Today's Irish 101 Topic: Situation RankingsIn 1997, Bob Davie's first season as head coach, a reeling 4-5 Irish squad traveled to Baton Rouge to take on LSU.
Death Valley: one of the hardest places for a non-conference team to win (and concentrate) on the planet. And Notre Dame emerged victorious in a flawless effort (the only game in Irish history in which the team did not commit a penalty or a turnover) winning 24-6. The game began in the afternoon (LSU is of course famous for wild night time crowds). It was cold, bleak, and by the time the lights were needed the Irish already led by three scores and the usual rabid Tigers fan base had thinned considerably. The longest run the Irish defense allowed that day was a 14-yard foray from All-American Kevin Faulk.
LSU was the better team that season but ND was far superior on November 15.
Fast forward to late December 1997 in Shreveport and a rematch with LSU in the Independence Bowl. The best football player on the field, future NFL 3rd down sensation Kevin Faulk, suffered an early ankle injury ending his season. LSU inserted RB Rondell Mealey and 220 rushing yards later the Tigers had humbled an Irish defense to the tune of 27-9.
As examined in the column Avoiding the Pitfalls, a Notre Dame football season rarely plays out as projected. Each Saturday brings a different level of intensity from both teams. Home or away; bitter cold or southern heat; the situation and schedule slot can help decide the outcome as much as the opponent in a single Saturday.
Below is my ranking of the level of difficulty of each contest for the Irish in 2009 - from the "easiest" to most difficult (the number in parenthesis next to each team is my actual ranking of that opponent over the course of their collective seasons).
Twelfth Toughest Contest – Washington State (12)Setting: Oct. 31 in San Antonio
Quick Summary of the Opponent: The Cougars finished 2-11 last season, 10 of their 11 defeats were by 25 or more points with five of those contests featuring at least a SEVEN touchdown margin.
The Cougars Entering the Contest: The game is situated exactly in the middle of eight Pac-10 battles and is sandwiched by road contests.
The Irish Entering the Contest: Follows a home game with BC and precedes a home matchup vs. Navy.
Opinion: Barring improbable injury and/or plague, a loss here is a fire-able offense – and I don't say that often.
Eleventh Toughest Contest – Washington (11)Setting: Oct. 3 Notre Dame Stadium
Quick Summary of the Opponent: Washington will begin the season with a 14-game losing streak which includes an 0-12 mark last season. Not surprisingly, the Huskies also feature a new head coach, former USC Offensive Coordinator Steve Sarkisian.
The Huskies Entering the Contest: The game follows a September 26 contest at Stanford and precedes a home date with Arizona. Washington will have faced LSU and USC (in Seattle) prior to taking on the Irish in South Bend.
The Irish Entering the Contest: Follows a road night game vs. Purdue and precedes Notre Dame's open date (with USC two weeks away).
Opinion: The Huskies boast a talented, multi-dimensional quarterback in junior Jake Locker with whom they were competitive at the helm in two of four losses (BYU and Stanford) last season (Locker missed the final eight games with a broken thumb). Locker presents a puncher's chance offensively but the Irish should score at will vs. a Huskies team that didn't stop anyone (with the exception of Washington State) last year.
Tenth Toughest Contest – Purdue (10)Setting: Sept. 26 Ross-Ade Stadium, 8:00 PM kickoff
Quick Summary of the Opponent: The Joe Tiller era is over but the transition should be smooth to former assistant Danny Hope. The Boilers must replace eight offensive starters including QB Curtis Painter and RB Kory Sheets.
The Boilermakers Entering the Contest: The game follows a MAC matchup with Northern Illinois and precedes a home date vs. Northwestern. Purdue will have traveled to Eugene to take on the highly-ranked Oregon Ducks prior to facing the Irish.
The Irish Entering the Contest: The contest follows consecutive rivalry matchups at Michigan and nemesis Michigan State. There's no "look-ahead" scenario here for the Irish who face Washington the following week.
Opinion: Purdue is the first team listed that presents an actual semblance of danger to the Irish, who unfortunately have proven capable of losing to anyone on a given day over the last two seasons. Purdue has won four of the last six the teams have played at Ross-Ade (all under Tiller's guidance) and they won't back down from their in-state rival. A Notre Dame loss here would be a major disappointment but one that could be overcome shortly with a certain Pac-10 foe arriving in South Bend three weeks (and two games) later.
