Which teams are likely to struggle in early September but perhaps thrive when the leaves begin to fall? Who among them is built for the grind through November or conversely likely to peak far too early?
And when does a home field advantage play a major role?
Questions like these and myriad others were the impetus of our Trouble Spots series six summers ago and we’ve outlined many regarding Notre Dame’s foes ranked No. 12 through No. 5 over the last eight days.
Now for the heavyweights…
Paul Johnson’s triple-option attack has found a foothold in Atlanta with his Yellow Jackets regularly among the nation’s top five rushing offenses and more important, the game’s top scoring attacks overall.
Averaging a shade over six yards per carry with 47 rushing scores (first among 125 FBS teams) and 72 touchdowns overall (9th), Georgia Tech brings each Saturday a known quantity -- they’re going to score points on you.
Young across the board in 2014, Georgia Tech hopes to improve upon a defensive campaign that included five foes topping the 30-point mark including each of its three defeats (Duke, North Carolina, and an ACC Championship thriller against Florida State.)
When and Where? Game 3, Week 3, Sept. 19 at Notre Dame Stadium.
In Review: Quarterback Justin Thomas returns and with Johnson at the controls and Thomas at the trigger, that might be all you need to know.
But the Yellow Jackets have advanced from “dangerous team” status to proven program – one of perhaps a handful nationally with a consistent identity that affords them the opportunity to enter each week equipped with the following:
They know who they are, and don’t care who you are. They’ll do what they do and you’re forced to try to stop it.
Actual Ranking Among ND’s 12 Foes: As high as No. 1 and no lower than No. 4.
Game Situation (Early-Season Litmus): To be blunt, if this game were scheduled later in the season it would have come in at No. 1 on our Trouble Spots list. (A key reason, Irish late-season attrition, will be highlighted in our Trouble Spot No. 3 to follow.)
With only Alcorn State and Tulane on tap preceding their trip to South Bend, the Yellow Jackets will be well rested, but by no means tested.
Conversely, the Irish open with Texas and a trip to Virginia – they’ll already have an idea of what type of team resides under the Dome for 2015. Head coach Brian Kelly and crew can go all in thereafter against the Rambling Wreck as lowly Massachusetts comes to town following this Sept. 19 head-knocker.
How will Georgia Tech’s previously vulnerable defense (they were young in 2014, now not so much) react to the speed of the game when it takes a quantum leap up in competition from Alcorn State and Tulane to the Irish?
Will Johnson’s triple-option be operating at peak efficiency in Game #3 with new skill position talent surrounding Thomas at the trigger?
Is a (presumably) healthy Notre Dame going to surprise its fans and pundits with a top-tier effort against the triple option?
Why No. 4 could be too low: They’re arguably the best team on Notre Dame’s schedule. Georgia Tech, USC, Stanford, Clemson – take your pick. None appear playoff bound but each should/could reasonably be in the conversation entering November.
Previous No. 4s in the Trouble Spots series include: Stanford 2009, Boston College 2010, Michigan 2011, Michigan State 2012, USC 2013, and Arizona State 2014.
Among the six above, only Boston College was listed too high, but they made it up to No. 4 because the Irish opened with what appeared (and proved) to be four taxing contests: Purdue, Michigan, Michigan State, Stanford. The Irish destroyed the Eagles, 31-13 in Chestnut Hill.
-- The 2009 Cardinals gashed Notre Dame’s broken defense to the tune of 45 points to officially end the Charlie Weis era while the 2011 Wolverines produced the most astonishing comeback victory against Notre Dame since USC’s Anthony Davis ran wild in 1974.
-- Notre Dame handled Michigan State in East Lansing in 2012 (as underdogs) and held off USC in 2013 as well. The 2014 Arizona State game needs no reprise on these pages.
Prediction: Angst among Irish (and Yellow Jackets) fans because of a shoddy defensive effort. Expect a combined eight to 10 touchdowns and at least 60 total points scored on Sept. 19.
A clutch defensive stop in the fourth quarter will likely decide one of college football’s most entertaining games of 2015.
-- Overall opponent’s strength: As high as No. 2 and certainly no lower than No. 4.
-- Game situation: It’s Georgia Tech’s initial test of 2015 and Notre Dame’s first playoff litmus.
-- Determining factor: Early-season schedule slotting aids Notre Dame, a program that’s fallen on hard times in November the last two seasons (3-6 overall).