There are tough opponents, and then there are tough game situations.
And then there’s the presence of both.
Our annual Trouble Spots series covers all of the above, paying attention to each game’s situation on Notre Dame’s schedule, not just the overall strength of a given foe.
In other words, USC might prove to be the best opponent, but is that mid-October tussle in South Bend a more difficult game situation for the Irish than road trips to Clemson? Or Stanford?
And what’s a harder win to earn, a true road game at Pittsburgh or a season-opening home test against Texas?
Such situations call for the aid of Trouble Spots series – a unique manner of identifying potential pitfalls along Notre Dame’s season slate.
Entering his sixth season at the helm, head coach Mike London is likely safe in his post through the end of 2016, but a 2-10 season in 2013 was not fully offset by last year’s three-win improvement. An 8-5 mark in 2011 is his only winning campaign to date.
Ex-Notre Dame defensive coordinator John Tenuta runs London’s defense. The Cavaliers scheme – as Irish fans can surmise – is designed to wreak havoc up front, and Virginia finished 20th nationally with 34 sacks while posting 78 tackles for loss (Notre Dame had 26 and 73, respectively).
When and Where? Game #2, September 12 in Charlottesville
In Review: The Cavaliers were a few plays away from a 5-1, perhaps 6-0 start last fall, with upset wins over No. 21 Louisville and Pittsburgh, plus close September losses to No. 7 UCLA (as 21-point home underdogs, no less) and No. 21 Brigham Young resulted instead in a solid 4-2 start.
Hope was lost thereafter when Virginia dropped five of its last six outings en route to a 5-7 finish.
The Cavaliers emphasize the run, and that was part of the problem last season offensively as the unit finished 85th nationally in scoring offense (just over 25 ppg.) with a rush offense that ranked 97th. As with Notre Dame’s opening foe Texas, Virginia’s quarterback situation was unsettled exiting spring ball.
Tenuta lost the bulk of his defensive front seven to graduation but All-America sophomore Quin Blanding returns at safety.
Actual Ranking Among ND’s 12 Foes: I’d slot them at No. 10 (ahead of UMass and Wake Forest) but reasonable minds could argue the Cavaliers as high as No. 7 – ahead of perhaps Temple, Boston College, and Navy if all breaks right.
(Admittedly, No. 7 would be viewing Virginia through rose-colored glasses at this stage.)
Game Situation (First Road Test): A veteran, battle-tested Irish squad will be led by a redshirt-sophomore making his first starting appearance in hostile environs.
Malik Zaire is unlikely to be overwhelmed by his surroundings, not one week removed from a meeting with Texas and not in the wake of last year’s Music City Bowl victory over LSU. But if this mid-afternoon affair stays too-close-for-comfort for a bit too long, his mechanical weaknesses could rise to the fore as a young triggerman – that is, passing windows tend to tighten, and crucial yards that should be gained become zero-yard plays – or worse.
In short, if this contest was to be played on Oct. 31 and the Temple game (Oct. 31) was instead played in Week #2, the Cavaliers and Owls would switch spots on our countdown.
Notre Dame is markedly better than Virginia, but the opening road game of the season is not without peril.
Why No. 9 could be too low: I considered the Cavaliers for the No. 8 spot but the overall strength of the program pales in comparison to the next team on our countdown, so No. 9 it is. Virginia will not be an easy out in Charlottesville, but Notre Dame simply faces tougher situations and tests throughout the rest of our countdown.
Previous No. 9s in the Trouble Spots series include: Navy 2009, Tulsa 2010, South Florida 2011, Miami 2012, Brigham Young 2013, Northwestern 2014.
Holy Cow. For the Irish, that’s: loss, loss, loss, blowout win, tough win, and loss.
Our No. 9 “Trouble Spot” has proven to be more than a tough out in five of six previous pre-season rankings – it’s also featured four of the 10 most embarrassing defeats of the last six seasons at the program.
(Of note, the “Tulsa Trap” was projected here in the summer of 2010. Northwestern and South Florida, were not…)
Prediction: A point spread that begins in the vicinity of 17 points will prove inflated as the fired-up Cavaliers hang tough with Notre Dame and its rookie starter under center, but Notre Dame’s early-season defense will be well equipped to handle anything Virginia has to offer.
A victory by 10 points or fewer should not surprise Irish fans as Notre Dame has a recent history of sleepwalking in road outings against mid-level foes from power conferences (Pittsburgh and Wake Forest 2011, Boston College 2012, and Pittsburgh 2013).
Virginia fits that bill this fall.
-- Overall opponent’s strength: Somewhere between No. 7 (if your glass is nearly full of Cavaliers love) and No. 10 (my slotting).
-- Game situation: Malik Zaire’s first road start under center
-- Determining factor: It’s not a trap, there’s no major look ahead scenario, and the Cavaliers aren’t as potent as other teams ranked ahead of them on our list. The only pitfall in this matchup is the reality of an opening road game for Zaire and the 2015 Irish.