh at the top of the 2013 college football list -- lengthy as it may be -- for the "We Owe You One," category.

Notre Dame will be better than Pittsburgh in 2013, just as it was in 2010, 2011, and 2012. But can it be better on November 9 in the Steel City, and with a BCS berth potentially hanging in the balance?

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? Does 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. Top Stories