Trouble Spot 11: Rice

Opening matchup for Irish against Owls represents the great unknown…on both sidelines.

Game Day Situation

The season opener for both teams with Notre Dame's marquee game of September, Michigan, under the lights in South Bend, to follow. Rice will likewise face a potent foe following its matchup with the Irish, traveling to Kyle Field to take on Texas A&M.

Notre Dame is 2-1 under head coach Brian Kelly in opening game home tilts, losing a stunner to South Florida in 2011. The program has enjoyed continual success when it kicks off the season at home, winning 16 of 20 since 1980.

Rice has lost its season opener in five straight seasons under head coach David Bailiff, last winning at home over SMU in 2008.

The Owls qualified for the Liberty Bowl last season after upsetting Conference USA favorite Marshall, 41-24, in the league championship game.

Why This Could Be Too Low…

20th Century American philosopher George Santayana's famous comment applies: "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."

Brian Kelly proved prescient prior to his team's 2011 season opener against South Florida. Staked as 10-point favorites and with a team in good health, Kelly offered that his troops were ready, but as a head coach, nerves were natural for the season's first contest.

"There are two kinds of nerves," Kelly said prior to his squad's 23-20 error-filled defeat. "One is not being prepared and one is coaching 18- to 20-year-olds. If you've ever had the experience of having your kid take your car…it's similar to that.

"The test is Saturday in terms of getting your identity," Kelly said before the surreal defeat. "We've looked towards the way you want to play, but it all has to come together. We have an idea, we can practice those things, but we have to do it."

That's the scenario that definitively faces Kelly's new look defense prior to Game One in 2014 and, to a lesser extent, for his offense that will feature a different approach from that utilized in 2013.

Rice could be the first team to benefit from an Irish defense still in the embryonic stage of development.

On the other hand…

The Owls Belong at #11 because...

Who else would you put here? Only Purdue is projected to be a weaker overall team on Notre Dame's daunting 2014 slate, and though the Owls won 10 games last season, it was against a lower level of competition. (SEC programs Texas A&M beat Rice by 31 to begin the season while Mississippi State hammered the Owls by 37 to end it.)

Notre Dame is traditionally tough in home openers though Kelly's best was likely his first, an error-free 23-12 win over Purdue in 2010. The Irish were sharp offensively last season as well, laying waste to Temple early before cruising late.

It's difficult to argue teams such as Syracuse (late-September following a bye) or Northwestern (mid-November) pose less of a threat than that of the Owls, against whom the Irish will have an extra week of preparation heading out of August camp.

In Summation

Vegas oddsmakers have yet to offer an early line for the contest, a reflection of the nature of the matchup. But it's a classic case of the haves vs. the have nots, and though Notre Dame lost at home to myriad lesser programs between 2008 and 2011 (Syracuse, Navy, Connecticut, Tulsa, and South Florida), Kelly has finally reversed that maddening trend, winning 11 of his last 12 in South Bend after an 8-5 start.

The Irish haven't been close to dominant at home over the last two seasons, but they've won consistently. It's a habit, finally, and it should continue at the outset of 2014.

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