Notre Dame Football: 5 Biggest Games on the 2012 Schedule
The Notre Dame Fighting Irish enter the third season of the Brian Kelly era in 2012, a year removed from a relatively disappointing campaign that ended with a Champs Sports Bowl loss to the Florida State Seminoles.
Although Michael Floyd is now a member of the Arizona Cardinals and the team is coming off consecutive bowl games, expectations are once again rather high for the Golden Domers.
Highly-touted quarterback recruit Gunner Kiel is already enrolled, running back Cierre Wood is fresh off a 1,000-yard 2011 and linebacker Manti Te'o returns for what should be a tremendous senior season.
Here are the five games that'll ultimately determine Notre Dame's season. (hint: The Fighting Irish's schedule is difficult.)
September 15: At Michigan State
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After relatively "easy" games to begin the year against Navy and Purdue, Notre Dame will face an extremely physical matchup against the Spartans on September 15.
Steady quarterback Kirk Cousins moved onto the NFL, but the Fighting Irish will be forced to deal with Le'Veon Bell, an absolute bruiser of a running back at 6'2'' and 240 pounds.
He rushed for 948 yards and 13 touchdowns at a 5.2 yards-per-carry clip in 2011.
On defense, the menacing William Gholston returns on the defensive line.
This Spartans team isn't as talented from top to bottom as it was last season, but they'll be a formidable opponent for Notre Dame in September.
Memorable game in this series:
The game that yielded this epic rant.
September 22: Vs. Michigan
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Let's just say the Wolverines and Fighting Irish have treated college football enthusiasts with legendary battles since 2009.
In Jimmy Clausen's final season in South Bend, he lost a wild game, 38-34, at the Big House in the final minutes. In 2010, Denard Robinson's 502-yard masterpiece led Michigan to a surprising win. Last year, in one of the most captivating final minutes in recent memory, the Wolverines stole a victory from the jaws of defeat.
Michigan returns its Heisman hopeful quarterback and has a vastly improved defense.
However, 1,000-yard rusher Fitzgerald Toussaint was suspended indefinitely from the team following a DUI arrest in late July.
Hopefully, this year's version of the Michigan-Notre Dame game will be as epic as the last three meetings between the two fabled college football programs—if that's possible.
If the Fighting Irish can get past the Wolverines for the first time in four years, it'll build momentum for the remainder of the season.
Memorable game in this series
Good luck finding a more unpredictable and thrilling final two minutes.
October 13: Vs. Stanford
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Another storied rivalry for the Irish. At least they won't have to deal with Andrew Luck in 2012.
Brett Nottingham or Robbie Picazo will fill the absolutely enormous void created with Luck's departure to the NFL, but the Cardinal are still extremely physical up front and in their running game.
No, Notre Dame's defensive line won't be getting blocked by Jonathan Martin or David DeCastro, but Stanford has a solid offensive line and returns 1,000-yard rusher Stepfan Taylor.
This certainly is a winning game for the Fighting Irish, one they must win if they have legitimate BCS bowl aspirations.
Memorable game in this series
Charlie Weis' final game as Notre Dame's head coach
October 27: At Oklahoma
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The Sooners are stacked once again and begin as the No. 4 team in the nation in USA Today's pre-season Top 25.
Landry Jones returns for his senior season after a devastating end to a 2011 season that was precipitated by the injury of standout receiver Ryan Broyles.
The return of Dominique Whaley, who suffered an ankle injury last year, will undoubtedly help the running game, and the defense returns seven starters.
It won't be able to replace the production of Travis Lewis and Ronnell Lewis, but Bob Stoops is known for his ability to "reload" nearly every season.
Playing in Norman make matters even more difficult for Notre Dame.
Nov. 24: At Southern California
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To end Notre Dame's difficult 2012 schedule, a date with the ultra-talented USC Trojans in the battle for the Jeweled Shillelagh.
Southern Cal is the No. 1 team in the eyes of many analysts this year, and many have predicted the Trojans winning the national title.
Matt Barkley returns after a stunningly efficient 39-touchdown, seven-interception campaign in 2011.
Robert Woods and Marqise Lee each had over 1,000 yards receiving and accounted for a total of 26 touchdowns last year.
Penn State transfer Silas Redd adds a dynamic running back to the mix.
Quite the tough end to the season for Notre Dame, playing in the Coliseum against a mighty Trojans club.