Notre Dame took a big-but-expected step backward in 2013, one year removed from running the table in the regular season and making the BCS National Championship Game against Alabama.
Manti Te'o, the heart and soul of that defense, graduated and left for the NFL, while starting quarterback Everett Golson was suspended for academic reasons, leaving the offense in the rarely capable hands of Tommy Rees.
A 9-4 record wasn't great, but wins over Michigan State—which beat every other team on its schedule—Arizona State and USC still provided cause for optimism moving forward, as did the development of future stars like linebacker Jaylon Smith. Which begs a legitimate question:
Does this team win more or less games in 2014?
The obvious answer is "more," since Golson has been re-admitted to the university and appears to be a much improved quarterback. He's been working with quarterback guru George Whitfield—a man who's helped refine Ben Roethlisberger, Cam Newton, Andrew Luck and Johnny Manziel, among others—and should be a better player because of it.
According to B/R's Keith Arnold, who spoke with Whitfield, the teacher has seen a transformation in his pupil. "He just absorbs everything," Whitfield declared. "That’s the longest I’ve ever spent with a quarterback in a one-on-one setting. We just came through a 10-week run. And he just absorbed everything."
If Golson comes back better than ever in 2014, Notre Dame will have fixed its biggest, most glaring problem from this past season—uneven play under center. Ipso facto, it should be able to improve upon its 9-4 record...right?
It's not quite that simple. In its first season of partial-ACC membership, Notre Dame gets to avoid potential pitfalls like Michigan State, but it still has one of the hardest projected schedules in college football:
|Date||Opponent||2013 Record||2013 F/+|
|Aug. 30||vs. Rice||10-4||55|
|Sep. 6||vs. Michigan||7-6||32|
|Sep. 13||vs. Purdue (N)||1-11||114|
|Sep. 27||at Syracuse (N)||7-6||76|
|Oct. 4||vs. Stanford||11-3||3|
|Oct. 11||vs. North Carolina||7-6||40|
|Oct. 18||at Florida State||13-0||1|
|Nov. 1||vs. Navy (N)||9-4||66|
|Nov. 8||at Arizona State||10-4||6|
|Nov. 15||vs. Northwestern||5-7||57|
|Nov. 22||vs. Louisville||12-1||16|
|Nov. 29||at USC||10-4||12|
Source: FBSchedules.com / Football Outsiders
If Notre Dame finishes with two or less losses, unlike recent seasons, nobody will be able to complain about its strength of schedule. It might not make the national semifinals with a 10-2 record, but something like the Peach Bowl, which is part of the College Football Playoff, would still be in play.
That's the good news.
The bad news is that going 10-2 will be difficult. That schedule includes five of the 20 best teams in college football this past season, according to Football Outsiders' F/+ ratings. Some, like Louisville, are poised for regression after losing a quarterback and head coach. But others, like USC, only stand to improve with another year of experience and some stability on the sidelines.
Elsewhere, teams like Michigan and Northwestern should return to the form of previous years in 2014, making neither the pushover it was this season. UNC was one of the hottest teams in football toward the end of 2013, and Navy plays the Irish tough every single year. Same goes for Purdue, the only true pushover on the schedule, and Rice just won Conference-USA.
Where are the guaranteed wins?
In order to improve on last year's record, Notre Dame would need to (a) beat at least one team out of Stanford, Florida State, Arizona State and USC, and (b) take care of business against every other team on the schedule. No matter how much they improve, doing so would be a very difficult task, especially with guys like Stephon Tuitt, Louis Nix III and Prince Shembo leaving the defense.
My prediction? Notre Dame will improve on the field but not in the standings. It will finish with a better body of work but not a better record. Instead, I think another 9-4 season is on the horizon, only this one will be more impressive:
|Aug. 30||vs. Rice||W|
|Sep. 6||vs. Michigan||W|
|Sep. 13||vs. Purdue (N)||W|
|Sep. 27||at Syracuse (N)||W|
|Oct. 4||vs. Stanford||L|
|Oct. 11||vs. North Carolina||W|
|Oct. 18||at Florida State||L|
|Nov. 1||vs. Navy (N)||L|
|Nov. 8||at Arizona State||W|
|Nov. 15||vs. Northwestern||W|
|Nov. 22||vs. Louisville||W|
|Nov. 29||at USC||L|
Source: FBSchedules.com / Football Outsiders
Despite the ever-lofty expectations in South Bend, a season like that would be something to build on. And that's just a conservative estimate. The 2013 season has only just ended; so much can change between now and each of those games.
If I had to pick between "more wins" and "less wins," despite the difficult schedule, my gut would lean toward the former. I have faith in Everett Golson to catalyze this offense, and I have faith in Brian Kelly to ease the transition at both coordinator spots.
How Many Games Will Notre Dame Win in 2014?
Plus, getting games like Michigan, UNC, Northwestern and Louisville at home is deceptively important. Those teams might be roughly equal to the Irish next season, so the crowd at Notre Dame Stadium could make all the difference.
Still, at the end of the day, this schedule doesn't appear conducive to a run at the first College Football Playoff. It's not the news Irish fans want to hear, but it's the hard-to-face reality.
Maybe in 2015?