The beginning of August ushers in fresh optimism surrounding the Notre Dame football squad in 2014.
Fans heap high expectations on the Fighting Irish, with the hope of Notre Dame gliding on a magical season like that of 2012. This season, the Irish face a challenging schedule, highlighted by Michigan, Stanford, Florida State, Arizona State and USC.
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Of the difficult 12-game slate, let’s highlight three games that could derail Notre Dame’s campaign. Now, a loss to, say, Florida State wouldn’t ruin the Irish season. Toss-ups or games in which the Irish figure to be favored can be more fittingly classified as potential derailments for Notre Dame.
Here we go.
Nestled between two powerhouse programs on Notre Dame’s schedule rests another solid school, one that figures to be waiting to clip the Irish in mid-October.
The Irish welcome Stanford to Notre Dame Stadium on Oct. 4 and travel to Tallahassee, Florida, to battle Florida State—the likely preseason No. 1 team in the country—on Oct. 18.
In between those two matchups, the Irish will square off with North Carolina.
UNC cracked the post-spring practice Top 25 of Bleacher Report’s Brian Pedersen at No. 16 in the country. The Irish will have to keep close tabs on UNC playmakers T.J. Logan, Quinshad Davis and Ryan Switzer. Their big-play ability could spell trouble against an aggressive Notre Dame secondary.
The placement of the matchup with the Tar Heels makes it even more difficult for the Irish. Notre Dame should benefit, however, from playing at home and not needing to hit the road following the Stanford tilt.
There’s a decent chance Notre Dame could enter the early-October Stanford game at 4-0 after opening the season with Rice, Michigan, Purdue and Syracuse. If the Irish defend their home turf against Stanford but fall to North Carolina, the loss could be crippling with the Seminoles looming the next week. All of a sudden, the Irish would sit at 4-2 with Arizona State, Louisville and USC, among others, still looming.
The Irish will take the field at Notre Dame Stadium for the final time in 2014 when they square off with Louisville in the penultimate week of the regular season.
At that stage, Notre Dame’s season could be spoiled with a loss to the Cardinals, especially with a trip to USC the next week (more on that later).
Back for his second stint as the head coach, Bobby Petrino could have the Louisville offense rolling by that point in the season. Petrino may not have quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, but the offensive-minded coach has a trio of terrific playmakers in running backs Dominique Brown and Michael Dyer and wide receiver DeVante Parker.
Brown was the team’s leading rusher in 2013, while Dyer—who eclipsed 1,000 yards in his two seasons at Auburn—battled injuries in his first season at Louisville. Parker was Bridgewater’s top receiver but eschewed the NFL for one more season in Kentucky.
If Notre Dame somehow successfully maneuvers through the first 10 games of its gauntlet in 2014 with just one or two losses, a loss to Louisville at home on senior day would be a letdown.
Speaking of late-season showdowns, Notre Dame closes out the regular season with the customary trek to California to face USC.
Recent history provides us with a good example of what could be at stake.
Two years ago—the last time the Trojans hosted the Irish—Notre Dame was undefeated heading into the rivalry game at USC. Had the Trojans been able to take down the Irish, Notre Dame’s national championship hopes would have crumbled right there at the finish line against one of its main enemies.
Now, it’s highly unlikely Notre Dame will be undefeated when the teams meet in this year’s rendition. But there still could be enough on the line for USC to ruin Notre Dame’s prospects of making the College Football Playoff or, more realistically, some of the other marquee bowl games.
In 2012, the Irish topped the Trojans, 22-13, behind five field goals from Kyle Brindza and 146 rushing yards from Theo Riddick. It wasn’t pretty, but Notre Dame never trailed and eventually got the job done.
The Trojans will be lurking again at the end of the home stretch.
New head coach Steve Sarkisian headlines this year’s USC squad, and the Trojans can turn up the offensive pace with quarterback Cody Kessler returning for his second season as the starter and wide receiver Nelson Agholor climbing to the top of the depth chart in place of Marqise Lee.
Defensively, USC boasts a standout at each level of the defense, with defensive end Leonard Williams, inside linebacker Hayes Pullard and defensive back Su’a Cravens.
All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.
Mike Monaco is a lead Notre Dame writer for Bleacher Report. Follow @MikeMonaco_ on Twitter.