Rough Road to 5-0?

Notre Dame navigated through its first seven games with six wins, a profile-elevating defeat, and the rare instance of two bye weeks to provide respite. With five games in five weeks to follow, we examine the potential pitfalls of a 5-0 finish and a shot at inclusion in the inaugural college football playoffs.

Note: Each scenario assumes an undefeated Irish team entering the given contest to assess Notre Dame's chances of finishing 11-1.

Navy in Landover, MD

For the third time in four trips outside the House that Rockne built this season, Notre Dame will have, at worst, split allegiance among the crowd if not an advantage at FedEx Field.

Notre Dame's 4-3 front and defensive personnel are well-built to take on the Midshipmen's vexing triple-option attack, and with a week off to recover and refocus after the epic in Tallahassee, the Irish should be mentally prepared to match the Naval Academy's annual all-out, 60-minute effort as well.

Offensively, Irish quarterback Everett Golson, his bevy of receivers, an improving offensive front, and running back Tarean Folston all-but-guarantee Navy will need more than 30 points to take the Irish out of the playoff picture.

Puncher's Chance? Triple-option triggerman Keenan Reynolds (accounted for 4 TD in last year's meeting) doubtless provides one.

Likelihood of an Irish loss: Around 5 percent -- Navy's defense can't keep up with the 2014 Irish. Calamity would have to strike throughout the contest for Notre Dame to end up on the wrong side of the W-L ledger.

Chief concern: Notre Dame rarely exits the contest in similar shape that it entered, both physically (cut blocks take their toll), and mentally (see below).

#14 Arizona State in Tempe

The Navy factor comes into play. That is, the game that follows Navy rarely goes well for the Irish.

Since 2007, Notre Dame is 2-5 in its matchup immediately following a date with the Midshipmen, losing in 2007 (less relevant, as the Irish were awful), 2008 (Syracuse, wow), 2009 (#8 Pittsburgh), 2010 (Tulsa), and 2013 (Pittsburgh) -- not exactly Murderer's Row. The Irish won ugly in 2011, 24-17 at Wake Forest and in 2012 against Purdue, 20-17.

Arizona State has beaten USC and Stanford this season and has scored at least 26 points in every contest. If ASU can win at Washington this week, and at home against #19 Utah over the next two games, Irish fans will be forced to wait for a nationally televised, prime time kickoff for the sixth time this season.

Puncher's Chance? Of course. ASU has a legitimate chance to beat the Irish in Tempe, just as it did last season, albeit vs. a much less-impressive Notre Dame squad on a neutral field. The Sun Devils will challenge Notre Dame's perimeter defense as much as did the potent North Carolina offense two game ago.

Likelihood of an Irish loss: 35-40 percent? I don't want to overstate it, because if the teams played three times, Notre Dame would win at least two and be favored in all three. But it only takes one. ASU has the horses.

Chief concern: Golson and the Irish offensive front will have to handle the relentless Sun Devils blitz packages for 60 minutes. Head coach Todd Graham has fared well vs. Kelly over the last four seasons (three matchups), winning with Tulsa in 2010, losing 15-12 with an overmatched Pittsburgh team, and losing a wild contest between the Irish and Sun Devils, 37-34 last fall.

Northwestern in South Bend

The last remnant of a trap game for 2014.

The Wildcats can play defense. That reality, coupled with two ill-timed turnovers by the Irish could keep this a competitive contest heading into intermission. And giving a regional, prohibitive underdog confidence at the break is sometimes all it takes to turn a laugher on paper into a game that must be won in the fourth quarter.

Puncher's Chance? A classic letdown scenario exists one week after the Irish return from Tempe. To date this season, Notre Dame has not played well immediately following big wins (Michigan/Purdue and Stanford/UNC).

Likelihood of an Irish loss: 10 percent seems fair, but losing at home to Northwestern would be out of character for Brian Kelly's Irish.

Chief concern: Don't underestimate how much more the overlooked Wildcats will want this one during their game week preparations. That reality often presents on Saturdays, too.

Louisville in South Bend

The Cardinals allow just 14 points per game, are battle-tested (Miami, at Virginia, and at Clemson with FSU forthcoming), and have shown improvement on offense led by a multiple-RB attack paced of late by former Auburn RB Michael Dyer.

Puncher's Chance? They've played sound, quality defense for two seasons, including a No. 2 national finish last fall (though that ranking was doubtless skewed by poor competition). Head coach Bobby Petrino can guide a talented, admittedly undermanned Louisville team to an upset of most with one or two breaks along the way.

Likelihood of an Irish loss: 20 percent? Kelly is four-for-four on Senior Day and the general malaise that exists for the starters could be lifted at kickoff -- Notre Dame doesn't feature many seniors! (Only Christian Lombard, Cam McDaniel, Ben Koyack, and Kyle Brindza are likely playing their final game in Notre Dame Stadium among starters.)

Chief concern: Not only a lookahead scenario (at USC follows), but the potential for dead legs and attrition exists. This will be the first time in 2014 that Notre Dame is forced to play four games in four weeks. Louisville has a bye prior to the contest.

#20 USC in Los Angeles

Though not yet restocked in terms of second-string talent, USC nonetheless boasts the second most talented roster the Irish will face this fall. The Trojans have the quarterback in Cody Kessler (18 TD vs. 1 INT), the running game (Javorius Allen has almost 1,200 all-purpose yards), and the game-breaking receiver (Nelson Agholor) to stress the Irish defense for 60 minutes.

But can they block Notre Dame for four quarters?

Defensively, Notre Dame has scored three touchdowns in its last eight quarters vs. USC -- the first of those two outings included Golson at the helm. The Trojans have allowed two fewer touchdowns (16) than has Brian VanGorder's unit to date.

Puncher's Chance? Obviously (N/A)

Likelihood of an Irish loss: 45 percent? The Trojans are a Hail Mary-allowed away from a Top 12 ranking. Their up-tempo style of offense has shown to be effective vs. the Irish defense to date, and the rivalry aspect of this contest will be off-the-charts, whether USC enters with two losses or four.

Chief concern: Those who don't remember the past are condemned to repeat it. Ask long-time Notre Dame observers where most Irish title hopes have gone to die over the last 50 seasons...


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