The Notre Dame Fighting Irish start the 2011-12 season at 16th in the AP Top 25. The team's only ranked preseason opponents on the schedule are Michigan State at 17th, USC at 25th and Stanford at No. 7 in the polls. That's not to say that the other games will be a cake walk.
So how difficult will it be for Notre Dame to rise up the polls? And what are the chances of a BCS bowl appearance?
Taking a look at the road ahead, we'll see just what the Irish will be up against and how it could all pan out.
The first six games of the season feature a tough stretch and will be a good measure of how the season will go for the Irish. Notre Dame faces USF in the opener, a difficult game under the lights at Michigan, another Michigan State battle, a game at Pittsburgh, one at Purdue and then they are at home versus Air Force.
While wins versus USF, Purdue and Air Force won't be given to team, the biggest tests in the first six will be against Michigan, Michigan State and Pittsburgh.
The Irish lost to both Michigan State and Michigan last season, and to stay in the running for a BCS bowl game, they will likely have to win all three.
Pittsburgh and Michigan both have new coaches, so no one expects them to be firing on all cylinders early in the season.
The Irish know Pittsburgh's new coach Todd Graham very well. He led Tulsa to a victory against the Irish, although Tulsa capitalized off of a coaching blunder and a Tommy Rees' mistake at the end of the game. Even with a new team (and more talented for that matter), I don't think coach Graham will be so lucky.
Last season, the Michigan loss might not have happened if Dayne Crist didn't get knocked out in the first quarter, leaving two ineffective quarterbacks to try and lead the offense. But either way, a team led by Denard Robinson is a scary one.
Michigan State also beat the Irish in devastating fashion with a fake field goal attempt as the game looked to be going into its second overtime. The Irish will want revenge and won't be fooled so easily.
If the Irish can get through the first half of their schedule, that will give them some momentum to fight on through an even more difficult second half of the season. Winning six straight will assuredly put the Irish in the top 10, especially with how many ranked teams play each other in the first six weeks.
The last six games of the season don't get much easier. In fact, they are as difficult as the first six if not tougher.
Notre Dame starts the stretch versus USC, Navy, away versus Wake Forest, then Maryland, Boston College and at Stanford.
The three games to worry about are USC, Navy and Stanford, although Maryland will be a difficult matchup for the Irish as well.
The game at USC last season was close. Tommy Rees wasn't perfect in any sense of the word, and the Irish had terrible field position all game, but stellar defense and a little luck helped the Irish get a victory.
USC has a ton of talent this year, although it might not be as tough as last season if Dayne Crist can stay healthy and the Irish can win the field position battle.
Navy and their option attack have embarrassed the Irish two seasons in a row. Notre Dame knows exactly what Navy will throw at them, and even though the offensive linemen are undersized, there is no substitute for tenacity.
The Irish shouldn't lose to Navy three years in a row, but with the discipline they play with, the Irish won't be taking this game lightly.
The most important game of the season just happens to be the last contest. The Irish were dominated by Stanford last season. Stanford just was the more physical team. If the Irish can get to Palo Alto undefeated, Stanford will be the only thing standing in the way of getting to the National Championship game.
Andrew Luck has already been declared the No. 1 draft pick for next year, but without JIm Harbaugh, Stanford and Luck might not be able to recapture the magic from last season.
The Irish have 12 challenging, but very winnable games. No one knows if the Irish can go undefeated, but this year the team has as good of a chance as any to do so.