Notre Dame and the Pac-12 clash three times in 2013. First, it's Arizona State on Oct. 5 in Arlington, Texas. Then, the Irish host USC on Oct. 19 before closing out the season Nov. 30 at Stanford. Is any one of the three games more intriguing than the others? Notre Dame blogger Matt Fortuna and Pac-12 blogger Kevin Gemmell weigh in.
Matt Fortuna: The USC game is the USC game. It's another night game at Notre Dame Stadium, and we all know the Irish do not want a repeat of 2011, when the Trojans beat them from start to finish in the building's first night contest in 21 seasons, which all but ended the Irish's BCS bowl hopes in the middle of the season.
The Arizona State game comes at a crucial time for both teams -- sandwiched between the Irish's Oklahoma tilt and their bye and following a three-week stretch of Wisconsin, Stanford and USC for the Sun Devils. But I've still got my eyes on Stanford, for a number of reasons.
For one, Notre Dame and Stanford seem to mirror each other, from the classroom standards to the smash-mouth, defensive-oriented style of football both displayed during BCS bowl seasons in 2012. One needs to look no further than last Oct. 13, with "College GameDay" in town and the rain coming down hard in South Bend, Ind.
It wasn't just that the Irish finally beat the Cardinal that day, it was the way that they did it -- utilizing an overtime goal-line stand to top a team that, in victories in the three seasons prior, had outrushed Notre Dame by a 642-208 margin.
Notre Dame outgained Stanford on the ground in their 2012 matchup.
Stanford was the standard, and Notre Dame passed it in fitting fashion.
When the Irish topped USC six weeks later to clinch a BCS title game spot, athletic director Jack Swarbrick said that the Stanford game was what made him think the program had turned a corner and could pull off the run it did last fall. When Stanford topped Wisconsin to win the Rose Bowl, Cardinal coach David Shaw called the Irish contest a turning point, as the team went on to win its final eight games.
With this season's game serving as both teams' regular-season finale, the stakes might be even higher.
Sure, the loss of quarterback Everett Golson hurts Notre Dame's chances at reaching another BCS title game. But the program is still in position to compete for a BCS bowl bid, and the final hurdle this fall might be the program it has begun to mirror in so many ways recently.
As for Stanford? Well, for a Cardinal program consistently popping up in preseason top-five conversations, and with its conference title-game fate already decided before this contest, Notre Dame might be the biggest thing standing between Stanford and another trip to Pasadena, Calif. -- this time with stakes much higher than last season.
Kevin Gemmell: No doubt, that game has plenty of intrigue, but I'm really eyeing the Arizona State game. And had I gone first in this Take 2, I still would go with Arizona State.
First, nationally televised games on neutral fields smack-dab in the middle of the season should naturally perk the ears up. Second, these two teams have stirred the pot in recent weeks, with the Sun Devils staring down the Irish to keep that 2014 game in Tempe, Ariz. Third, I think it's going to be an outstanding football game.
This is a big push season for the Sun Devils -- who feel like they have the personnel and depth to make a run at not just the South Division, but maybe the Rose Bowl. Their quarterback is efficient, their running back tandem is explosive and their defensive front seven might be as good as any in the Pac-12.
And I think the Sun Devils will be able to put up some points. Marion Grice and D.J. Foster form as dynamic a running back combination in the country, combining for 25 touchdowns last season on the ground and through the air. Taylor Kelly should be an even better quarterback this season after posting a 67.1 completion percentage in his first season as a starter, with 29 touchdowns to nine interceptions. And Chris Coyle is one of the top tight ends on the West Coast. If the junior college transfers ASU is expecting in the fall pan out at wide receiver, the Sun Devils will have one of the most diverse offenses in the league.
I'm also really excited to see how Will Sutton, Carl Bradford and the rest of the front seven do against Notre Dame's traditionally beastly offensive fronts -- headlined by left tackle Zack Martin. Last season, only five FBS players had 80-plus tackles, 20-plus tackles for a loss and 10-plus sacks. Three of them are gone. The remaining two are in the Pac-12. Bradford is one of them. And in case anyone forgot, Sutton, an All-American, had 13 sacks and 23.5 tackles for loss.
As Matt notes, this game comes at the tail end of what could be a character- and season-defining four-game stretch for the Sun Devils. Just two weeks earlier, that ASU defensive front will have faced one of the best offensive lines in the country in Stanford. However that game turns out, there's probably going to be a lot of self-scouting and lessons learned. The Sun Devils will know what they are made of before they set foot in Texas. And, a propos of noting, I also find it ironic that Notre Dame will be scouting ASU from consecutive weeks of Stanford and USC film.
Just as the Stanford game was a turning point for both teams last season, the Arizona State game could have a similar impact in 2013.