It’s a sign of the times in college football when the toughest game on Notre Dame’s home schedule is a date with a non-BCS automatic qualifier team in the middle of November. But Utah is no ordinary opponent and the game with the Utes is no ordinary Saturday at Notre Dame. While Boise State seems to be stealing all the headlines recently, it’s the team from Salt Lake City that’s the gold standard of Cinderellas, a football program that’s been playing elite football for over a decade, winning nine bowl games in the last 12 seasons, including two BCS games. (The last bowl loss for Utah was in the 1996 Copper Bowl to Wisconsin.) Utah will officially join the big boys next season when they move to the Pac-10, but they’ve been a college football power for quite some time.
Last time against the Irish:
For the second week in a row, the Irish will be facing an opponent for the first time. Here’s a fun tidbit: College football equipment managers have a tradition of trading helmets with an opposing team when playing them for the first time, and Notre Dame’s new equipment guru Ryan Grooms will be finding room for two more helmets, adding Tulsa and Utah to the shelf (and likely Western Michigan unless they’ve got the old leatherhead stashed away somewhere.)
Degree of Difficulty:
Of the 12 opponents the Irish face this year, I rank Utah as the second-toughest game on the schedule.
2. Utah Utes
3. Boston College Eagles
4. Michigan Wolverines
5. Michigan State Spartans
6. Pitt Panthers
7. Stanford Cardinal
8. Purdue Boilermakers
9. Navy Midshipmen
10. Tulsa Golden Hurricanes
12. Western Michigan Broncos
Traditionalists might not realize it, but this could be the best ticket on the 2010 home schedule. The Irish will have the benefit of a week off before facing Utah, while the Utes will be coming off a gigantic showdown with T.C.U.
Utah is 23-3 over the past two seasons, and during a transitional year head coach Kyle Whittingham still managed to win 10 games and beat Cal in the Poinsettia Bowl. In Whittingham, Kelly will face his toughest adversary, a head coach that’s gone 47-17 in his five seasons running the Utes. If Utah found its answer at quarterback in Jordan Wynn, the offense will be better for it. Wynn played his best during their bowl victory, throwing for 338 yards and three scores against Cal. He won’t need to be perfect, because he’s got a very strong running game and a veteran offensive line that returns four starters. The Irish defense better be capable stopping the run, because Utah has three guys that can run the football successfully.
Defensively, Utah’s front four will be its strength, but they have to replace all three starting linebackers and have relatively little experience to do it with. The secondary is largely untested as well, with only Brandon Burton returning as a starter. Utah might start freshman in both the secondary and among the linebackers, so the Irish have areas they may be able to target.
How the Irish will win:
If Notre Dame wins, they’ll do it at the expense of a Utah defense that struggles to find an identity after replacing nearly the entire back seven. Beaten up after a tough home battle against TCU, the Irish should spread the field, throw quickly and challenge a green group of defenders with quick strike passing and a solid mix of running and throwing. Defensively, the Irish are content stuffing the run, and the improved play of the secondary matches up well with an underwhelming corp of wide receivers for Utah.
How the Irish will lose:
Brian Kelly was hired for what his football teams do in November, and that’ll be put to the test early at Notre Dame. The Utes could very well be national championship contenders when they arrive in South Bend, and a victory at Notre Dame would be an impressive cherry on top of high-profile games against Pitt, TCU, the Irish, and their annual clash with BYU. If Utah wins, it’ll be because of the trenches, where on paper they’re much stronger than the Irish on both sides of the line of scrimmage.
In year one of the last two eras of Notre Dame football, the Irish played some of their best football down the stretch under Ty Willingham and Charlie Weis. If the Irish get the ball rolling under Kelly, there won’t be a student body or fanbase more electric than Notre Dame’s. By mid-November the Irish will be a different team, maybe better, maybe worse, but Kelly’s track record for keeping his team’s strong through the end of the season gives me reason to think that the Irish could be heading into Yankee Stadium with some serious momentum.