Trouble Spot 3: Stanford

A win over Stanford in early October would vault Notre Dame into the national spotlight with multiple marquee games on tap.

The Game Day Situation

The Irish host Stanford at an opportune time, one week after facing Syracuse in The New Meadowlands and just two weeks after an early-season bye -- a perfect opportunity for head coach Brian Kelly's squad to refresh and re-focus after what could be a 4-0 run through September.

Stanford will have received two early tests prior to facing the Irish, the first against USC, Sept. 6 in Palo Alto. Immediately before the Cardinal's biennial trip east to South Bend is its first road matchup, September 27 at Washington. The Huskies upset Stanford in Seattle in 2012 while dropping at heartbreaker on The Farm last fall, 31-28.

If Stanford enters the contest 4-0 (they also face UC-Davis and Army in Palo Alto), a top 10 ranking is assured -- a top 5 slotting not out of the question.

Why #3 Could Be Too Low…

Because the Cardinal could easily be the second-best team on Notre Dame's 2014 slate, ranking third on our list of "Trouble Spots" because the Irish must travel to USC (No. 2) at season's end.

Despite three notable losses among its standout 2013 front seven, Stanford has well-developed defensive talent returning at each level of its defense. Offensively, its annually renowned line is green but remains massive, well-coached, and the focal point of the program's recruiting base.

Predictable to a fault at times (read: @ ND 2012; vs. MSU 2014 Rose Bowl), the Cardinal ground and pound attack should feature a more balanced approach this season under third-year starting quarterback Kevin Hogan (pictured).

Three out of four...

Stanford stands as the chief annual foil of Kelly's tenure to date, defeating the Irish in three of his first four seasons, twice in convincing/dominating fashion. Cardinal head man David Shaw is 2-1 vs. Kelly, winning twice as a heavy favorite while losing an overtime thriller in 2012.

Following a 2010 bludgeoning at the hands of former head coach Jim Harbaugh's explosive Stanford squad, Kelly offered to the post-game media that the Cardinal were a program the Irish intended to emulate. By 2012, they had done just that, and a game, undermanned effort on The Farm last season in a 27-20 defeat (Notre Dame entered as a whopping 16-point underdog) furthered that cause.

It's thus imperative Notre Dame wins this relatively even matchup in Year 5 of Kelly's tenure. The contest ranks alongside Michigan as the most important pre-November "must win" on the Irish slate.

In Summation

Vegas oddsmakers have staked the Cardinal as road favorites of six points in South Bend, a high number likely to change if Notre Dame can handle its opening-month business prior to Stanford's arrival. Regardless, an undefeated Stanford team will likely be favored over a 4-0 Irish group -- one of three "guaranteed" underdog roles for Notre Dame this fall with a fourth (ASU, #4 in our Trouble Spots series) pending developments through that contest's November 8 date.

The Sporting News is highest on the Cardinal among national publications, placing Stanford sixth in its pre-season ranking. Lindy's (#13) and Athlon's (#12) rank Shaw's returnees a tier below while Phil Steele ranks the Cardinal at No. 20 overall, lower than the majority of pre-season annuals. Steele is highest among the aforementioned quartet on the Kelly's Irish, rating them as his 17th best squad entering the season.

Notre Dame faces one superior team (FSU), two arguably better (USC, Stanford), a host of relative peers (ASU, Louisville, UNC, Michigan), plus four others with upset potential (Rice, Syracuse, Navy, Northwestern).

Taking one from the FSU, USC, Stanford triumvirate would lead to a potential 10-win season. October 4 against the Cardinal seems the best bet to that end.

Up Next: Trouble Spot #2 and a chance for an exclamation point at season's end.

Trouble Spot #4: Arizona State

Trouble Spot #5: North Carolina

Trouble Spot #6: Michigan

Trouble Spot #7: Navy

Trouble Spot #8: Louisville

Trouble Spot #9: Northwestern

Trouble Spot #10: Syracuse

Trouble Spot #11: Rice

Trouble Spot #12: Purdue

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