To date our Trouble Spots series has identified Notre Dame’s biggest trap game of the season (Boston College), the dreaded “sandwich” (Navy), a pair of contests against peer teams sure to go down to the wire (Georgia Tech, Stanford), and everything in between.
The only thing left are the heavy hitters, consensus Top 15 foes Clemson and USC, and the season’s most challenging road matchup comes in at a surprising No. 2 on our list – surprising only if you forget the *unfortunate truths presented by Notre Dame’s recent past.
(*But that’s a story for tomorrow morning.)
Quick, name the only three teams among 125 FBS programs to win at least 10 games in each of the last four seasons.
If you included Clemson with the obvious choices Alabama and Oregon, you’re either a Tigers fan or have a knack for paying attention to trick questions, because it’s unlikely few college football fans are aware of the Tigers’ present run of consistent, high-level play.
Clemson’s last four seasons have produced records of 10-4, 11-2, 11-2, and 10-3, respectively, and eighth-year head coach Dabo Swinney’s Tigers are well set-up for a fifth such campaign 2015 as well.
When and Where? Game 5, Week 5, October 3 in Death Valley
In Review: For an in-depth breakdown of the Tigers, read our Pete Sampson’s interview with CUTigers.com publisher Roy Philpott here.
Actual Ranking Among ND’s 12 Foes: Your choice of 1-2-3…I lean toward No. 2.
Game Situation (Atmospheric Pressure): We’re not talking force exerted by the weight of air, but rather by 81,500 drunk and delirious fans packed inside Clemson Memorial Stadium to get a shot at Notre Dame for the first time since 1977.
How have head coach Brian Kelly’s Irish fared in their most difficult road atmospheres to date? Each reviewed below were primetime affairs as this season’s matchup at Clemson is sure to be.
2010 at Michigan State: A back-and-forth thriller not decided until Spartans head coach Mark Dantonio pulled the trigger on the most memorable trick play of the season, his “Little Giants” fake field goal that went for a 29-yard touchdown from the arms of holder Aaron Bates to an uncovered Charlie Gantt. 34-31 overtime defeat.
2011 at Michigan: The most impressive game atmosphere of my viewing lifetime (1989 Miami was more “impressive” in a Clockwork Orange kind of way), Notre Dame was the aggressor and superior team for the first 44 minutes, racing to a 24-7 lead. Denard Robinson and a collection of choking Irish defenders and staff owned the final 16 in a stunning 35-31 defeat at the Big House.
2012 at MSU and at Oklahoma: Two underdog situations for the Irish and a pair in which Notre Dame struck both first and last while likewise proving superior – at least defensively – through the contest’s heavy middle: A 20-3 bundling of the Spartans in September and a 31-13 humbling of the Sooners to conclude October.
2013 at Michigan: A less-than-prepared Notre Dame squad took it on the chin, losing a wire-to-wire struggle albeit one that was there for the taking late in the fourth quarter. 41-31 Wolverines.
2014 at Florida State: College football’s best game of 2014 also offered an electric ambience as two undefeated foes exchanged blows for the full 60 minutes in a crushing – and disputed – 31-27 defeat to the defending national champion Seminoles.
(With due respect to Stanford or USC, both of which have defeated the Irish over the last three years to conclude regular season play, the “atmosphere” inside those stadiums had nothing to do with the outcome.)
Why No. 2 could be too low…or too high: Would you argue a matchup in Clemson is less troubling than a home date with the No. 4 squad on our countdown, Georgia Tech? I suppose it’s possible the Irish outing on The Farm to end the season against Stanford (No. 3) could be a tougher game situation between the lines, but not from our pre-season vantage point.
As for No. 1, USC to be published Monday, check your schedules. It’s fairly obvious (and if not, that’s why I’m here).
Previous No. 2s in the Trouble Spots series include: Michigan State 2009, USC 2010, Michigan State 2011, USC 2012, Michigan 2013, USC 2014
A streak of five consecutive victories by the Irish over the No. 2 Trouble Spot team on our list was broken last season by USC…in spectacular fashion.
Four of the previous five Notre Dame wins were heavily contested:
1.) A 33-30 overtime win against MSU in ’09, the first Notre Dame victory in South Bend over Michigan State since 1993 (six straight defeats).
2.) A 20-16 triumph that snapped an 8-game program losing streak to USC in the 2010 regular season finale.
3.) A 31-13 victory – by an 0-2 Irish team – versus Michigan State (the “Aaron Lynch Game”) in 2011.
4.) With the BCS Championship game at stake, a 22-13 victory at USC in 2012 and a dramatic goal line stand punctuated the effort.
5.) In 2013, a 17-13 Irish win in an ugly affair against the eventual 13-1, Rose Bowl champion Spartans.
Plus the carnage last November at USC.
Projection: Two playoff contenders will square off in Death Valley on October 3 and Clemson will have been tested with a road date at Louisville (if not by home field laughers against Wofford and Appalachian State) before Notre Dame comes to town.
The Irish will have faced four foes including Texas and Georgia Tech, with Clemson marking the second true road game for Notre Dame this fall – a trip to Charlottesville to take on Virginia will be rookie starter Malik Zaire’s first under center away from friendly confines.
It’ll be, “different’ than the atmosphere against Clemson.
The Tigers have a well-planned bye week to prepare for Notre Dame while the Irish catch a break with lowly UMass serving as a buffer between games against the triple-option of Georgia Tech and a Clemson fan base frothing at the mouth to get its hands on the Irish.
It’s a game situation that greatly favors the hosts, but one similar to which Kelly & Co. have performed well in previous seasons.
It’s likely that The Big House (2011) and Doak Campbell Stadium (2014) will take a backseat to Death Valley as the most impressive road atmosphere of the six-season Kelly era – and perhaps in the last quarter-century for the Notre Dame program.
-- Overall opponent’s strength: As high as No. 1 and no lower than No. 3. With quarterback DeShaun Watson at the helm, the sky’s the limit for Clemson in ACC play.
-- Game situation: Bloodlust in Death Valley
-- Determining factor: This is first-year starting quarterback Malik Zaire’s first national test under adverse conditions. To put it mildly…