Ninth Toughest Contest – Navy (8)Setting: Nov. 7 Notre Dame Stadium
Quick Summary of the Opponent: Navy must replace most of its offensive firepower but new quarterback Ricky Dobbs was the Midshipmen's best weapon vs. the Irish last season.
The Midshipmen Entering the Contest: The game is sandwiched between home dates with Temple and Delaware. Navy will have played at Ohio State, at Pittsburgh, and vs. Wake Forest at this point in the season so they'll be battle-tested and by Week 10 their triple-option offense should be clicking on all cylinders.
The Irish Entering the Contest: Follows the game in San Antonio vs. Washington State and precedes a road date with Pittsburgh, so the Irish shouldn't be short on focus.
Opinion: Navy shortens the game with an emphasis on ball control and time-consuming drives offensively but the fact is, the winning team in this matchup has scored no less than 27 points in the last 11 meetings and the Irish should be able to hit that number by the middle of the 3rd Quarter. There have been plenty of close calls in this series since Lou Holtz left the Irish program, but Notre Dame should never lose to Navy over a 60-minute contest. The worst Irish team of the last 45 years needed three overtimes; a fumble-recovery touchdown against; and multiple fourth-down player and coaching mistakes to turn the trick in 2007.
Eighth Toughest Contest – Connecticut (9)Setting: Nov. 21 Senior Day at Notre Dame Stadium
Quick Summary of the Opponent: After a 5-0 start in 2008 the Huskies dropped five of their final eight contests. Connecticut must replace one of the best players in school history: First Round NFL Draft pick, running Donald Brown. Notre Dame transfer Zach Fraser will begin the season as Connecticut's starting quarterback.
The Huskies Entering the Contest: UConn has a Bye prior to the game with a road date vs. BCS hopeful Cincinnati before its Bye. The Huskies will have likely faced ranked opponents (North Carolina, West Virginia, and Cincinnati) prior to the contest with the Irish.
The Irish Entering the Contest: Senior Day and sandwiched between road games vs. Pittsburgh and Stanford.
Opinion: Senior Day has dinged every Irish head coach in recent history, including the great Ara Parseghian, who was a sterling 10-1 guiding players with tear-filled eyes. Devine (5-1); Faust (2-3); Holtz (7-4 after a 3-3 start); Davie (4-1); Willingham (2-1); and Weis (3-1) have all been bitten by the Senior Day curse. While I believe Navy might be better than UConn this season and the Midshipmen can be a bear to compete against over 60 minutes, the timing of this game is much worse.
The Irish should beat the Huskies at home whether its Senior Day, Labor Day, or Christmas Eve. Since you own a subscription to a Website that covers Notre Dame Football I'll refrain from furnishing an example to the contrary…
Seventh Toughest Contest – Nevada (6)Setting: Sept. 5 Home Opener at Notre Dame Stadium
Quick Summary of the Opponent: Nevada boasts three single-season 1,000 yard rushers including RB Luke Lippincott who missed all of 2008 with a knee injury. The Wolf Pack averaged 38 points and more than 500 yards per game last season, but also allowed just over 32 points and 400 yards per contest. Nevada challenged Boise State (41-34 loss; but also lost to Hawaii (38-31).
The Wolf Pack Entering the Contest: It's the season-opener for both teams. Nevada won its season-opener at home vs. Grambling State last season but previously dropped four consecutive opening contests.
The Irish Entering the Contest: Season-Opening Stats: Weis is 3-1 and Notre Dame has won 18 of 23 opening contests since 1986.
Opinion: Nevada is a dangerous team and strong WAC program but they've struggled to a 1-7 mark vs. BCS opponents over the last four seasons. The main hesitation most Irish fans have entering this contest pertains to the meek showing by the team in the 2008 opener vs. a much less-explosive San Diego State squad. Look for more than 60 points to be scored on September 5 by the two teams. Nevada will open the game with zero fear factor so the Irish might need to jump on the Wolf Pack early.
Coming Early Afternoon: The Six Toughest Contests of the 2009 Season.