Today's Irish 101 Topic: Situation Rankings – Part IIBelow is Part II of my perceived level difficulty for each contest 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).
For Part I Click Here.
Sixth Toughest Contest – Pittsburgh (7)Setting: Nov. 14 at Heinz Field (Kick-off TBA)
Quick Summary of the Opponent: Pittsburgh has ushered a strong talent base to campus over the last four seasons but must replace its leading rusher (and best player) LeSean McCoy - the deciding factor vs. the Irish in last season's triple overtime, as well as and leading tackler and the heart of the 2008 defense Scott McKillop. Additionally, the Panthers have been plagued by numerous off-season incidents involving wide receivers Jonathan Baldwin and T.J. Porter; defensive tackle Tommie Duhart and linebacker Adam Gunn.
The Panthers Entering the Contest: The game with the Irish follows a home matchup with Syracuse and precedes a Bye week. Pittsburgh faces a relatively soft schedule prior to their Week 10 matchup with Notre Dame though four lower-tier bowl teams (from '08) appear on the slate before the Irish come to town as does an improved N.C. State squad.
The Irish Entering the Contest: Ideally slotted between home games with Navy and Connecticut.
Opinion: I think the team's key personnel losses and off-season issues are a far better indication of Pittsburgh's season prospects than is the supposed improved depth of the two-deep roster. Aside from potential weather issues in what could be an evening kick-off this is not a bad situation for the Irish.
Fifth Toughest Contest – Michigan (5)Setting: Sept. 12 in The Big House
Quick Summary of the Opponent: The Wolverines are looking to rebound from a 3-9 season. The offense returns eight (at least part-time) starters while the defense features a young secondary, veteran linebacker unit, and a defensive line full of inexperience with the exception of All Big 10 candidate Brandon Graham at DE.
The Wolverines Entering the Contest: The battle with the rival Irish is sandwiched between made-for-television epics with new intra-state rivals Western and Eastern Michigan.
The Irish Entering the Contest: Its Week Two after the home opener vs. WAC opponent Nevada.
Opinion: There's a chance both teams will be much better later in the season, but Michigan has further to go and several more questions than answers for Week Two. I'm convinced neither team will win this by more than two scores.
Fourth Toughest Contest – Stanford (3)Setting: Nov. 28 (Thanksgiving Saturday) at 5 pm in Palo Alto
Quick Summary of the Opponent: Stanford has the pieces in place for a winning season after finishing 5-7 in 2008. Heralded freshman Andrew Luck won the quarterback job over veteran Tavita Pritchard in the spring.
The Cardinal Entering the Contest: Senior Day for Stanford and the game follows November matchups vs. Oregon, at USC, and one week prior to the contest vs. the Irish, a matchup with California.
The Irish Entering the Contest: The season-finale one week after the final home game vs. Connecticut.
Opinion: A season-ending game at Stanford that propels the Irish to either a BCS bid or a Gator Bowl pat-on-the-back. Sound familiar? Check your 2005 archives and the nail-biting finish between a much-better Irish squad and much worse Cardinal team.
Third Toughest Contest – Boston College (4)Setting: Oct. 24 in South Bend – one week after the matchup with USC
Quick Summary of the Opponent: Boston College suffered an ugly coaching dismissal in the off-season and is expected to feature a spread offensive system under new offensive coordinator Gary Tranquill. The Eagles 7th ranked run defense took a major hit with the departure of defensive tackles Ron Brace and B.J. Raji.
The Eagles Entering the Contest: The game with ND follows a home date with former head coach Tom O'Brien and N.C. State (BC faced O'Brien last year in Raleigh as well, winning 38-31). After the game in South Bend the Eagles return home to face Central Michigan in a non-conference tussle.
The Irish Entering the Contest: The game immediately follows the mid-October home matchup with USC.
Opinion: Seriously, who scheduled BC to follow the biggest game of the Irish season yet again?
Second Toughest Contest – Michigan State (2)Setting: Sept. 19 in South Bend
Quick Summary of the Opponent: The Spartans should be ranked among the nation's Top 20 teams for this Week Three battle. Irish-killers and All-Big 10 performers Javon Ringer (RB) and Otis Wiley (S) have moved on, but Michigan State retained eight defensive starters; both starting receivers; three veteran offensive linemen and its starting tight end from last year's game against Notre Dame.
The Spartans Entering the Contest: It's MSU's first road game of the season after warm-ups vs. Montana State and Central Michigan. Following the game in South Bend, the Spartans open their Big 10 season in Madison against Wisconsin.
The Irish Entering the Contest: As usual, the game follows a matchup with the Wolverines.
Opinion: MSU fans can revel in referring to the formerly proud House that Rockne Built as Spartan Stadium South until one team plays tough enough for 60 minutes and meets the challenge to stop them.
The Toughest Contest of 2009 – USC (1)Setting: Oct. 17 in South Bend
Quick Summary of the Opponent: 83-9 since the beginning of the 2002 season so losing key starters probably isn't that relevant as we examine the season in late May.
The Trojans Entering the Contest: Like Notre Dame, USC has a Bye and thus two weeks to prepare for the Irish. The Trojans have a revenge match with '08 season-killer Oregon State the week following their trip to South Bend.
The Irish Entering the Contest: A Bye week precedes and the BC Eagles come to town one week later.
Opinion: USC's youth at quarterback and on defense will receive a stern test in Columbus on September 12 and again at Cal on October 3. A moral victory by the Irish over the Trojans would have been great in '07 and acceptable last season. In '09, it's a likely scenario, and not enough for most Irish fans.