When does a season-opener against one of college football’s blue bloods fall behind a neutral-site matchup with a perceived also-ran in a schedule’s pecking order?
And when does a mid-October date with an Academy team top visiting Texas in terms of the tougher game situation?
Welcome back to the “Trouble Spots” series and our breakdown of the most difficult game situations the Irish will face in 2015.
As a reminder, this list looks to identify the myriad, inherent challenges of every given Saturday, not merely rank Notre Dame’s foes from best to worst.
And that’s why Texas and all of its potential ranks below a few college football programs perceived among the lower class on our pre-season list.
Second-year head coach Charlie Strong’s chief task remains from the outset of his tenure remains the same following a trying opening season: change the culture Austin.
A national power in name recognition only (insert obvious comment here), Texas enters 2015 five seasons and 26 losses removed from its BCS Championship game loss to Alabama – a sixth such campaign will doubtless conclude this fall.
When and Where? September 5, the season opener in South Bend.
The Longhorns In Review: In search of…
Those three words serve as an apt descriptor of Strong’s off-season plight: Texas needs to develop a quarterback, improve its offensive line, revamp its receiving corps, and, as important, overhaul its hideous special teams unit that finished 125th (out of 125 teams) in kick return defense, 98th in punt return defense, and 98th in kickoff returns last season.
(For Pete Sampson’s insider’s preview with the Texas Longhorns and his discussion with Horns Digest publisher, Chip Brown, click here.)
Actual Ranking Among ND’s 12 Foes: Anywhere between fifth (by season’s end) and much, much lower (at season’s outset). In other words, catching Texas on Sept. 5 should be far different than Nov. 5.
Most pundits project USC, Stanford, Clemson, and Georgia Tech (choose your preferred order) as Notre Dame’s top quartet of foes for 2015. Texas’ overall talent level allows for an argument that they’re the fifth-best team at present whereas the state of flux at the program suggests a handful of remaining Irish foes such as Pittsburgh, Navy, and Boston College could have better overall success this season than will the Longhorns.
Game Situation (A Fresh Start): Malik Zaire’s second career start immediately becomes his most important, as last December’s feel-good finish at the expense of LSU was, in the modern, tournament-focused college football world, a glorified consolation game.
Hereafter, as long as the right side of Notre Dame’s W-L ledger remains unblemished, or perhaps dented by a single black mark, Zaire is tasked with quarterbacking the Irish toward the sport’s ultimate prize.
At present, he’s viewed as a leader, a runner, a playmaker, and most of all, a triggerman the troops and fan base can rally behind.
But Zaire’s halcyon existence that is off-season 2015 will begin to dissolve as soon as the first errant slant pass bounces to the turf on 3rd-and-10.
Zaire has plenty of pressure on him in the opener, but he also has ample aid. Notre Dame’s roster is stacked and well-equipped for early season play.
Why No. 8 could be too low: Texas’ talent level exceeds that of others considered for this spot: Boston College, Pittsburgh, and Navy. Inconsistency is again likely to plague the Longhorns in Year 2 of the Charlie Strong era, but for one Saturday, and for 60 minutes, they could present plenty of problems in South Bed.
Previous No. 8s in the Trouble Spots series include: Nevada 2009, Navy 2010, at Purdue 2011, Purdue 2012, at Purdue 2013, Louisville 2014.
-- Last year’s outing against the Cardinals went from a projected pre-season “Senior Day Trap” to an outright underdog role due thanks to the remarkable attrition suffered by Kelly’s Irish over the season’s grind.
-- The Irish lost to Navy (2010) and were taken to the wire by Purdue in both 2012 and 2013.
-- Navy was likely the best overall football team of the group (including Texas 2015) while Purdue 2012 caught Notre Dame in an advantageous position (returning from Ireland) and Louisville caught them woefully undermanned.
-- Purdue 2013 was bumped up a few spots on our Trouble Spots list because the Boilers had the Irish in a “Michigan Sandwich” -- taking on Brian Kelly’s squad in West Lafayette between head-knockers with the Wolverines and Spartans. Notre Dame prevailed 31-24 in an ugly affair.
-- Nevada ran into a season-opening offensive buzz saw against the fully healthy, Clausen/Floyd/Rudolph/Tate Irish and the hosts rolled to a 35-0 aerial showcase.
(Notre Dame murdered Purdue in 2011 to round out the results.)
Prediction: A much different game than fans will be treated to next September in Austin – a potential instant classic.
As noted above, the September version of Texas should pale in comparison to the crew Strong puts forth in November, and the 2016 Longhorns could be nearing conference contender status by season’s end.
Conversely, Kelly’s September Irish have but one question mark – under center – and Zaire is far more promising than anything Texas has to offer this fall.
Look for Notre Dame to be favored by at least 8.5 points when lines are officially released next week and to cover the spread by contest’s end.
-- Overall opponent’s strength: Somewhere between #5 and #10, which seems haphazard, but if there’s an intelligent argument to the contrary, I’m all ears…
-- Game situation: The season opener for both teams, under the lights in South Bend.
-- Determining factor: Texas won’t be ready for prime time when 2015 kicks off while the Irish enter the fray as one of the nation’s Top 15 squads at worst.
In terms of the ranking this low on our list, consider the reality that future foes Pittsburgh (road game), BC (relative road game) and Navy (the dreaded triple-option) bring a Texas-sized chip on their shoulders each time they face off vs. the Irish.