A challenging college football schedule can't be projected week-by-week, as names, dates, and locations rarely illustrate the inevitable ebb and flow of a team's season.
It's especially futile when examine a national schedule such as Notre Dame's, as home games often prove more challenging than road affairs, and prime time, nationally televised battles litter the three-month gauntlet.
It's likewise pertinent to note such elements as which team follows Navy on the Irish slate (explained below), or which otherwise innocuous matchup might precede a game with national implications, and -- at least prior to the Brian Kelly era -- which program visits South Bend on Senior Day, a week in which Notre Dame often struggled prior to the current head coach's arrival.
But before our 2014 Trouble Spots countdown begins Tuesday with Purdue (and let's face it, ends thereafter with Florida State), I have a few thoughts on the 2014 Irish season.
September: no stumblesAs noted in a previously published prediction, I have the Irish slated for a 4-0 start, winning at home against Rice and Michigan, in the Shamrock Series against Purdue in Indianapolis, and after an ill-placed bye week, "at Syracuse" in East Rutherford, New Jersey.
-- The opener against Rice admittedly represents the great unknown, not only as a program never considered by most Notre Dame fans, but on the other sideline as well. That is, how will the Irish defense and their new scheme fair against a program that managed 10 wins last season, albeit vs. a lower level of competition?
Before examining the Owls' chance for an upset in South Bend (I'll do that Wednesday), instead consider this: If Notre Dame loses to Rice, 10 of the next 11 contests are going to be brutal. Look for the Irish to open as favorites of 10.5 to 12.5 points on August 30 (see official point spreads below) and to win, if not impress.
-- Michigan: Mea culpa: entering my sixth season with the site, I've only predicted Notre Dame's final W-L record accurately one time: 9-4 in 2013. (And honestly, once quarterback Everett Golson was lost for the season, there were only three choices last fall -- 8, 9 or 10 wins. So don't be impressed.)
However, among those annual missteps is a perfect record forecasting one annual matchup: The Irish and the Wolverines.
I'm 5-0 forecasting September's greatest rivalry, picking Michigan in 2009, 2010, 2011, and 2013; taking the Irish in 2012.
Make that 6-0. Notre Dame wins in prime time this fall.
-- Purdue stinks. That aside, the best thing that happened to this matchup for Notre Dame -- especially considering it follows a prime time battle vs Michigan -- is the move from South Bend and what would be its annual barely interested crowd, to Indianapolis and the NFL gem Lucas Oil. The Irish roster, to a man, will be fired up for another prime time battle in an NFL setting. As it did in Soldier Field (2012) and Cowboys Stadium (2013), the Irish faithful will follow suit.
-- An ill-placed bye week precedes Notre Dame's matchup against Syracuse, the second contest of September played in an NFL Stadium, this time MetLife in East Rutherford, New Jersey.
While I admittedly find it a bit troubling Notre Dame is staked as favorites of only 5.5 points per Goldennugget.com, the timing of the matchup itself favors the Irish: three games precede and Kelly's crew will have a week of rest prior. Advantage, Irish.
-- In summation, no true road games, two neutral site games that will draw more (Indianapolis) or as many (New Jersey) Irish fans as foes.
September -- and a 4-0 start -- sets up nicely for Notre Dame.
8 Games, 9 Weeks, Nothing Easy-- A 3-2 finish vs. Stanford (home), North Carolina (home), Florida State (road), Navy (neutral), and Arizona State (road) is a fair projection, but I'll add two quick thoughts: there's a better chance Notre Dame falls to 2-3 over that span than it finishes 4-1. However, if the Irish do manage to navigate this gauntlet at 4-1, they'll be in championship contention boarding a plane to Los Angeles on Thanksgiving Weekend.
-- Why 3-2? Florida State and Stanford are the two best teams on the Irish schedule and my chosen trap games for 2014 are contained within: North Carolina and Navy.
Trouble against the Tar Heels on October 11:
1. The contest follows what promises to be the most physical game of the season, Stanford.
2. It likewise precedes the slate's most difficult matchup, Florida State.
3. A win over Stanford and Irish fans (and players) are flying high, well-placed among the nation's top 10 at 5-0, and with a colossal matchup against undefeated Florida State on the horizon. The Seminoles would then represent college football's classic "lookahead" scenario, with only the perceived nuisance of the Tar Heels standing in the way.
