The Notre Dame football program has reached a point where everything must fall into place nearly perfectly for the Irish to compete for major bowl games, let alone the national championship. The college football landscape has changed dramatically from the days - now a generation ago - when Notre Dame was a perennial power.
Two critical components if the Fighting Irish are to rise to prominence in 2012 are getting off to a good start and beating every unranked team on the schedule. Both of those requirements will be at risk when Notre Dame opens its season September 1 against Navy.
Tommy Rees, who started 16 of the last 17 games for Notre Dame at quarterback, is suspended for the game following his arrest and guilty plea regarding an offseason incident. Senior linebacker Carlos Calabrese was suspended for the same run-in with police.
In addition, running back Cierre Wood, the leading rusher for Notre Dame last season, has been suspended for the first two games of the season. He and defensive end Justin Utupo were disciplined by coach Brian Kelly for violating team rules.
The Irish will go with sophomore Everett Golson at quarterback for the opener. Golson has impressed in both spring and fall practice, but he has never taken a snap in a collegiate game. Notre Dame hopes that history doesn't repeat itself, after the Irish conducted a long competition to name a starter in 2011, only to dump the winner, Dayne Crist, at halftime of the season opener.
The defensive secondary is green as well, due to graduations, transfers and injuries. This will be critical as the Irish try to stop the quirky Navy option offense.
The Midshipmen are no longer the pushovers they once were, at least for Notre Dame. After the longest winning streak against an opponent in NCAA history was snapped - the Irish won 43 straight meetings between the two teams from the 1960s to 2007 - Navy won twice more. The Middies topped the Irish at Notre Dame in 2009, then totally embarrassed them at the New Meadowlands Stadium in New Jersey in 2010, 35-17.
Notre Dame also has to chase the ghosts of last year's season opener, when the Irish lost to South Florida at home, appearing unprepared and inept in the process.
On top of all this, the game will be played in Dublin, with all of the distractions and disruptions that accompany such an unusual road trip. Notre Dame players will be in unfamiliar territory - in terms of culture, practice facilities, even time zone. The crowd will be relatively unaware of the developments on the field, and the atmosphere will be unlike any game the Fighting Irish players have ever experienced.
Notre Dame no longer has much room for error. College football is too competitive. For this game, there are an awful lot of pieces seemingly out of place, and that could turn out to be a real problem on the field.
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Rick Blaine, an award-winning broadcaster and columnist, holds two degrees from Notre Dame. Follow him on Twitter @RickBlaineCT.
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