Trouble Spot 5: North Carolina

The Tar Heels represent Notre Dame's trap game -- and sandwich game -- for 2014.

The (unique) Game Day Situation...

Is precisely why North Carolina, a top 30 level team, but not a national contender, occupies such a lofty perch in our Trouble Spots countdown.

It's our definitive trap game for the Irish in 2014.

(Previous traps identified our annual pre-season Trouble Sports series included Connecticut in 2009 (an Irish loss), Tulsa in 2010 (an Irish loss), Air Force in 2011 (a resounding Notre Dame win), Pittsburgh in 2012 (a triple-overtime thriller taken by the Irish) and Pittsburgh again in 2013 (an Irish defeat).

Why North Carolina? Consider the dreaded "sandwich" scenario -- a difficult game to prepare for due to opponents both preceding and following the sandwiched, less high-profile foe.

On October 4, immediately prior to the Tar Heels trip to South Bend, Notre Dame faces Stanford, its toughest -- both mentally and physically -- annual opponent of the Brian Kelly era. One week after the North Carolina contest is college football's premier non-conference game of the year, at likely No. 1 Florida State.

Win or lose against Stanford, complete focus on North Carolina, rather than the defending national champions thereafter, is a tall task for Kelly's youth-filled roster. If the Irish defeat Stanford, they likely enter North Carolina week at 5-0 with the nation readying for a Top 10 Notre Dame team heading to No. 1 FSU one week later. Lose to the Cardinal and the Irish will likely be mentally deflated, not to mention physically worn from a brutal struggle at scrimmage.

Kelly will have to be at his veteran best to have the Irish prepared for the innocuous, but dangerous and talented Tar Heels.

Why #5 Could Be Too Low…

It's not, it can only be argued it's too high, but if you've followed Notre Dame football over the last, oh, five decades, you're familiar with the dreaded trap game each season -- and this is it for 2014.

North Carolina ranks between the fourth (unlikely that high) and tenth (likely not giving them enough credit) best team on the Irish schedule this fall.

But the game occurs at the worst possible time: following what is likely to be Notre Dame's most physical game of the season and preceding its most hyped, not to mention difficult.

It will take a uniquely focused squad to embrace preparations for North Carolina in a similar manner it does for the likes of Michigan, Stanford, and Florida State.

The Tar Heels At Present

Phil Steele ranks them at No. 18, one spot behind the Irish, while Lindy's places North Carolina at #41, The Sporting News at #24, and Athlon's #31 entering 2014.

North Carolina will have been road tested before South Bend, traveling to Clemson on September 27. The Tar Heels also face Virginia Tech in Chapel Hill on October 4 before facing traveling to meet the Irish.

In Summation

Vegas oddsmakers have taken note of the Tar Heels as well, staking the Irish as favorites of just 2.5 points for this mid-October home contest, a point spread in gambling parlance that suggests North Carolina would be slight favorites if the two instead tangoed in Chapel Hill.

Purdue (+21), Rice (spread not yet available), Louisville (+8) and Northwestern (+8), Syracuse (+5.5), Michigan (+3) and Navy (+3) are all bigger underdogs to the Irish this fall.

And none of those games follow the likes of Stanford on the 2014 gauntlet.

The ebb and flow of a college football season will be on display when Notre Dame faces the capable, fired-up Tar Heels. It's one of many mental challenges the Irish face during college football's most difficult slate next fall.

Up Next: Trouble Spot #4 and an ill-timed road trip...

Trouble Spot #6: Michigan

Trouble Spot #7: Navy

Trouble Spot #8: Louisville

Trouble Spot #9: Northwestern

Trouble Spot #10: Syracuse

Trouble Spot #11: Rice

Trouble Spot #12: Purdue


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