Instead of ranking Notre Dame’s opponents from best to worst each off-season, we’ve instead presented our annual “Trouble Spots” series, a countdown of the toughest game situations, not necessarily toughest opponents, for 2015.
In other words, Temple might be a better team than Virginia, but Notre Dame has a bye week prior to taking on the Owls, whereas the Irish travel to Charlottesville in a Week #2 game sandwiched between home head-knockers with Texas and Georgia Tech.
It’s not always the overall strength of an opponent that determines how difficult a single Saturday might be for the Fighting Irish. Thus, the advent of our Trouble Spots series, and this, our sixth-annual countdown examining each potential pitfall along Notre Dame’s 12-game slate.
It’s early in the countdown, and as such, the “second-easiest” outing likewise happens to present the second-worst projected foe for Notre Dame in 2015.
When and Where? Game #10, Week #11, Nov. 14 in South Bend
In Review: The Demon Deacons are on the heels of three consecutive regular seasons that failed to produce a bowl bid, with diminishing returns of 5, 4, and 3 wins since a solid Wake Forest squad pushed Notre Dame to the brink in Winston-Salem, losing 24-17 in November 2011.
One of the younger teams in college football, second-year head coach Dave Clawson’s squad ranked as the worst statistical offensive in football last fall – 125th out of 125 FBS programs in Total Offense.
The Demon Deacons defense officially ranked 40th national in Total Defense but the number is a touch misleading as Wake Forest’s 4-2-5 alignment surrendered 36, 43 (FSU), 30, 34, 42, and 41 among its nine defeats.
Wake could experience an upswing this fall with returning sophomores and juniors that were thrown to the fire last fall, but they should offer a welcomed mid-November respite for Notre Dame between tougher games outside of South Bend, at Pittsburgh and in Fenway Park vs. Boston College.
Actual Ranking Among ND’s 12 Foes: Likely 11th. They’re potentially a 4- to-5-win squad but aren’t as likely to put forth consistent efforts as could Virginia or (especially) Temple over the course of 12 games.
Game Situation (Senior Day): Prior to to last season’s short-handed loss against Louisville, Senior Day in South Bend had proven celebratory during the Brian Kelly era.
There’s nothing about this contest that indicates a trap, “sandwich” (it’s between Pittsburgh and Boston College) or a look ahead scenario.
In that regard, it’s an easier “spot” than our No. 12 ranked matchup, Massachusetts, as the Minutemen hit South Bend after Georgia Tech and before the Irish travel to Clemson. But Wake Forest is a major conference program – UMass is a mess.
Why No. 11 could be too low: It’s not. The next two on our countdown are road contests whereas this Senior Day tilt in mid-November contains no apparent pitfalls.
Previous No. 11s in the series include: Army 2010, Navy 2011, Wake Forest 2012, Navy 2013 (Whoops), Rice 2014. Each was a walk-in-the-park for the Irish with the exception of a narrow escape against Navy in 2013 – a 38-34 Notre Dame victory sealed only after the Irish stopped the Midshipmen’s final drive deep in Notre Dame territory.
Prediction: A celebration of all things senior-related as the Irish prepare for a trap game at Fenway Park one week later and a season-defining contest in Palo Alto thereafter.
-- Overall opponent’s strength: #11, better than UMass and only UMass.
-- Game situation: Senior Day, at home for the first time since Oct. 17
-- Determining factor: It’s not the easiest, but there’s no way road games vs. Temple, Virginia, and Pittsburgh, or a neutral site matchup with Boston College, could be considered an easier out for Kelly’s Irish in a pre-season projection.