Prediction #2: Road Wary

O'Malley's summer prediction series resumes with a look at what he sees as a reversal of fortune for the Irish away from home this fall.

It's a small sample size, but a key factor in head coach Brian Kelly's success in his three seasons at Notre Dame is the veteran coach's ability to take his team into hostile environs and emerge unscathed.

More than half of Kelly's 39 contests in charge of the Irish have been played outside of South Bend, and the record shows a 14-6 W-L ledger. Not the stuff of coaching legend, but acceptable considering the foes include programs such as USC, Michigan, Michigan State, Miami, Florida State, Stanford, and Alabama.

A closer look shows Kelly and his traveling crew have been highly successful in college football's greatest challenge: the true road game, a scenario in which the Kelly-led Irish are an impressive 9-3.

  • 2010: 4-2 away from South Bend including a 2-1 mark in enemy stadiums
  • 2011: 4-3 away from home including 3-1 in true road games
  • 2012: 6-1 outside the House that Rockne built including 4-0 in true road tilts

Kelly and the Irish have won true road games in Los Angeles (twice), in East Lansing, Mich., and in Norman, Okla. They've emerged 2-0 vs. former troubling host Boston College, and won two ugly games that came down to the wire in both Pittsburgh (15-12 over the Panthers) and Winston Salem (24-17 over Wake Forest). Winning ugly is a necessity away from home.

Two of the program's three true road losses during the Kelly regime occurred in places they'll visit this fall as well: Ann Arbor (the 35-31 prime time give away vs. Michigan in 2011) and Palo Alto (a 28-14 handling at the hands of Andrew Luck and Stanford). (The third loss was to peer Michigan State in 2010, a back-and-forth affair highlighted by the infamous "Little Giants" fake field goal-heard-round-the-world conclusion.)

After a 2-2 start for Kelly on the road his Irish have won seven of their last eight true road tilts, but the three most impressive of those decisions (Michigan State, Oklahoma, and USC last fall) due largely to the arm -- and feet -- of since-expelled quarterback Everett Golson in congress with a standout defense.

Only one of those entities will be available in 2013, a reality that leads us to the next prediction in our summer series:

Prediction #2: ND will drop three outside South Bend

The Irish play six away from home this season, and though two kickoff times have yet-to-be-determined, its a safe bet each of the sextet will be played in prime time:

Underdog Scenarios: Ann Arbor and Palo Alto: Current odds have Notre Dame and Michigan as a "Pick 'Em." Its a point spread that indicates the Irish would be a slight favorite if the game were to be played at a neutral site or in South Bend.

Of course, it won't be. Instead, a new center, a new running back and new, inexperienced free safety -- three crucial positions in any tight contest -- will have players make their collective road debuts under the lights in the Big House, a stadium that's transformed over the last three years from the quietest weekly gathering of 100,000-plus seat-warmers into one of the loudest, most imposing in the nation, due partly to a massive press box that helps crowd noise reverberate throughout the historic edifice.

If the Irish win in Ann Arbor in Week Two, my season prediction and expectations will do an abrupt about face…

Concluding 2013's proceedings is the biennial battle on the west coast with the Stanford Cardinal. Current (certain-to-change) odds have the Cardinal as a five-point favorite for what will likely be a BCS play-in game for the hosts and could be for the visitors as well.

The Irish have dropped two straight in Palo Alto, and as noted in our "Trouble Spots" series (Click here to read the game overview), the Cardinal defense has owned the Kelly-era Irish in three straight.

A win at Stanford likely indicates a National Title contending team again for the Irish.

Caught in a Trap? Purdue and Pittsburgh

Senior backup-turned-starter Tommy Rees began his Irish career 3-0 away from home. He's since regressed to the mean, winning four of seven, though Rees' only true road game defeat as the team's triggerman came in the aforementioned Ann Arbor debacle of 2011. (Rees has defeated USC, Purdue, Pittsburgh and Wake Forest in true road tilts.)

His performance under pressure will likely be a key factor in two rivalry road games this fall when the Irish travel to West Lafayette in Week Three -- their second straight prime time road game -- and Pittsburgh in November. The Irish will be a certain double-digit favorite in the former and likely in the latter as well (current odds are ND -14 at Purdue and -10.5 in Heinz Field).

I have no qualms about Rees' mental state entering any road game -- he's as prepared above-the-neck as any player in college football to handle the pressure. Its his legs and right arm that serve as the great equalizer, especially vs. any defense that makes the Irish sustain and finish long drives in the red zone as the Panthers did in 2011, dropping a 15-12 nail-biter to the Irish the last time they hosted Kelly's crew. And that Panthers team was terrible.

One of these two annual foes will give the Irish trouble in 2013.

Just Got Tougher -- Arizona State

Notre Dame was installed as a 4-point favorite prior to Golson's dismissal. I figured that line was about a field goal too low, and that Notre Dame would put up 30-plus on the Sun Devils attacking, aggressive, but less-than-disciplined defense (circa 2012). Arizona State can score -- 43 vs. UCLA, 41 vs. Arizona, 62 vs. Navy -- but its leaky defense led to five losses last fall.

Can Notre Dame's defense hold the Sun Devils to 21 points or fewer? That's the relevant number, because when opponents score more than 21 points vs. the Kelly-led Irish, Notre Dame is a miserable 3-10 overall...and 1-9 when led by a quarterback other than Everett Golson.

Nothing Easy? Air Force and an Overview

Favored by 18 prior to Golson's expulsion, Notre Dame's defense should prove too strong for the undersized Falcons, and if the Irish bring a running game to 2013, Air Force won't be able to keep up. But when a prime time game at Air Force on the heels of your biggest rival USC is your "easiest" road game? That's an indication things could get dicey outside of South Bend over the long haul.

With Golson at the controls, I had Notre Dame beating Michigan (close), handling Arizona State (covering whatever spread Vegas offered), and simply proving too much for the defenses of Purdue, Pittsburgh, and Air Force. Without him? Michigan becomes my favorite, Arizona State a major challenge, and one of the remaining trio a trap from which the Irish might not escape.

And I had Stanford projected as a loss from the outset. The latter hasn't changed, but the "Away From Home" prediction has:

Notre Dame will drop three outside of South Bend.

Note: Click here to read Prediction #1 regarding Notre Dame's home slate/fate.

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