Click here for Part II and a look at the scenarios surrounding matchups vs. Navy, Michigan, Stanford, and Pittsburgh.
4th Toughest Spot – Boston College (4)
Setting: Saturday, October 2, Chestnut Hill, MA (Time TBD)
- Brief Summary of the Eagles: Several key contributors from last season's 20-16 loss to the Irish return for 2010 including QB Dave Shinskie, RB Montell Harris, and freshman All American linebacker Luke Kuechly. Expected to join Kuechly is former ACC Defensive Player of the Year Mark Herzlich, who was sidelined in 2009 due to a rare form of cancer.
WR Rich Gunnell, whose work in the slot single-handedly kept the Eagles in the contest in South Bend last season, has graduated.
- Boston College Entering the Contest: The Eagles warm up with Weber State and Kent State at home before a bye week, and then begin their conference season in Chestnut Hill vs. Virginia Tech. The matchup with the Hokies occurs one week before the Irish come to town and one week prior to the Eagles first 2010 road game – a matchup vs. ex head coach Tom O'Brien and his N.C. State Wolf Pack.
It's not often BC must prepare for the Irish under such unfortunate scheduling circumstances.
- The Irish Entering the Contest: Notre Dame entertains Stanford the week prior to its contest with Boston College. The Irish will have a grasp on team identity by the time they travel to Boston, already facing Purdue, Michigan, and Michigan State to begin the season. Barring injury, the contest will mark QB Dayne Crist's second career road start.
- Opinion: Notre Dame is 2-4 in the tin can stadium on Chestnut Hill, and 3-4 all-time in road games vs. the Eagles (the Irish also won in Foxboro in the mid-70s). Prior to a humbling 17-0 loss to the Eagles in '08, the three previous contests at BC were played close to the vest, with Boston College holding a 74-73 edge in points scored and 2-1 W/L mark.
BC's battle vs. Top 20 foe and conference rival Virginia Tech one week prior puts the Eagles at a disadvantage heading into this matchup, but Notre Dame's last victory in Chestnut Hill was during the Clinton Administration, and arrived courtesy of Jimmy Friday, Deke Cooper, and an emotional goal line stand in 1998. It's never easy vs. the Eagles, and both teams should improve upon their respective field products of 2009.
3rd Toughest Spot – Utah (2)
Setting: November 13, South Bend (2:30 ET)
- Brief Summary of the Utes: The nation's best post-season program (9 consecutive bowl game victories) returns 8 starters from its 10-3 squad of 2009, including sophomore quarterback Jordan Wynn, who took control under center midway through last season. The Utes purportedly possess enough talent to replace four NFL draft picks from their defense, a unit that should be clicking on all cylinders by the season's final month.
- Utah Entering the Contest: The Utes face conference rival and potential Top 10 foe TCU at home one week prior to their first ever trip to South Bend. The game vs. the Irish will be Utah's fifth road game of the season and they'll be battle-ready courtesy of a season-opening matchup vs. Pittsburgh in addition to the contest with the Horned Frogs.
- The Irish Entering the Contest: Notre Dame's late bye lands before the matchup with the Utes, a fortunate occurrence as the Irish attempt to snap their two-season Senior Day losing streak.
- Opinion: Notre Dame is just 13-7 on Senior Day over the last two decades. The 2010 Utes likely rank as the fifth-best foe in that 20-season span behind Penn State '90, Tennessee ‘91, Penn State ‘92, Boston College '93, but (at least) a notch above the two most recent home finale foils, Syracuse and Connecticut.
Unlike the late-October matchup vs. potentially solid but nondescript Tulsa, Utah's brand name has earned enough recent juice to garner the attention of Irish fans. But the Senior Day atmosphere and curse has proven difficult to overcome for the program (remember, Lou Holtz once lost three of four Senior Day games with teams ranked in the top 10 and twice at No. 1).
The Utes, by any reasonable measure, are a top four opponent on Notre Dame's 2010 slate (I have them at No. 2). Utah's preceding matchup vs. TCU levels the emotional playing field a bit in this, my third-ranked Tough Spot of the season.
