Trouble Spot #3: Oklahoma

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

Click the links below for the first three 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

#7 Pittsburgh

#6 Arizona State

#5 Michigan State

#4 USC

Trouble Spot #3 -- Oklahoma

Oklahoma returns 94 percent of its rushing production and 57 percent of its receiving totals from last season, but gone from last year's contest between the Irish and Sooners are notable contributors such as quarterback Landry Jones, wide receivers Justin Brown and Kenny Stills, hard-hitting safety Tony Jefferson, and No. 4 overall NFL draft pick at offensive tackle, Lane Johnson.

The Sooners defensive line and linebackers unit return just one starter apiece; the secondary a pair. Coordinator Mike Stoops unit will be rebuilt after a disappointing 2012 campaign that saw the Sooners yield 30 or more points in five of their last seven games.

Two key figures from last year's 30-13 loss to the Irish return in wide receiver Jaylen Saunders (a whopping 15 receptions for 181 yards) and backup quarterback Blake Bell, aka, the "Bell-Dozer." Bell scored the Sooners' only touchdown in last year's contest and the first on the ground vs. Notre Dame in 2012, tying the score at 13 early in the final period.

Lead tailback Damien Williams (held in check vs. the Irish with 13 carries, 29 yards) heads an experienced offense that boasts 15 former starters/spot starters, to challenge coordinator Bob Diaco's stout Irish front.

Under center, the massive Bell hasn't officially locked up the starting role. He battled sophomore legacy Kendal Thompson for the lead QB role this spring but Thompson was arrested for public intoxication earlier this months, just days prior to his 21st birthday.

Why #3?

Last year's unexpected 30-13 handling of the Sooners by Brian Kelly's Irish in Norman marked the high-point of Notre Dame's run to 12-0. This year's matchup is again the marquee game on the slate (though Stanford could have something to say about that on Thanksgiving Saturday), and Oklahoma's trip to South Bend occurs in the middle of an hellacious starting slate for the Irish.

After a Week Two trip to Ann Arbor (preview forthcoming), Notre Dame travels to West Lafayette for a prime time meeting with Purdue. That matchup boasts the dreaded "sandwich" scheduling phenomenon -- Notre Dame takes on the rival Boilers in between games with Michigan and Michigan State.

And then Oklahoma…followed by Arizona State in Arlington.

The Irish will be more than battle-tested for Stoops' Sooners, they'll be weary.

Still, it will take very little for both sides to be mentally focused for this classic matchup. The Sooners will be out for blood after last year's fourth-quarter beat down at the hands of the Irish; Notre Dame will either be fighting for a Top 5 ranking as an undefeated, or looking to stay afloat and avoid loss No. 2 (it won't be No. 3) entering the contest.

Oklahoma will get an early litmus test at home vs. West Virginia, then after hosting Tulsa, the Sooners have a bye -- two weeks to prepare for Kelly's & Co., Take II.

So wait, why not No. 2? Or No. 1?

Location, location, location.

Notre Dame, Oklahoma, Michigan, Stanford, Michigan State (especially considering their schedule) and USC are arguable peers. The 2013 season won't necessarily play out that way, but reasonable minds can agree that in the pre-season, each has merit as a team that could win 10-11 games -- or lose four.

For the Irish, a Week Two tussle in Ann Arbor (last two wins, 1993, 2005), and a season-ender at Stanford are the only pair in which the Irish might not be favored, however slightly, when pre-season spreads are announced. USC finished at No. 4 in our series because Notre Dame has two weeks to prepare. Regarding the Spartans: I just think Oklahoma is much better.

In fact, the Sooners might be the best team of the bunch, but with questions at quarterback and on defense, there's no reason they need to rank higher than No. 3 in terms of a tough spot on Notre Dame's schedule -- especially vs. an Irish team that will have four games under its belt, including three rivalries in preparation.

Crucial Components

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

Fast Facts: National perception has it that Oklahoma is in a bit of a downswing. They're actually 20-6 over the last two seasons and 32-8 in the last three, or better than any two- and three-year span in South Bend since 1991-93. The Sooners defense though is mired in a three-year stint of finishing in the mid-50s nationally, this after a 2009 season that placed them eighth, albeit in an unexpected 8-5 campaign.

Look-Ahead Factor? Non-existent. Oklahoma at Notre Dame is one of the national marquee games of the year, and perhaps the best game of the season's opening month.

Puncher's Chance? N/A. The teams will be evenly matched barring multiple injuries at quarterback. Even then both could emerge victorious in a one-game scenario.

Likelihood of an Irish defeat: 50/50. While the Irish will be favored by about a touchdown vs. USC (#4 in our Trouble Spots countdown) when the initial point spread appears on June 7, its unlikely that spread will be more than 3.5 or 4 for this home tilt vs. the Sooners.

Breakdown of the annual "Trouble Spots" 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.


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