Fresh off an appearance in the BCS National Championship Game that did not go as intended, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish have one of the nation's toughest schedules and something to prove.
Notre Dame is no stranger to tough schedules. 2013 is about par for the course in that regard. According to Phil Steele, who ranks schedules yearly, the Fighting Irish have the No. 23 most difficult schedule in the nation.
Gone are the superstars of last year. Manti Te'o is in the NFL with San Diego, and quarterback Everett Golson is lost to academic suspension.
New leadership must emerge for the Fighting Irish. The Brian Kelly era reached a peak last year, and to stay at the top, the team has to grow—fast. Anything less than an improvement and the schedule will eat the team alive.
Here are the toughest games on the schedule.
Sept. 7 at Michigan Wolverines
As a result of the Golson suspension, Tommy Rees is penciled in as the starting quarterback going into Notre Dame's matchup with Michigan.
The last time these two teams met, the Fighting Irish only got 115 passing yards from Rees—and won.
Do not expect that to happen again. Michigan may have lost Denard Robinson, but Devin Gardner is back and will run the same offense.
Notre Dame is not going to be able to force six turnovers again like it did last year at home. Michigan is also not going to be held to six points once more, as the offense scored 30 or more points in seven games last year. Both of those statistics are anomalies, not the norm.
On the road at Ann Arbor against a heated rival, the Notre Dame offense is going to have to rediscover itself. So is the defense. The reinvention better happen quickly as this is the second game of the year for Notre Dame.
Prediction: Fighting Irish 13, Michigan 20
Oct. 5 vs. Arizona State
Do not let the title fool you—this is anything but a home game for the Fighting Irish. The contest between Notre Dame and Arizona takes place in Cowboys Stadium, home of the Dallas Cowboys.
As part of the Shamrock Series—a way for Notre Dame to promote itself around the country—the program will do battle with the Sun Devils in a way to further its reach.
The good news for Notre Dame is twofold. For one, the contest takes place midseason, so the wrinkles in a new-look defense and a throwback offense should be ironed out. Second, Notre Dame has never lost in the Shamrock Series, beating a total of four opponents by a combined score of 153-41.
Make no mistake: The Sun Devils should not be slept on under second-year head coach Todd Graham. The team is looking to continue its upward swing from an 8-5 season in 2012. The offense is electric after posting 68 points in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl, so the Fighting Irish defense better have found a new identity by October.
Prediction: Fighting Irish 23, Sun Devils 20
Nov. 30 at Stanford Cardinal
Herein lies the defining moment for the 2013 Fighting Irish. Can the team travel to Stanford and take on a team becoming an annual powerhouse?
Notre Dame scored a seven-point victory over the Cardinal midseason last year as the bruising defense managed to contain the ground attack that Stanford used to steamroll opponents.
This year, both teams will look different. Stanford lost Stepfan Taylor to the NFL, but quarterback Kevin Hogan is back in the mix. Stanford has also not lost since Notre Dame narrowly escaped with a victory in 2012.
Stanford will be back in the Pac 12 discussion after winning the championship a year ago. Furthermore, a BCS title will be within reach by the time the team welcomes Notre Dame to town.
The Fighting Irish may not be in the national championship hunt, but playing the spoiler is a possibility. Expect a classic to end the season, which coincidentally happens to be Notre Dame's toughest game of the year.
Prediction: Fighting Irish 17, Cardinal 24
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