Broadcasters often refer to the same scenarios as "trap games" while casual fans tend to overlook the situations altogether, noticing only the skill level and pedigree of a given opponent.
I refer to them as Trouble Spots – matchups that for a variety of reasons will prove more difficult than others on the same season's schedule.
Past examples abound for Notre Dame, on both sides of the W/L ledger:
- Happy Valley, November 16, 1991: The formerly No. 5-ranked Irish were one week removed from a season-derailing loss to then No. 13 Tennessee in South Bend. The Irish relinquished a 31-7 lead, ultimately falling 35-34 thanks to a blocked, chip shot field goal as time expired. The deflated Irish were laid to waste by the fired up, No. 8 ranked Nittany Lions, 35-13 - the deficit marked the largest margin of defeat suffered by a Holtz team in his post-championship era.
- South Bend, November 3, 2002: The 8-0 Irish were ranked No. 3 in the season's debut BCS poll, and just one week removed from an upset win in Tallahassee over then No. 11 Florida State. Doubted for the majority of the season (the No. 6 Irish were 11-point dogs at FSU), Notre Dame entered the contest on a seven-year high and battling for a spot in the BCS title game with three games remaining.
Unranked Boston College had other plans, emerging with a 14-7 victory over the flat, sloppy Irish.
- South Bend, September 5, 2009: The Nevada Wolfpack posted the nation's top rushing offense last season. In the season opener, they faced off vs. Notre Dame, 2010's No. 89 ranked rushing defense. Final score: Notre Dame 35 Nevada 0. The Wolfpack's Pistol attack was held to 153 yards rushing, a staggering 190 below its eventual season average.
Would each of the contests above have played out similarly had the pre-game circumstances changed? Imagine the difference in intensity and focus if the '91 Irish faced Penn State during Notre Dame's seven-game mid-season winning streak (or following a win over Tennessee rather than crippling loss)? Or if the '02 squad had faced Boston College in late-September when absolutely every break was coming up Irish?
Similarly, imagine last year's Irish rushing defense facing that same Nevada attack in November – a month in which a worn down Notre Dame team yielded more than 1,100 rushing yards?
Each Saturday brings varied intensity and focus from both sides of a matchup. Aside from the occasional truly dominant squad, game variables such as home or road; night or day; and schedule slotting (whether a team is coming off a letdown loss or flying high) generally help to decide a contest's outcome as much as its combatants.
With that in mind, IrishEyes presents its Trouble Spots rankings for the 2010 season.
The games are ranked in descending order of difficulty given the situation, timing of the contest, and of course, opponents' skill level and coaching staff. The number in parenthesis is my early summer ranking of each team (separate from the singular matchup with the Irish).
12th Toughest Spot – Western Michigan (12)
Setting: October 16 in South Bend (2:30 EST)
- Brief Summary of the Broncos: WMU will debut a new quarterback after the graduation of program great Tim Hiller. The Broncos must also replace one of the nation's most productive all-purpose runners, Brandon West, while the defense will attempt to improve upon its No. 101 ranking from ‘09 under the tutelage of a new defensive coordinator, Dave Cohen.
- Western Michigan Entering the Contest: Western Michigan plays at Ball State the week prior and will have been tested at the BCS level with a season-opening trip to Michigan State.
- The Irish Entering the Contest: The Irish will have concluded a four-game stretch vs. expected solid teams: Michigan State, Stanford, Boston College and Pittsburgh. The contest is the season's seventh in seven weeks for the Irish and the first presumed "break" on the schedule after three Big 10, one Pac 10, one ACC, and one Big East matchup against a seven teams that have each defeated Notre Dame over the last three seasons.
The Irish aren't faced with a true "look-ahead" situation, though traveling to Baltimore the following week to Navy should have the team's attention.
- Opinion: Whether the Irish enter the contest 6-0 or 2-4, a home loss to Western Michigan would abruptly end the goodwill Brian Kelly has engendered among the program's fan base. It's the inherent danger of scheduling a lower-to-mid-tier, non-BCS squad rather than a name brand bottom-feeder from one of the six major conferences. (Lose to Mississippi State or Washington State in South Bend and people will shake their heads; lose to San Diego State or Western Michigan at home and well, you reap what you sow).
Barring a smallpox outbreak on campus, I can't conceive of a pre-game situation in which this matchup could be considered a trouble spot for Notre Dame.
11th Toughest Spot – Army (11)
Setting: November 20 in Yankee Stadium. Kick-off is set for 7 PM (EST).
- Brief Summary of the Cadets: A solid defense (No. 16 nationally in 2009) returns eight starters and the coaching staff enters Year 2 at the controls. Army will again employ the triple-option offensively with sophomore QB Trent Steelman likewise in his second season under center.
