Trouble Spot #12 -- Massachusetts

Our annual Trouble Spots series counts down Notre Dame’s toughest game situations for the upcoming season.

Who’s better, USC or Stanford? Or Clemson? Who’s likely to be better in November, Pittsburgh or Boston College?

Who knows? It’s June for crying out loud.

Instead of ranking Notre Dame’s opponents from best to worst each off-season, we instead present the sixth-annual “Trouble Spots” series, a countdown of the toughest game situations, not necessarily toughest opponents, for 2015.

Often, the schedule’s toughest projected opponent has likewise topped this pre-season list (2014 Florida State, 2011 Stanford were no-brainers). But in many cases, a game’s location, its slotting on the Irish schedule, the relative importance of the rivalry (Is it one-sided? Is it shared?), and myriad other factors are a better pre-season determiner for the difficulty of a given matchup, rather than the opponent’s perceived overall strength.

In other words, Texas has more talent than Navy, and both games will be played in South Bend, but Notre Dame has two weeks and, in theory, the entire 2015 offseason to prepare for the Longhorns.

Conversely, by the time Notre Dame faces Navy, the Irish will have knocked heads not only with Texas and Georgia Tech, but also traveled to Virginia and Clemson. Attrition will have taken its inevitable toll.

And thus, the advent of our Trouble Spots series: our annual countdown examining each potential pitfall along Notre Dame’s 12-game slate.

Despite the lengthy preamble above, it’s nonetheless true that Notre Dame’s least talented, least capable opponent among its upcoming dozen likewise ranks as the easiest game situation for 2015.

When and Where? Game #4, Week #4, Sept. 26 in South Bend

In Review: This will be the first meeting between the Irish and Minutemen with 2015 just the fourth season of FBS play for the Massachusetts program.

Finishing with a 3-9 record last season, UMass defeated fellow MAC foes Kent State, Eastern Michigan, and Ball State while also scaring Colorado in Week #2, losing 41-38 in Foxborough, Mass., and showing well at Vanderbilt, dropping a 34-31 decision one week later.

The Minutemen later lost close contests to Bowling Green (47-42), Miami, Ohio (42-41) and Toledo (42-35).

Former Notre Dame offensive coordinator Charley Molnar coached the Minutemen for their first two seasons of FBS existence. He was fired after two wins and 22 losses in two seasons and replaced by current head man Mark Whipple, formerly the quarterbacks coach of the Cleveland Browns (2011-12).

(For an insider’s look at the Massachusetts program, click here)

Actual Ranking Among ND’s 12 Foes: By any reasonable measure, the Minutemen rank as the 12th best opponent among the dozen on Notre Dame’s 2015 slate. Arguments for the 11th-best squad could be made for Wake Forest and Virginia with the Demon Deacons the logical choice, but both appear stronger than the rebuilding group from Amherst. 

Game Situation (Sandwich/Look-ahead): UMass will be relatively battle-tested, first traveling to Colorado to open the season on September 12 (Notre Dame opens on Sept.5) with a home tilt thereafter against Temple (Notre Dame’s opponent on Oct. 31).

The Irish will face Georgia Tech in South Bend one week prior to the Minutemen’s arrival. A trip to Clemson looms thereafter for Notre Dame making the Sept. 26 game against UMass a classic “sandwich” situation. It’s akin to the Irish matchup against the visiting Tar Heels of North Carolina last October – the game followed Notre Dame’s with rival Stanford and preceded the much-anticipated trip to Florida State.

(North Carolina was clearly the least interesting foe among the three and it showed in Notre Dame’s approach and performance in the contest.)

Massachusetts’ arrival results in a certain-to-be-disinterested fan base inside the House that Rockne Built. It’s clear head coach Brian Kelly will have his hands full in terms of motivating his troops for this potential snoozer.  

Why No. 12 could be too low: It’s not. The only other game remotely close to providing an “easy out” for the Irish this season occurs on Nov. 13 when Wake Forest visits South Bend on Senior Day.

Previous No. 12s in the series include: Washington State 2009, Western Michigan 2010, Maryland 2011, Navy 2012, Temple 2013, Purdue 2014. The Irish are 6-0 against, with Purdue the closest at 30-14 last September.

Prediction: Massachusetts has Notre Dame right where any incoming opponent would want them: 7 days removed from defending against an option offense and a likely 60-minute head-knocker vs. peer opponent Georgia Tech – and 7 days ahead of the season’s most intriguing road trip to Clemson. As noted above, it’s a classic sandwich situation.

Fortunately for Irish fans, that merely means Notre Dame is unlikely to look great in victory. Expect a 27-point spread that the Irish fail to cover, but nonetheless prevail in the contest with relative ease against a game, but overmatched Minutemen squad.  

The Skinny:
-- Overall opponent’s strength: Doubtless the 12th-best Irish foe this fall.
-- Game situation: Sandwich + Look-ahead scenarios
-- Determining factor: UMass doesn’t have the horses. Their presence on the schedule between Georgia Tech and Clemson would be troubling if it were any other foe. Top Stories