(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.)
8th Toughest Spot – Navy (7)
Setting: October 23, East Rutherford, N.J. (Noon ET)
- Brief Summary of the Midshipmen: With the exception of dismissed slot-back Marcus Curry, the Naval Academy returns the bulk of the offensive machinery that downed the Irish last November in South Bend. QB Ricky Dobbs and FB Vince Murray (260 combined rushing yards and a hand in each of the Midshipmen's three touchdowns last season) key Navy's vexing triple-option attack.
Gone is two-year Irish killer Ram Vella, a linebacker who accounted for 18 tackles and two turnovers in the Midshipmen's back-to-back victories at Notre Dame Stadium. Vella also recorded the drive-ending flying sack of former Irish quarterback Evan Sharpley in the '07 streak-snapping upset.
- Navy Entering the Contest: The Middies will have faced Maryland and Air Force and have traveled to Wake Forest prior to the contest with the Irish. Navy entertains SMU one week prior to the neutral site battle with Notre Dame.
- The Irish Entering the Contest: The Irish play their weakest 2010 foe, Western Michigan, the week preceding the matchup with the Midshipmen. The game is sandwiched by two home contests and with a rare element of revenge involved, the contest appears ideally situated for what should be a focused Irish squad.
- Opinion: The good news is, Notre Dame hasn't lost to Navy outside of South Bend since 1960 (some streaks still exist). The bad news is that the Midshipmen have absolutely no fear of the current crop of Irish players against whom they've racked up an astounding 778 rushing yards, 11 offensive touchdowns and a 2-1 record over the last three seasons.
Aside from a 30-23 comeback win in 2002, Notre Dame's neutral site affairs vs. the Middies have heavily favored the Irish, who've won by 30, 31, 7, 18, 24, and 6 points outside of South Bend since Lou Holtz's resignation following the '96 season (Holtz's squads won by an average of 33 points in 11 contests vs. the Naval Academy).
An Us-Against-the-World mentality served underdog Navy teams well in South Bend, games in which the Midshipmen lost by 4, 4, 18, 3, and 21 before recording consecutive upset victories. With matchups vs. Western Michigan and Tulsa bookending the game for ND and a modicum of revenge involved, the Irish should be focused, physical, and prepared to meet Navy's intensity level in what has devolved into a near toss-up battle vs. the modern day Navy football team.
7th Toughest Spot – Michigan (8)
Setting: September 11, South Bend (3:30 ET)
- Brief Summary of the Wolverines: He absolutely riddled the Irish last season, but returning QB Tate Forcier is in a battle with sophomore classmate speedster Denard Robinson for the starting role - expect to see both in action throughout September, especially in South Bend. Michigan lost its two top of its top four defensive players from ‘09 in Brandon Graham (1st round pick) and CB Donovan Warren (left school early/undrafted); is coming off back-to-back losing seasons, and is facing NCAA sanctions for the first time in its program's storied history. In other words, the highlight of the two-year Rich Rodriguez era was last season's win over Notre Dame.
- Michigan Entering the Contest: The Wolverines hit the ground running in 2010 with a home date against Connecticut in the season-opener. A UM/UConn matchup should be considered dead even if not in favor of the visitors at this early stage. Connecticut's physical, north-south rushing attack could take its toll on Michigan's defense heading into the contest in South Bend.
- The Irish Entering the Contest: The season-opener vs. Purdue is a nearly ideal Week One matchup. There will be no look-ahead to Michigan, and no Irish team has ever looked past Michigan during game week. Proper focus is nearly assured.
- Opinion: From 1986 through 2004, the Irish and the Wolverines met eight times in South Bend with ND holding a 5-2-1 advantage and seven of the contests decided by eight points or fewer. The last two matchups at Notre Dame Stadium have been ugly affairs, with the visitors pummeling an overrated Irish squad, 47-21 in 2006, and Notre Dame returning the favor in '08, winning 35-17 vs. a rudderless UM ship.