- Army Entering the Contest: Army will have faced three solid squads entering the contest, hosting Temple in early October, traveling to Rutgers on October 16, and then hosting the Air Force Academy two weeks prior to the matchup with the Irish. The Cadets have a road game vs. Kent State prior to the media-driven frenzy vs. the Irish in Yankee Stadium. No look-ahead exists for the Cadets; they don't play again until the season-ending contest vs. Navy on December 11.
- The Irish Entering the Contest: Notre Dame will be seven days removed from what should be one of its best matchups: a Senior Day home finale with Utah. Unlike last season's sterile neutral site affair in San Antonio vs. Washington State, the contest in Yankee Stadium will overflow with pomp and frill. Even the media-tested Irish will likely be somewhat caught up in the unique nature of the contest in the Bronx.
The matchup with the Cadets is an all-time "sandwich" game, placed inconveniently between Senior Day vs. a strong opponent in Utah, and the regular season finale at chief rival and decade foil USC.
- Opinion: The Irish are fortunate the opponent is still-developing Army – a team likely one year away from its three-season peak – and not Navy or another underdog with serious bite. Look for a big win if the Irish emerge with a victory over Utah the previous week…or a sloppy, disinterested close call should they lose on Senior Day for the third straight season.
10th Toughest Spot – Purdue (9)
Setting: September 4 in South Bend and the opening game for both teams (3:30 EST)
- Brief Summary of the Boilermakers: The spring session threw an early curve-ball at the Boilers with the loss of star running back Ralph Bolden (935 yards, 9 TD) to a knee injury (torn ACL). Purdue returns its best defensive player in Irish-killer Ryan Kerrigan but lost its entire starting secondary as well as 2nd Round draft pick, nose guard Mike Neal.
- The Irish Entering the Contest: Brian Kelly's debut; Dayne Crist's starting debut; peace on earth; goodwill toward the defense; fresh starts; fresh air; happy, rather than disgruntled students; fans not sitting on their collective hands; a new chant as hands extend during the 1812 Overture; a green hue to the crowd with a surprisingly likeable 2010 "Shirt"; excitement at a four-year high; and the absence of boos. What's not to like?
- Opinion: Notre Dame is going to bury Purdue. Then again, I also predicted Nevada would score 27 vs. the Irish last year in the opener, so what do I know?
Amateur forecasting aside, it's the perfect opening game situation for Notre Dame: a long-time traditional rival from a major conference; an opponent that took the Irish to the wire the season prior but did not obviously improve (in terms of its developed personnel) in the off-season; a decided but not hopeless underdog, and a friendly group of visitors that have only managed one win in their last 14 trips to Notre Dame Stadium. For crying out loud, even Navy and Stanford have two…
9th Toughest Spot – Tulsa (10)
Setting: October 30 in South Bend (2:30 EST)
- Brief Summary of the Golden Hurricane: After 21 combined wins in 2007-08, Tulsa took a step backward last season, dropping seven contests, including six straight, and finishing 1-3 in games decided by a touchdown or less. The Golden Hurricane's offensive attack was sabotaged by a staggering 46 sacks allowed from its offensive line.
- Tulsa Entering the Contest: The game will be Tulsa's fourth on the road with a tough test at East Carolina in the teams' opener included. Tulsa will have played elite competition one month prior at Oklahoma State and has two weeks to prepare for the Irish.
- The Irish Entering the Contest: The game follows an October 23 matchup vs. Navy in Baltimore and precedes Notre Dame's only Bye of the season. By any reasonable measure, ND's four-week, three-game run of Western Michigan, Navy, Tulsa, and a bye is the easiest of the 2010 schedule.
- Opinion: Home matchup No. 2 with a mid-tier, mid-major opponent. A win for the Irish proves little; a loss is discussed for
decades with resulting posters, plaques and torn sod appearing on the opponent's athletic department wall.
Conference USA plays solid football, and Tulsa was part of that equation until it took one on the chin in numerous close contests last season. The Golden Hurricane are one season removed from an 11-3 record (and 10-4 before that), but the only way this contest isn't considered an afterthought nationally is if Tulsa enters the contest 6-1, or somehow upsets rival Oklahoma State in mid-September.
It's a no-win situation for ND from a perception standpoint, and the type of game that should avoided in the future.
Note: Ahead of Purdue on the list? You bet. I'll be legitimately surprised if the fired up Irish drop the opener to the Bolden-less Boilers (breaking in a new quarterback) in South Bend. The matchup with Tulsa on the other hand, is unlikely to bring much fervor from a spoiled, sleepy, Notre Dame crowd that seems to need a reason to cheer.
Tulsa could win outright.
Note: Part II of Trouble Spots will appear Saturday afternoon.