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Seventh-ranked Notre Dame has plenty of areas to improve on heading into Saturday’s home game against South Florida.

How about a four-letter word that many of us media focus far too much on during Notre Dame football season.

Food?

Good guess, but no. Though spend an afternoon and an evening and sometimes an early morning inside the ninth-floor Notre Dame Stadium press box and journalists are likely to eat just about anything. Well, almost anything. Vegetarian meals and whatever that red beans and rice concoction was last season might be the exception.

Free?

Another solid shot, but strike two. Still, far be it for media to turn down anything offered without a price tag, like hotel breakfast or in-room Wi-Fi. Heck, there might even be a leftover roll or two of SweeTarts rattling around in the work backpack from the help-yourself candy display at the 2018 College Football Playoff media hotel.

The answer to this question and for this column is T-R-A-P. As in, watch out, here comes a trap game. Again? Really? Ugh.

Rewind over recent seasons, and at least one appears. Like back during Notre Dame’s good, old days of independence against Boston College in 2017, when the Irish ran forever (515 yards), for a bounce-back win after a loss the previous week at home to Georgia. Or Ball State in 2018. Yeah, that was a little too close for comfort. Or Virginia (another win) last season.

Play as an independent, as Notre Dame did for so many seasons (OK, all of them) before this current one, and trap games were popular media creations. Something to talk about amongst friends and neighbors and during NBC commercial breaks. With no true conference championship to aim at, Notre Dame has never had the luxury of looking beyond a perceived lesser opponent from a lesser conference.

And sorry Floridians and American Athletic Conference apologists, both apply Saturday to overmatched South Florida. More on that in a minute.

A loss to a team from conference A, B or C and Notre Dame’s main goal — win a national championship — would be shelved yet another season. As an independent, gotta get ‘em all or you’re left with nothing. Trap games really don’t exist if you don’t belong to a conference. Now that Notre Dame does (thanks for that lifeline, Atlantic Coast Conference), along comes one.

South Florida (1-0) was a late addition to the schedule. The Bulls make their second-ever trip to the Bend only because Western Michigan, a school located barely 80 minutes away, was scrapped as an opponent after the Mid-American Conference decided to do away with (and now is trying to reboot) fall football. Needing a plus-one game to pair with its 10 ACC games, Notre Dame dialed up USF, and a three-game series was born.

The Irish will make a return trip to Tampa, which is nice. A Porterhouse at Charley’s Steak House often is the first stop after the plane lands while International Plaza at any time of year will do.

This one comes with a caveat. It really doesn’t matter what happens Saturday for Notre Dame. Win big or lose ugly. At the end of the day, Notre Dame still will be 1-0 where it truly matters — in the ACC.

Thus, a true trap game. That much was realized Monday afternoon. That’s when the ACC announced its players of the week and Notre Dame sophomore running back Kyren Williams earned one of the nine weekly honors. That’s never happened at Notre Dame. That’s when this season took another odd turn that underscored what this game — how this non-league game — means to Notre Dame.

Small picture? Everything. Big picture? Not so much.

Regardless of the outcome, No. 7 Notre Dame (1-0) will remain on track for a possible appearance in the College Football Playoff thanks to the ACC road map. Win or lose, and Notre Dame still gets at least one game against No. 1 Clemson (sometime in November, right?). Win or lose, and everything the Irish aim for as a member of a conference in 2020 remains doable. Getable. Playable.

Welcome to college football life with the security blanket of conference affiliation.

“It’s a little bit different,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said earlier this week on the ACC Network’s Packer and Durham show. “Our guys know they have chance to play for an ACC championship. Each ACC game brings a little bit more to the table from that perspective.”

It also takes a little off the table for every non-ACC game, like Saturday. Doesn’t mean Notre Dame will let its focus or attention to detail or its drive to be better the second time out slip. Non-league game or not, the Irish still want to play the part of the No. 7 team.

In a game like this — as a Top 10 team — Notre Dame has to play from the start as if it already has the answers to the exam. They could be multiple choice, true/false, fill in the blank or essay. Whatever the Bulls throw their way, the Irish need to respond from the start.

Don’t ease into this one as Notre Dame did in the opener against Duke. Don’t take four series before the offense finds its flow. Don’t wait until the third quarter until the defense decides that it can dominate.

With a new head coach (Jeff Scott), a new offensive coordinator (that Charlie Weis Jr. kid with deep area ties), a possible time-share at quarterback and a new defensive coordinator (Glenn Spencer), South Florida is pretty much a mystery. A challenge lurking there. Notre Dame should answer it with ease. And early.

Kelly knows it. The Irish know it.

This isn’t 2011 when USF sneaked up on a storm-soaked Saturday and ran out of town with a win. This Irish team’s not losing this game. This Irish team’s too good and this season’s too important to fall into, yep, you know.

A trap.

tnoie@sbtinfo.com

(574) 235-6153

Twitter: @tnoieNDI