Expect the Irish to be favored by a touchdown or less heading into the September 11 contest and expect the Wolverines to play one of their best games of the season in South Bend. For two decades, the ND/UM battle marked the unofficial start of the college football season. The programs rank below that level at present, but more often than not still produce a classic when pitted against one another. A one-sided affair is unlikely.
6th Toughest Spot – Stanford (6)
Setting: September 25, South Bend (3:30 ET)
- Brief Summary of the Cardinal: Heisman Trophy finalist Toby Gerhart is gone, but the bulk of Stanford's 8-5 squad returns, including eight offensive starters highlighted by 2010 breakout candidate Andrew Luck at quarterback. Stanford lost two starters from the nation's 110th ranked secondary and five players overall from a defense that yielded more than 30 points in six of its last eight contests.
- Stanford Entering the Contest: Two tough tests precede the late September matchup in South Bend as the Cardinal begin conference play on September 11 with a game at UCLA and then entertain Wake Forest in Palo Alto. Stanford travels to Oregon then hosts USC after the contest vs. the Irish.
- The Irish Entering the Contest: The matchup with Jim Harbaugh's squad is the third consecutive physical battle for new head coach Brian Kelly. Rival Michigan and a nationally televised night game in East Lansing vs. Michigan State lead up to the Stanford contest. The game vs. the Cardinal is the season's fourth – just one Irish squad has started a season at 4-0 since the 1989 campaign.
- Opinion: Stanford ranks slightly ahead of Michigan on our Tough Spots scale due to the timing of the contest. The Irish could well be drained after the annually UM/MSU battles and have a better than average chance of entering the September 25 matchup at 2-1. The absence of Gerhart is huge, but Stanford will continue to run the football with a trio of capable backs and its front seven could reach its highest level of play since the Tyrone Willingham era in the early portion of the decade. It will have to be, because the secondary could be new level bad after an awful 2009.
Notre Dame will bring its best for Purdue, Michigan, and the first road game of the Kelly era at Michigan State. The ensuing contest vs. Stanford would be an ideal time for a Bye rather than toss-up matchup No. 3 on the young season.
5th Toughest Spot – Pittsburgh (3)
Setting: October 9 in South Bend (3:30 ET)
- Brief Summary of the Panthers: The offense features one of the nation's top 3 running backs in under-recruited sophomore Dion Lewis and top 5 wide receivers in junior athlete Jonathan Baldwin. Gone is top tier tight end Dorin Dickerson as well as Bill Stull, who had a fine senior season at quarterback, but is nonetheless eminently replaceable. Pittsburgh returns three key defensive linemen, three key linebackers, and a pair of safeties, though the secondary will miss its best cover man, Aaron Berry at cornerback.
- Pittsburgh Entering the Contest: The contest in South Bend is Pittsburgh's fifth of the season with huge tests at Utah and vs. Miami in Week One and Week Three, respectively. A home date with a poor Florida International squad precedes the Panthers trip to Notre Dame Stadium.
- The Irish Entering the Contest: Consecutive toss-up game No. 5 for Kelly's Irish. The contest falls one week after a trip to Chestnut Hill to take on two-decade foil Boston College. The matchup vs. the Panthers ends a difficult half-season stretch for the Irish with two lesser foes, Navy, and a Bye week occupying the next month of Saturday's in South Bend.
- Opinion: I believe the Panthers are the second most talented team the Irish will face this fall and a better squad overall than at least two other teams still to be featured, but two of those matchups will be played in enemy territory.
Lewis, Baldwin, and backup running back Ray Graham will provide plenty of offense while defensive ends Greg Romeus and Jabal Sheard bring heat from the outside. The Panthers front seven could again be stout though the corners remain suspect. As well, a familiarity exists between the Panthers program and Brian Kelly, who finished 2-1 vs. Pittsburgh (each game decided by a single score or PAT) while at Cincinnati. Likewise, Pittsburgh and Notre Dame have fought through eight quarters of football and four overtimes in the last two seasons with just 8 points and two Panthers victories as separation.
I consider this contest another one-score affair, with the winning team's season taking a positive arc thereafter.
Note: Part III of Trouble Spots detailing the schedule's four most difficult scenarios will be published Sunday.