4. Conversely, a loss to Stanford and the team is licking its wounds (literally and figuratively) -- the Irish would be deflated, and without the added incentive of a high-profile national game on tap.
5. Finally, North Carolina is projected by most as a peer team to Notre Dame for 2014.
In short, North Carolina falls under the dreaded "Sandwich Game" scenario, and the fact that it will be played in South Bend doesn't help that reality. (Notre Dame staggers through sleepy home matchups far more often than it does road tilts in wild, hostile settings.)
Navy, ASU, and a Sobering Stat: A bye week follows the October 18 matchup in Tallahassee, a contest that will rank as either the season's biggest win, or a painful, opportunity lost.
Navy won't care either way.
The Midshipmen have proven in recent years that when equipped with a top-notch triggerman to head their option offense, trouble for opposing defenses -- Notre Dame's included. Navy quarterback Keenan Reynolds, producer of four touchdowns vs. the Irish last fall in a 38-34 defeat, returns for his junior season.
More important than examining a singular matchup with the Mid's is this little-known fact regarding Notre Dame, Navy, and the week after -- the Irish don't fare well.
Over the last seven seasons -- three under former head coach Charlie Weis, the last four under current head man Brian Kelly -- Notre Dame is just 2-5 the week following its matchup against the Naval Academy. The Irish lost in 2007 to Air Force, 2008 to Syracuse, 2009 to Pittsburgh, 2010 to Tulsa, and 2013 to Pittsburgh. And in their two post-Navy wins, Notre Dame struggled, barely beating Purdue in 2012, 20-17, and winning close at Wake Forest, 24-17 in 2011.
This season, the Irish play Navy on November 1 on the east coast and travel west to face likely Top 20 foe Arizona State in Tempe seven days later.
Advantage: the schedule.
Notre Dame might be better than Navy and Arizona State this season. I doubt, however, the Irish beat them both.
Look for the grouping of Stanford, North Carolina, Florida State, Navy, and Arizona State to dent the Irish at least twice -- avoiding a third loss therein is paramount for Notre Dame in 2014.
Finishing Strong?Noted college football guru Phil Steele has begun his annual Top 40 countdown for 2014, and listed back-to-back at No. 26 and No. 27, respectively, are a pair of back-to-back Notre Dame opponents, Northwestern (November 15) and Louisville (November 22, Senior Day). Steele ranks Notre Dame at No. 17.
A matchup at USC, not yet ranked as Steele hits No. 15 (which means they're higher) looms.
-- Las Vegas doesn't appear to agree with Steele's assessment of the Wildcats and Cardinals, at least not according to the Goldennugget.com which released its annual "Games of the Year" point spreads over the weekend, a list that included 11 Notre Dame contests, Rice the lone exception:
-- The Irish are, at present, favored by 3 over Michigan, by 21 over Purdue, by 5.5 over Syracuse, by 2.5 points over North Carolina, by 3 over Navy, and by 8 over both Northwestern and Louisville. Notre Dame is conversely underdogs of 6 points to Stanford, a whopping 24 points to Florida State, by 4 points at Arizona State, and 10 points at USC.
-- Vegas sees Syracuse, North Carolina and Navy as bigger threats to the Irish than either Northwestern or Louisville. I obviously concur on the Tar Heels and Midshipmen.
-- Can Kelly's Irish rebound from what I've forecasted as a rough five-game stretch to later top both Northwestern and Louisville in November? Will a subsequent battle against USC and the Trojans lingering lack of depth help turn this end-November contest in Kelly's favor of the third time in as many chances?
I have a feeling Notre Dame's fate against the Wildcats, Cardinals, and Trojans will be in part determined by the Irish performance over the brutal five-game, 5,864-mile proving ground that begins with Stanford in South Bend and ends with Arizona State in Tempe.
If you take three things away from this column, they should be as follows:
- Pre-season week-to-week projections for Notre Dame are futile.
- I don't know what Notre Dame's final record will be…but I'll be right about Michigan.
- Stanford-through-Southern California is the toughest stretch of schedule that exists in college football for 2014.
Up Next: A look at September 13 matchup against Purdue as the Boilermakers kick off our Trouble Spots series, ranking as the 12th toughest game situation on the Irish slate.