Trouble Spot 8: Louisville

Only in 2014 could a team as potent as the Cardinals rank at No. 8 in our Trouble Spots series -- the toughest game situations facing Notre Dame this fall.

Game Day Situation

Northwestern precedes Louisville on the schedule for the Irish, but more relevant, three consecutive squads capable of beating Notre Dame immediately precede the Cardinals trip to South Bend: the Wildcats, Arizona State (in Tempe), and Navy (in D.C.). Prior and descending back through October: a bye week, at Florida State, North Carolina, Stanford.

While the Cardinals doubtless provide punch and a major obstacle, Notre Dame will be the most battle-tested team in the nation by the time first-year head coach Bobby Petrino and Louisville roll into town.

It's Senior Day for the Irish and Notre Dame is 4-0 under Brian Kelly in the season's final home game after experiencing relative struggles under Lou Holtz (albeit vs. strong foes), Bob Davie (vs. decent teams), and later, Charlie Weis (vs. average to poor teams).

The lookahead scenario for Notre Dame is obvious (chief rival USC awaits in Los Angeles), but Kelly has faced either USC or a highly ranked Stanford team following each Senior Day game to date, and won them all.

Louisville will benefit from a bye week prior to traveling to South Bend, but faces its biggest non-conference rival, Kentucky, thereafter. Games at Boston College (November 8) and a Thursday home tilt vs. Florida State (Oct. 30) precede their trip north to where the St. Joseph river bends south.

Early-season battles against Miami on Labor Day Monday (a unique rematch vs. the program Louisville ended 2013 against with a bowl victory), and at Clemson (Oct. 11) will likewise have prepared the Cardinals for what they'll encounter in the Irish.

Why #8 Could Be Too Low…

Because there aren't eight better teams on the Irish schedule than the Cardinals -- there might not be four -- and this late-November outing is the only matchup of the season's final month in which the timing aids the Irish opponent as much as it does Notre Dame. (Petrino's offensive machine will have had ample time to develop over the course of his first season, whereas there'd likely still be kinks to work out if the teams met in September, etc. Though it's likewise true that Notre Dame's new look defense will no longer be in its infancy.)

Unlike previous seasons when Louisville meandered relatively unfettered through the Big East and American Athletic Conferences (2013), the Cardinals' 2014 slate will prepare them for latter tests, as they'll face top-level athletes (Miami, Clemson) and the nation's best team, Florida State, during Petrion's first season of Athletic Coast Conference action.

Louisville returns enough from a defense that allowed just 12.2 points per game (and ranked No. 1 nationally, ahead of Florida State, in yards allowed per game), that it can compete with most offenses, save for the Seminoles, on its slate.

Louisville belongs at #8 because...

Louisville's daunting 2013 defensive numbers are inflated -- it's unlikely the 2013 Cardinals could have approached that level of statistical greatness had it faced the 2014 team's schedule.

And as illustrated in previous Irish seasons, the technical toughest teams don't necessarily equate to the most difficult game situations. This Senior Day matchup allows Notre Dame nearly three months of work in a new defensive scheme while its offense -- projected here to be among the nation's most improved -- will likewise be rolling after facing various forms of defensive schemes and level of athlete. Kelly's youth-filled roster will have had time to gel as well.

Other candidates for the No. 8 spot include Michigan (Kelly's annual early-season foil), Navy (assuming you've watched Notre Dame, you know this is likely to be a problem), and North Carolina (the ultimate sandwich game/trap game, on the Irish schedule).

Louisville is No. 8 by default, even if it's better than those three teams listed above as well as not-yet previewed November 8 Irish foe Arizona State.

In Summation

Vegas oddsmakers agree with my assessment, ranking Louisville as eight-point underdogs to the Irish in the pre-season, tied for the third-highest margin on Notre Dame's 2014 slate: Purdue (+21), Rice (spread not yet available, but certainly more than 8), Louisville (+8) and Northwestern (+8) are the only teams getting more than a touchdown from the Irish.

Games against Arizona State (favored by 4 over Notre Dame), Navy (Irish by 3), Michigan (Irish by 3), and North Carolina (Irish by 2.5) garnered far lower spreads.

A drop-off at quarterback from all-star Teddy Bridgewater to Will Gardner is inevitable, and Louisville's incredible defensive numbers from 2013 are going to take a major hit now that they're tussling more often with the big boys. While Petrino will win at Louisville just as he has at every stop (including his first stint in The 'Ville), Year 1 of the program will be an adjustment period.

Though the Cardinals "won" with a strong off-season hire, they likely "lost" overall when former head coach Charlie Strong moved to Texas (speaking of a step up!).

It would be no surprise if Notre Dame dropped a close game to the Cardinals, but that's the case for each remaining game on our "Trouble Spots" countdown as well.

Senior Day has been reestablished by Kelly as Coronation Day in South Bend -- Louisville appears next on the head coach's hit list.

Up Next: Trouble Spot #7 and a major debt to be paid...

Trouble Spot #9: Northwestern

Trouble Spot #10: Syracuse

Trouble Spot #11: Rice

Trouble Spot #12: Purdue Top Stories