Trouble Spot 9: Northwestern

Mid-November timing favors deeper, still-developing Irish against Wildcats, but will Notre Dame be reeling after five consecutive close contests played prior?

Game Day Situation

Notre Dame's season will have taken shape by the time the Wildcats hit South Bend for this mid-November tussle.

Preceding contests include college football's top non-conference battle of 2014 when the Irish travel to Tallahassee to face defending champion Florida State on October 18. A well-timed second bye follows before Brian Kelly's crew faces recent foil Navy in a neutral setting (FedEx Field, Washington, D.C.). A subsequent trip to Tempe for a matchup against Arizona State immediately precedes the November 15 with Northwestern.

What follows for the Irish is a Senior Day contest against Louisville plus the program's biennial trip to Los Angeles against arch-rival USC.

In other words, the Wildcats are the least of Notre Dame's worries over the final eight contests (remarkably, North Carolina and Stanford precede Florida State).

Beware of the trap November 15 and Northwestern present.

The Wildcats likewise face a difficult two-game stretch prior to their trip 90 miles east to South Bend, first playing at Iowa November 1, then hosting Michigan on November 8.

Unlike Notre Dame's ensuing contests, there's no lookahead situation in play for the Wildcats -- a game at Purdue follows their date with the Irish.

Why #9 Could Be Too Low…

In any other Irish football season, it would be, but Notre Dame's schedule is the nation's most difficult, both statistically and due to its ill-fated set-up of eight consecutive difficult outings over a nine-week stretch.

Injuries and bad luck waylaid Northwestern's 2013 campaign. Just as the Wildcats likely weren't as good as their 10-3 mark team showed in 2012 (Big 10 powers OSU and Wisconsin weren't on the slate), head coach Pat Fitzgerald's crew could have easily finished better than its 5-7 record last season. Northwestern dropped two overtime outings and three more games that came down to the final minutes last fall.

Northwestern's level of fire and concentration will be off the charts for this matchup. Will Notre Dame's? Can it be, considering what precedes and follows for the inexperienced Irish?

The Wildcats Belong at #9 because...

They're somewhere between the No. 10 and No. 7 best overall team the Irish will face -- and I lean toward No. 10. But 10th-place Syracuse (preview linked below) is in a far better schedule slot for Notre Dame than this mid-November matchup against Northwestern.

The Wildcats should be better (read: healthier) offensively this fall but the defense will struggle to stop balanced foes, and by Week 11, Game 10, that's exactly what Brian Kelly's Irish will be.

Notre Dame is much deeper, and by November 15, attrition is guaranteed. If this game were to be played at Ryan Field in Evanston, in September, it would of course rank higher on the list.

In Summation

Vegas oddsmakers have Northwestern as an 8-point underdog -- same as yet-to-be-previewed Louisville, and with worse odds going only to Purdue (+21) and likely Rice (line not yet available) among ND's 2014 foes.

Notre Dame's matchup with the Wildcats is the first previewed that could be considered a trap game for the Irish, but in a season full of difficult tests, it's hard to rank Pat Fitzgerald's group any higher than No. 9.

Up Next: Trouble Spot #8 and a Top 20-level opponent...

Trouble Spot #10: Syracuse

Trouble Spot #11: Rice

Trouble Spot #12: Purdue


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