Notre Dame Football 2011: The Opponents Most Likely to Upset the Fighting Irish
According to Phil Steele's College Football Preview magazine, the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame face the nation's 14th most difficult schedule.
Despite the high ranking, fans still have high expectations for Brian Kelly and his squad heading into the season.
Many believe that 2011 is a "BCS or bust" type of season for the Irish. The schedule is navigable, but no opponent can be overlooked.
The following are the opponents most likely to upset the Fighting Irish.
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If Notre Dame's struggles against Navy last season are any indication of how the Irish fare against the triple option, then the team will be in for a big challenge against Air Force.
The Falcons averaged 306.5 rushing yards per game a season ago, which ranked second in the nation.
That success will likely continue as Troy Calhoun's squad returns quarterback Tim Jefferson, tailback Asher Clark and three starters along the offensive line.
The only question surrounding the Air Force offense is who will start at fullback, a critical position in the triple option attack.
The Falcons enter 2011 as one of the most underrated teams in the nation, and there's no doubt that the team has its game against Notre Dame circled on the calendar.
It's crucial for Bob Diaco's defense to be thoroughly prepared for the triple option attack. We all remember what happened last time the team wasn't exactly prepared for a similar offense.
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The Michigan Wolverines have had Notre Dame's number the past two seasons, defeating the Irish in both games.
However, Rich Rodriguez was fired and replaced by former San Diego State head coach and Michigan assistant Brady Hoke.
Hoke brings a straight ahead, pro-style attack with him to Ann Arbor. The question that needs to be asked is whether or not the offensive personnel, especially quarterback Denard Robinson, will be effective in the scheme.
That may not be the biggest issue facing the Wolverines.
The defense was an atrocious unit under Rich Rodriguez in the old 3-3-5 scheme. Brady Hoke has scrapped that in favor of a 4-3 front that he hopes will help improve the defense.
Those question marks may not be solved in time for the match-up with the Irish on Sept. 10 in the Big House.
However, it will be the first night game in Michigan Football history, and ESPN's College GameDay crew will be on hand.
Will those two factors play in Michigan's favor?
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The USC Trojans were in command of this rivalry for much of the 2000's, winning eight consecutive games against the Irish.
That all changed last season as Notre Dame handed Lane Kiffin's squad a 20-16 defeat in Los Angeles.
This season's edition of the rivalry figures to be a hotly contested one as both teams figure to be top 25 squads.
The Trojan offense returns quarterback Matt Barkley and running back Marc Tyler, but they must replace three starters along the offensive line.
If the line can gel quickly, the offense will be producing big numbers.
The defense is a different story. Led by legendary defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin, Lane's father, the unit ranked an abysmal 84th in the nation in total defense last season.
If the defense improves, the Irish better watch out as the Trojans would love nothing more than to come into South Bend and steal a victory in the first night game at Notre Dame Stadium in 21 years.
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The Battle for the Megaphone Trophy never fails to live up to expectations. That notion looks to be true for this season's match up.
Both teams will be heading into this match-up with some bad blood as the Spartans won last season's game on a fake field goal pass in overtime.
Mark Dantonio's Spartan squad returns quarterback Kirk Cousins and running back Edwin Baker, but he must replace three starters along the offensive line.
That shouldn't be a problem for Sparty, as the offensive line has tremendous depth.
The defensive front four will be one of the Big Ten's best with tackles Jerel Worthy and Kevin Pickelman returning along with end Tyler Hoover.
This match-up has "trap game" written all over it for the Irish, as they'll be coming off a huge game against Michigan the week before.
Brian Kelly must keep his team focused in practice leading up to the meeting with Michigan State.
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Jim Harbaugh may be gone but plenty of talent remains, starting with Heisman favorite Andrew Luck.
The Cardinal handed Notre Dame an embarrassing 37-14 loss last season in South Bend, so the Irish will surely be out for revenge in Palo Alto this season.
The Cardinals figure to be one of the nation's premier teams in 2011 but have to replace three starters along the offensive line.
That shouldn't be a problem considering Andrew Luck will be under center with running back Stepfan Taylor behind him.
Perhaps the biggest question facing Stanford this season is how the defense will fare after coordinator Vic Fangio followed Jim Harbaugh to the 49ers.
Co-defensive coordinators Jason Tarver and Derek Mason must make sure the defense doesn't miss a beat or the Cardinal will likely fall out of the hunt in the BCS.
The match-up with the Fighting Irish is certainly in Stanford's favor as the game will be played at night in Palo Alto. The Irish have not fared well in night games on the road, especially on the West Coast.