Trouble Spot #1: Stanford

O'Malley's annual "Trouble Spots" countdown concludes with a look at Notre Dame's toughest game situation for 2013.

Click the links below for the rest of 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

#3 Oklahoma

#2 Michigan

Trouble Spot #1 -- Stanford

They'll be able to run the ball. They'll be able to (completely) stop the run. They'll be able to get to the passer. They have a young quarterback capable of making plays with his feet and arm. They have a cohesive staff that believes in their program's unique mission.

Sound familiar? It was Notre Dame's recipe for success en route to 12-0 last fall -- and once QB Kevin Hogan emerged for Stanford last season, those age-old college football attributes produced an 8-0 finish with wins over Oregon, UCLA (twice) and Wisconsin. Stanford hasn't lost since it dropped an overtime head-knocker in South Bend. It won't likely lose again until either UCLA or Oregon come to town for games #7 and #9 this fall.

The Cardinal are a true national title contender -- a team that will be favored or within a field goal of the favorite in all 12 games in 2013. On their schedule, only Oregon and Notre Dame can match them between the lines. (Arizona State, UCLA and USC pending…)

Back for more blood up front is the defensive line tandem of Henry Anderson and Ben Gardner (Irish Scrimmage-Wrecker 2.0), and the linebacking pair of Shayne Skov and Trent Murphy, the latter starred vs. Notre Dame last season (stats included in caption above), the former in 2010.

(Graduated from the equation is the original Irish scrimmage-wrecker, Chase Thomas.)

The defense will be among the nation's best, with only Notre Dame, Alabama, and Ohio State obvious pre-season peers.

And now they have a quarterback that can make plays behind another stout offensive front with a bevy of 'backs from which to choose to replace long-time star Stepfan Tayler. Enjoy!

Why #1?

The Cardinal are the no-doubt choice, but I must admit the timing of Notre Dame's game with Trouble Spot #2 (Michigan in Week Two), coupled with the loss of starting quarterback Everett Golson, now gives me cause for pause.

But Stanford is the best team on the Irish schedule with the best overall line play and easily the best defense -- one fully equipped to give Notre Dame fits for the fourth straight season.

Stanford knocked Tommy Rees from the proceedings in November 2011. It knocked Golson out of the game last fall. It mentally broke Dayne Crist and the entire offensive front in 2010 (though Notre Dame no longer faintly resembles that first edition of Kelly's crew that took it on the chin for 60 minutes).

In short, Stanford plays defensive football the right way: through the echo of the whistle, and there's not an offense it can't contain, as proven by its 16-15 conquest of previously (and since) unstoppable Oregon last November in Eugene.

For Notre Dame to beat the Cardinal in Palo Alto, at least two touchdowns are likely necessary. As noted below (Fast Fact), that hasn't happened during regulation, at least with the game in doubt, during the Kelly era.

Fortunate for Irish fans, its also true that Stanford's offense has hit pay dirt just once vs. Notre Dame over the last five quarters (a fourth quarter strike from first overall pick Andrew Luck to first round pick Coby Fleener in 2011). Notre Dame is built to stop what Stanford does best, and though Hogan is a playmaker, he's no Luck, the clear difference-maker in a 28-14 Cardinal win the last time the teams met on The Farm.

Crucial Components

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

Fast Fact: Notre Dame has scored two regulation touchdowns of consequence vs. Stanford over the pair's last three football games: one in 2011 to cut the Cardinal lead to 21-7 in the third quarter of a 28-14 loss in Palo Alto, and one last year to tie the score at 13 in the final period, eventually forcing overtime. The Irish added the game-winning score in overtime last fall, a sliding touchdown catch by T.J. Jones for a 20-13 finish.

The only other touchdown scored by Kelly's Irish vs. the Cardinal occurred late in a 2010 blowout loss with Stanford leading 34-6. That's five touchdowns in three games plus overtime; three that mattered.

Look-Ahead Factor/Schedule Challenges The season-finale should have BCS riches at stake for one, if not both squads. There'd be no look-ahead factor regardless of the timing of this one, but the Cardinal could be a bit weary considering their mid-October through Thanksgiving gauntlet: UCLA, at Oregon State, home against Oregon, at USC, against arch-rival California, and then Notre Dame.

The Irish have a brutal opening six games before the schedule tapers off. Following a prime time game vs. USC in mid-October, Notre Dame faces Air Force, Navy, Pittsburgh, has a bye week, and hosts Brigham Young. Only Air Force and Navy are road games, and November includes a timely week's rest before closing with BYU and Stanford.

Puncher's Chance of an Upset? N/A. Last year's classic was a purist's college football game of the year. This season's promises to be similar assuming both teams enter in relative good health.

Likelihood of an Irish defeat: Its one of two matchups in which the Irish opponent will likely be favored this fall (Michigan could be as well). Without Everett Golson in the mix, Stanford's defense has an overwhelming advantage against the Irish offense as currently constructed -- that could change by season's end.

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.


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