It doesn't take long to notice that Notre Dame will have another tough schedule this upcoming season. There are plenty of difficult teams that the Irish will have to play, but none of them are as daunting as an end of the season matchup against the Stanford Cardinal.
These meetings over the years have been memorable for both sides, and four of the past six have been decided by one possession. Much like Notre Dame, Stanford has much of its team intact from a year ago and is ready to make yet another push toward a BCS bowl.
Both teams enter the season with extremely high expectations, and it is expected that this late season matchup has championship implications on the line.
There are plenty of interesting matchups to choose from. Here is why Stanford is going to be the toughest for Notre Dame in 2013.
Once again, the Notre Dame schedule is no cakewalk.
Teams like Michigan, Michigan State, Oklahoma, USC, BYU and Stanford are all tough matchups. You can even throw in Arizona State, who is making progress under head coach Todd Graham and has enough pieces in place to surprise this year in the Pac-12.
But besides the early matchup against the Wolverines, every one of those games takes place in Notre Dame Stadium. Well, the matchup against the Sun Devils is a neutral site game which will be held in front of a ton of people at Cowboys Stadium, but you get the picture.
The Irish have been given many breaks as far as home field advantage is concerned, and a trip to Stanford is only one of two true road games for this team.
Notre Dame has not won in Stanford Stadium since 2007, and a late trip to the west coast won't be easy, especially with it coming fresh off of a tough matchup against BYU. When you add in a few more factors, this game seems to be getting tougher by the minute.
The bigger the game is, the harder it seems to be.
We saw this last year when Notre Dame went to USC. Despite the Trojans being a huge underdog and banged up, the Irish needed all four quarters to escape with a victory and secure a bid to the national championship.
When there are BCS implications on the line, both teams usually come out of the gate nervous and weird things tend to happen.
Whether you believe Notre Dame is going to be in the running to return to the national championship or not, you can bet Stanford will be competing for something at the end of the year. This is a squad that could be ranked as high as No. 2 in the preseason poll, and has a favorable schedule with Washington, UCLA and Oregon all having to travel to their place.
It wouldn't be surprising at all if both of these teams are fighting for positioning at the end of the year for a BCS bowl. At the very least, one of these teams will participate in a big game.
The more that is on the line, the tougher it will be for both teams involved.
Stanford has gotten a lot bigger and physical up front over the years, and it has really paid off as far as offensive success is concerned. The Cardinal is picking up the SEC formula by recruiting elite offensive linemen and running the ball at a high rate, simply wearing the opposing defense down.
With an offense that averaged nearly 175 yards a game on the ground last season, the offensive line has four of the five starters returning. This includes an All-American left tackle in David Yankey, and Kevin Danser, who was an All-Pac-12 player last season. Other guys who deserve credit up front include Khalil Wilkes and Cameron Fleming, players who have quickly built a name for themselves and continue to produce at a high level.
This tough and physical attitude will remain with the Stanford offense now that last year’s offensive line coach Mike Bloomgren has been promoted to offensive coordinator.
Stanford only allowed 19 sacks all of last year—only one of those were picked up by a Notre Dame player. The strength of the Irish defense will remain the defensive line, but if they have a hard time breaking through this Stanford unit, it will be a long day for them defensively.
Nothing is quite set in stone as far as who is going to be the starting quarterback for Stanford, but the likelihood of Kevin Hogan being the guy in charge is pretty high. He finished the final six games for the team and played well enough to earn serious consideration for the starting job in 2013.
Although the sophomore quarterback completed a little more than 71 percent of his passes, he must prove he can consistently be an effective passer, as he only threw the ball 152 times. But he does have dual-threat abilities, averaging close to five yards a carry and producing 15 runs of at least 10 yards.
They say the toughest quarterback to prepare for is somebody who can hurt you with his legs, and Hogan is more than capable of doing just that.
Notre Dame lucked out and faced Josh Nunes in last year’s victory over the Cardinal, but that likely won't be the case this year. Having to defend Hogan and his playmaking abilities won't be easy for the Notre Dame defense.
Hogan isn't Andrew Luck in the pocket, and he isn't going to shred a secondary with his arm, but being able to make plays with his legs gives this Stanford offense something it didn't have in last year’s meeting.
Stanford isn't a great defense by Pac-12 standards; this is a group that could go toe-to-toe with any defense in the entire country. Yes, SEC fans, that even goes for the defenses your team faces each and every Saturday.
The Cardinal defense finished first in the Pac-12 in total defense, allowing only 336 total yards a game, which was good for 20th in college football. This unit was able to keep Notre Dame in check for most of the game, and the 405 yards it held the Oregon Ducks to were the fewest of any other team during the regular season.
There are seven starters that are returning from this defense, including four members of the front seven that helped produce 57 sacks and force 27 turnovers. The linebacker corps is loaded with a healthy Shayne Skov and All-Pac-12 selection in Trent Murphy. Although the secondary may have taken a hit due to graduation, Ed Reynolds, who was a first team All-Pac-12 player at the safety position, helps anchor that unit as well.
Stanford gets after it on the defensive side of the ball, and with a Notre Dame offense that didn't exactly light it up last year, this will be a tough matchup for the Irish.