2nd Toughest Spot – USC (1)
Setting: Thanksgiving Saturday, Los Angeles Coliseum (8 PM ET)
- Brief Summary of the Trojans: Ex-USC assistant coach Lane Kiffin, he of the 12-21 career head coaching record, enters his first season in succession of one of the winningest coaches in college football history, Pete Carroll, who bolted to the NFL following last year's 9-4 campaign.
The Trojans return ample offensive talent as usual though must replace star wide receiver Damian Williams, three long-time OL starters in Jeff Byers, Charles Brown, and Alex Parsons, and Irish-torching tight end Anthony McCoy. USC's front seven returns six key pieces but the bulk of the underperforming secondary must be replaced, including second-round draft pick Taylor Mays.
- USC Entering the Contest: The Trojans return home to face the Irish after consecutive road games at Arizona and recent rabble-rouser Oregon State – the Beavers have taken down the Trojans in Corvallis in consecutive contests ('06 and '08). USC's customary matchup with cross-town rival UCLA follows the matchup with the Irish.
- The Irish Entering the Contest: Notre Dame faces Army in Yankee Stadium one week prior to its Holiday Weekend trip to the west coast.
- Opinion: From 1984 through 1994, the Irish never lost in Los Angeles, finishing 5-0-1 vs. six ranked Trojans teams including an undefeated, second-ranked USC squad in 1988. Since? The Irish are an unacceptable 1-6, losing to two unranked Trojans squads (when the Irish were in the top 10) and four absolute powerhouses over the teams' last four meetings.
(I suppose if your glass is half-full, the Irish are 6-6-1 in their last 13 trips to Troy.)
Two embarrassing losses last season at Oregon and later at home against a solid but unspectacular Stanford squad removed the deserved swagger of what had been the most confident group of amateur athletes in the nation.
But the Trojans do not lack talent and some of it, including QB Matt Barkley and WR Brice Butler could be a year ahead of schedule. While the head coach is unproven, his father, Monte, the team's defensive coordinator, ranks among the most respected in the profession. Both USC and Notre Dame will be much better in November than early September 2010. I expect strong, though not championship-level seasons by both teams – a loss suffered by either on Thanksgiving Saturday would likely knock them from BCS or possibly January 1 bowl contention.
The transition from Carroll; the '09 erosion of home field dominance, and USC's preceding matchup at Oregon State on November 20 each afford the Irish a better-than-usual position entering the season-finale matchup with the Trojans.
Toughest Spot – Michigan State (5)
Setting: Saturday, September 18, East Lansing, MI (8 PM ET)
- Brief Summary of the Spartans: Skill position talent abounds with the return of wide receivers Mark Dell, B.J. Cunningham, and Keshawn Martin, though former walk-on Blair White, who torched the Irish last September, has moved onto camp with the Indianapolis Colts.
Also returning are sophomore tailback Larry Caper, junior quarterback Kirk Cousins and senior tight end Charlie Gantt. The Spartans returning skill position players are as strong as any in the Big 10.
- Michigan State Entering the Contest: The Spartans found a way to extend spring practice through mid-September, opening at home with Western Michigan then traveling to Detroit to take on Florida Atlantic. Michigan State hosts Northern Colorado following its matchup with ND and their ridiculous non-conference schedule affords the Spartans the luxury of an off-season of preparation for the nationally televised matchup under the lights with Brian Kelly's squad.
- The Irish Entering the Contest: Per usual, ND will take on Sparty one week after the matchup with rival Michigan. The game in East Lansing will be the first road start for quarterback Dayne Crist and first road game for Kelly at ND.
- Opinion: Brian Kelly has won nine consecutive road games. Notre Dame's players have lost seven of their last nine road contests over that same span. The Irish program has emerged victorious in three of its last four trips to East Lansing including two straight under the lights in 2004 and 2006. Of course, only one Irish player (5th-year senior cornerback Darrin Walls) has participated in an Irish victory in the state of Michigan – the wild '06 comeback courtesy Brady Quinn and former Spartans coach (and source of unintentional comedy) John L. Smith.
With Michigan not yet playing to their program's standard, the game in East Lansing marks the initial national test of the Brian Kelly era. Michigan State has two weeks (and ostensibly the entire month of August and early September) to prepare for the Irish; Kelly and the Irish have seven days. If Notre Dame pulls out a victory in East Lansing, it could be a special season in South Bend.