Notre Dame Football: Analyzing the Top Games on the Fighting Irish's Schedule
With the Notre Dame Fighting Irish less than two weeks away from beginning the 2012 college football season on Sept. 1 against Navy in Dublin, Ireland, the school comes in with a shocking familiar AP ranking: "also receiving votes."
This is the fourth time in six seasons the Fighting Irish have come into the season unranked, which is wholly indicative of the program's struggle to regain regular season relevancy.
It's been five years since Notre Dame has ended a college football season ranked in the top 25 in the AP poll.
For perspective, that's the longest streak in school history since the debacle that was the Gerry Faust era in the 1980s.
And though it seems August comes with a new batch of analysts promising that this is the team to return the Fighting Irish to college football's elite, Notre Dame has still won just two bowl games since 1993.
But after an 8-5 season last year in Brian Kelly's second as head coach, there is reason for hope in South Bend.
The 2012 Irish return eight starters to an offense that should be among the nation's most explosive. Stacked at the offensive skill positions, Kelly will have a team that could outscore its way to a BCS bowl berth if he finds consistent quarterback play.
There will be a little more work defensively as just five players return from last year's team. However, linebacker Manti Te'o's decision to return for his senior season was a massive coup for the Irish and may give them enough talent to avoid falling off a cliff after being the No. 19-ranked scoring defense in 2011.
After playing against relatively weak competition last year, Notre Dame's schedule is back among the NCAA's elite in 2012. That means getting productivity from both sides of the ball is essential if Kelly wants to bring a season-ending ranking back to South Bend.
With that in mind, here's a look at the games most essential to that cause:
Michigan (Saturday, Sept. 22, 7:30 p.m. EDT)
The Fighting Irish's first real test comes a week earlier when Notre Dame treks into East Lansing to face the Michigan State Spartans.
Regardless, it won't come with the national pomp and circumstance of the team's matchup against Heisman trophy hopeful Denard Robinson and his Wolverines.
While a victory against the Spartans puts Notre Dame back in the rankings discussion, a win over eighth-ranked Michigan could spark a BCS bowl run.
As we saw during the Charlie Weis era, all it takes is a 9-3 or 10-2 record for the Irish to make a BCS game.
The key will be stopping Robinson, a dual-threat quarterback who comes into the season at 15/2 odds to win the Heisman trophy (via Bovada.lv). With the Irish's secondary weakened due to losing cornerback Gary Gray and safety Harrison Smith to graduation, and Gray's replacement Lo Wood to a season-ending Achilles injury (via Irish Illustrated), Kelly will need to rely on Te'o and the linebacking corps to stop Robinson's feet.
If the Irish defense does enough to keep them in the game and they upset Michigan, there are just two games on the schedule where Notre Dame would come in as underdogs.
At Oklahoma (Saturday, Oct. 27, Time TBA)
One of those games will be against fourth-ranked Oklahoma, a team that returns 15 starters and could carve up the aforementioned weak Irish secondary.
After throwing for 4463 yards and taking the Sonners' all-time lead in passing, senior quarterback Landry Jones came back this season for one purpose: to win a national title. With probably the best offensive line in college football and All-Conference receiver Kenny Stills back in Norman, it's going to take a huge effort for Notre Dame to come out on top.
And even if the Irish defense plays at optimum capability, that winning effort will have to come on offense.
This will be the first contest where it's absolutely essential that Kelly has one starting quarterback. Whether that's sophomore Andrew Hendrix (my choice) or junior Tommy Rees, there needs to be a strict definition of first-string and second-string come by October.
If not, the Irish can kiss pulling off a shootout upset goodbye.
At USC (Saturday, Nov. 24, Time TBA)
If both teams live up to their massive potential, the USC-Notre Dame rivalry could be relevant this season for the first time since the Brady Quinn-Matt Leinart-Reggie Bush era.
Or, as it's known to the NCAA, "those games that don't count."
Regardless, USC comes in to this season as prohibitive national championship favorites at 3/1 (via Bovada.lv) and it's not hard to see why.
Head coach Lane Kiffin's Trojans return 16 starters from last season's 10-2 team, including Heisman hopeful Matt Barkley, and added former star Penn State running back Silas Redd in the aftermath of the NCAA's sanctions on the Nittany Lions.
If things go according to plan for Kiffin, these Trojans will head into the final game of the regular season 11-0 and on their way to a national championship berth.
For Notre Dame, this contest will have one of two connotations: Playing the spoiler or having a shot at a BCS bowl game.
Either way, this game should mean something for the first time in a while, and that should bring solace to fans of this storied rivalry everywhere.
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