Notre Dame's 2014 schedule looks quite a bit different than it has in recent years.
Gone is Michigan State, as the defending Big Ten champions roll off of the Fighting Irish schedule for the first time since 1996. Coming on to the schedule are four ACC opponents, as Notre Dame begins its alliance with the league that houses its basketball and Olympic sports programs.
Like every schedule, however, the Irish's 2014 slate has hurdles of all sizes. Four defending division or conference champions appear, as do traditional rivals Michigan (for the last time), Navy and USC.
But which of the Irish's 12 contests is their trap game—a game that could catch Notre Dame off-guard? We told you last year that it would be Purdue, and we were right. Notre Dame came out flat against the hapless Boilermakers (who would finish 1-11), needing a second-half rally to escape West Lafayette with a narrow 31-24 win.
This year, it will be the North Carolina Tar Heels who could catch the Irish in a vulnerable position.
To compare the 2014 Tar Heels to the 2013 Boilermakers is an insult to those in blue. North Carolina is a viable ACC Coastal Division title contender. But with where the Tar Heels' visit to South Bend falls, Larry Fedora's team has a chance to fly under Notre Dame's radar.
The week before the Oct. 11 game with North Carolina, Notre Dame will host Stanford. Fox Sports writer Bruce Feldman proposed a "body blow theory" involving the adverse effects of playing the Cardinal. Feldman (writing for CBS at the time) showed that, on average, teams regress from their mean in both rushing offense and defense in the week after playing Stanford, arguably the most physical team in the country.
Fortunately for Notre Dame, they only have a game after Stanford every other year, as the Irish close odd-numbered years in Palo Alto. This year, that is not the case, as the Tar Heels roll into Notre Dame Stadium seven days after the Cardinal depart.
It's not just the team that comes before North Carolina that presents a challenge for the Irish. It's the one that comes after: defending national champion and likely preseason No. 1 Florida State. In Tallahassee. North Carolina is a classic sandwich game for Notre Dame, one of the many criteria when attempting to define a trap game.
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The Tar Heels' spread offense is a far cry from the ground-and-pound attack employed by Stanford. A change in scheme can wear on a defense, as we saw last year when the Irish followed two games with triple-option teams with its worst loss of the season to Pittsburgh and its pro-style attack.
Even the name North Carolina itself could play into the hands of the visitors. This is football, not basketball, so the name "North Carolina" doesn't carry much clout when compared to traditional powers. Miami (FL) could have a worse team than the Tar Heels, but there would still be a far smaller chance of the Irish overlooking the Hurricanes based on name alone.
Syracuse and Navy could be candidates for trap games, but both games are after Irish bye weeks. Notre Dame is 5-1 under Brian Kelly after a bye.
The Northwestern game on Nov. 15 doesn't deserve trap-game merit strictly because Notre Dame players will be reminded all week of the Wildcats' stunning upset in South Bend in 1995. Louisville a week later? The Cardinals are a dangerous foe, but Notre Dame is 4-0 on Senior Day under Kelly.
All factors point to North Carolina as the team that could come into Notre Dame Stadium as an underdog and ruin Notre Dame's hopes for a playoff berth or a major bowl game. Purdue simply wasn't good enough a year ago to capitalize on a poor Irish performance. The Tar Heels are too talented to let that opportunity slip away if it presents itself.