Trouble Spots: ACC Play

Similar to our annual Trouble Spots series that breaks down the Irish football season, the opponents' rankings below don't merely take into account team strength, but the matchup's given situation as well -- factors such as location, proximity to other tough contests, recent history with the foe, etc., all play a role in the rankings.

With one conference win in the books (Dec. 13, 83-63 over Florida State), below is a look at the remaining 17 for head coach Mike Brey and his 13-1 Irish, listed in order of most difficult to easiest.

1.) Feb. 7 at Duke -- A win would rank as the best regular season victory of the 15-season Mike Brey era, a spot currently occupied by a win at #2 Pittsburgh, January 2011. The Irish are 3-19 as a program vs. Duke and have never won against the Blue Devils in a road or neutral setting.

2.) Mar. 4 at Louisville -- National Statement Opportunity, Part 2. Similar to its bleak history at Duke, Notre Dame has struggled against any team from Kentucky upon state's entry, including a 1-9 mark in its last 10 at Louisville, either in now-defunct Freedom Hall or the current KFC YUM! Center.

3.) Jan. 5 at UNC -- The season's first true road game will provide an early litmus test. A poor and short-handed Irish team played well at the Dean Dome last year, losing 63-61.

4.) Jan. 10 vs. Virginia -- Notre Dame's worst matchup in terms of both style and substance, Tony Bennett's troops (either at Washington State or his current stop) have owned Brey's bunch in three prior matchups. Four days of prep time should help, as does the 6:00 Saturday tip-off in South Bend.

5.) Jan. 28 vs. Duke -- Prime time Wednesday night tip-off -- Duke hasn't forgotten last year's Irish aberration.

6.) Jan. 25 at NC State -- Lack of familiarity gives this initial foray into PNC Arena the nod over a trip to Pittsburgh's Petersen Events Center, below.

7.) Jan. 31 at Pittsburgh -- Old friends tee it up for a Saturday noon tip-off, a time slot not generally kind to the Irish, though Notre Dame has won in its last two trips to the Steel City.

8.) Feb. 10 at Clemson -- Follows the trip to Duke atop the list, which likely makes this a must-win situation -- Irish have seven days off thereafter.

9.) Feb. 24 vs. Syracuse -- The 'Cuse are struggling, but there's a long way to go before late-February, and the Orange own the Irish (6 of the last 7) and are at home in South Bend where Jim Boeheim is a career 11-5.

10.) Jan. 14 at Georgia Tech -- Familiarity is at play with two games against each other over an 11-day span. Who will it benefit, the Irish or underdog Yellow Jackets?

11.) Jan. 17 vs. Miami -- The best of the non-blue bloods to visit South Bend this season.

12.) Feb. 21 at Boston College -- Just scrappy enough, and the Eagles Napoleon Complex is omnipresent when the two programs tussle.

13.) Jan. 22 at Virginia Tech -- Well, it's a road game...

14.) Mar. 7 vs. Clemson -- Notre Dame is unlikely to lose on Senior Day, especially with All-American candidate Jerian Grant and rock/team captain Pat Connaughton leading the way.

15.) Jan. 3 vs. Georgia Tech -- There's little chance the currently dialed-in Irish drop this forthcoming contest, a "re-start" to 2015 conference play.

16.) Feb. 17 vs. Wake Forest -- One week following the Duke/Clemson road trip. Rust vs. rest at play, but the home court trumps both.

17.) Feb. 4 vs. Boston College -- Sandwich game between Pittsburgh and Duke, which in this case, is less likely to yield a trap than it is a focused Irish effort in South Bend.

KEYS TO SUCCESS -- AND AN NCAA BID

Must Wins: All games ranked No. 9 through No. 17 above. The Irish can go 2-6 vs. the Top 8 and still secure 11 league wins…

Steal one: Duke/UVA home tests -- either would boost the resume and national profile

Splits-ville NC St/Pittsburgh -- One win would suffice in this pair of (slight) underdog scenarios

Tough Road to Ho: Road Teams No. 13 (at Va. Tech), No. 6 (at NC State) and No. 7 (at Pittsburgh) are all played between Jan. 22 and Jan. 31. Can the Irish finish better than 2-2 in this 10-day stretch with a visit from Duke sandwiched within?

Short Trip from Undefeated to .500? Assuming the Irish start 2-0 by beating Georgia Tech on Jan. 3, can they then complete the ensuing two-game gauntlet (Jan. 5 at UNC; Jan. 10 vs. Virginia) at better than 2-2? A 2-2 Irish squad would then face a "must win" road game at Tech's Thriller Dome (Jan. 14) thereafter.

2015 PREDICTION: 12-6

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