Notre Dame Fear Factor: Ranking the Irish Opponents Part Deux

Marc HalstedCorrespondent IAugust 30, 2009

LOS ANGELES, CA - NOVEMBER 29:  Quarterback Jimmy Clausen #7 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish walks out with teammates Robert Hughes #33 and Sergio Brown #31 before the game against the USC Trojans at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on November 29, 2008 in Los Angeles, California. The Trojans defeated the Fighting Irish 38-3.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Two days ago I ranked and presented the six teams that offer the least amount of fear to Notre Dame fans at this point in the preseason. Now it’s time for the six most frightening opponents on the 2009 Irish docket.

6. Navy

Navy starts the season with new starters at major skill spots like quarterback, fullback, slot back, and both wide receiver spots. The only returning offensive threats are senior back Cory Finnerty (73 yards gained) and ’08 part-time starting QB Ricky Dobbs.

Defensively, Navy graduated two of their top three tacklers and the two defensive backs that lead the team in interceptions. They must replace 11 total starters, including seven on the offensive side of the ball.

But it’s Navy, and Ken Niumatalolo could coach Mother Teresa into a knife fight.

Anybody remember last year? The Irish lead 27-7 with 10 minutes left when Coach Weis reached for the parachute. ND plodded along to 11 straight running plays, one Jonas Gray fumble, two gutless onside kick attempts, and a very lucky six-point victory.

At least nine ND opponents will be more talented than Navy on paper in 2009. Not one of those opponents will play harder than Navy. The Irish should win but it will not be without what the noted philosopher Clubber Lang once predicted: “Pain!”

5. Michigan

RichRod has screamed at the Michigan kids for 12-plus full months now, eliminated those players who actually prefer to be treated like men, alienated most of his Big 10 rivals, and infuriated many of his most loyal fans.

Yet he’ll tell you that they’re on target and ready to roar back to life in 2009.

As for reality, Notre Dame hung 35 on Michigan in ’08 even though Coach Weis pulled the aforementioned ‘chute in the second half. 

UM has their leading rusher, their three leading receivers, and their top two tacklers back to go with a full year of experience in the vaunted spread attack.

ND is better. Jimmy, Golden, and Michael Floyd should light up the Big House lights. But beware, Coach Weis, this is still Michigan and they're always one of the top five toughest games on your schedule. If you take the foot off the throat for even one series the ghost of Bo will never let you forget it.

4. Pittsburgh

Does Dave Wannstedt have it together? Is Bill Stull a proven winner at quarterback? Is Jonathan Baldwin a top five receiver in the nation? Is diminutive freshman running Dion Lewis the next “big” thing in the Big East?

If the answer is “yes” than Pitt will be a candidate for a Notre Dame trap game right smack in the middle of four should-be wins over Washington State, Navy, Connecticut and Stanford. 

Pitt stunned the Irish last season at Notre Dame when (yawn) Coach Weis (double-yawn) pulled the ‘chute after taking a 17-3 lead into halftime. 

Note to Coach: how about finishing a freakin’ game this year, huh?

Scott McKillop, LeSean McCoy, and Derek Kinder are gone but there’s enough talent waiting at Heinz Field to give their rust-belt rival a scare, especially if the Irish don’t play four full quarters.

3. Nevada

The biggest shocker for the fear factor list comes from Reno, Nev. And no, I haven’t been drinking too much of Grandpa's cough syrup. This one is for real.

The Wolfpack will bring the poor-man’s Colt McCoy, Colin Kaepernick, and a pair of 1000-yard rushers in Vai Taua and Luke Lippincott to South Bend on Sept. 5.

What makes this game deserving of a No. 3 ranking on this list is the fact that it’ll be opening day with all that Irish youth, all those Holtzian proclamations, and all that pressure. 

Remember, this countdown is about pure fear. If a quirky offensive alignment, veteran offensive talent, opening day jitters, and a Balboa-esque underdog doesn’t make you quake in your green knickers, than you're not paying attention.

2. Michigan State

Mark Dantonio is the best thing to hit East Lansing since Cash for Clunkers and his Spartans will have the talent to haunt the Nittany Lions and the Fighting Tressel’s late into the Big 10 night.

As for Sept. 19, ND will have to deal with a veteran receiving corps, 14 returning starters, and an angry (and frighteningly talented) middle linebacker named Greg Jones. 

Thankfully, the Irish will be at home and should be coming off a big victory over the VH1 reality show cast from Ann Arbor.

Thankfully, Javon Ringer has run out of his eight years of eligibility. Thankfully the ND defense will horrify whoever plays quarterback for Sparty…we hope.

1. USC

No brainer here. Oct. 17 is “The Game” and America will be paying attention. ESPN Gameday should be in South Bend and I’m sure Chris Fowler will predict a USC blowout, Kirk Herbstreit will apologetically find a way to straddle the line, and Lee Corso will don the Trojan head gear and swing the sword like Inigo Montoya in “The Princess Bride.”

The QB storyline starts with Jimmy Clausen and his chance to make his Heisman case. The story will continue with Matt Barkley and his chance to cement his freshmen reputation.

Having survived Ohio State and the over-rated Buckeyes, Barkley will have to stare down the best Notre Dame defensive backfield since Shane Walton and Vontez Duff roamed the Notre Dame Stadium turf.

If the Irish can pull this out it could redefine the rivalry. With the USC experience level where it is right now, if the Irish don’t get them this year, they may never get them.

There it is. 12 games, 12 teams, and 12 wins if you’re listening to Saint Lou these days. Most Irish fans would be happy with nine or ten wins and a good southern bowl game. If not, it may be time to get familiar with the resumes of Phil Fulmer and Jon Gruden.


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