Entering the 2012 season, much of the conversation about Notre Dame was regarding its murderous schedule and number of quality quarterbacks that the Irish would face. Landry Jones, Stephen Morris, Denard Robinson and Heisman Trophy favorite Matt Barkley would all get their shots at the Notre Dame defense.
The Irish, of course, went 12-0 and qualified for the BCS Championship Game.
In 2013, a glance through the Notre Dame schedule showed a dearth of good quarterbacks. Oklahoma's Blake Bell and Michigan's Devin Gardner, who were entering the season as full-time starters for the first time, were thought to be the toughest tests for a stout Irish defense.
The Irish, of course, went 8-4 and settled for a Pinstripe Bowl berth.
What does 2014 have in store? Well, it should be somewhere in between 2012 and 2013. Ten of the 12 Notre Dame opponents return quarterbacks who have started at least half of a season. Roughly one-third will be major challenges, another third are hot and cold, and the final third are unlikely to test the Irish defense.
Let's take a closer look, from worst to best, at the 12 quarterbacks who will do battle with the Notre Dame defense in 2014.
Rice was one of the bigger surprises in college football last season, winning 10 games and claiming its first outright conference title since 1957. With Taylor McHargue moving on, Jackson will start 2014 under center, as the Owls hope to defend their title in a watered-down Conference USA.
A dual-threat quarterback, Jackson stands just 6’0”. His lone touchdown last season came on the ground in a rout of New Mexico State. If he can fend off some young challengers, he’ll be making his second career start, and first since 2012, on Aug. 30 when Rice comes to Notre Dame Stadium to open the 2014 season.
As a recruit, Jackson was featured in MTV’s The Ride, a miniseries that documented a training program for high school quarterbacks that culminated with Jackson winning an invite to the 2011 U.S. Army All-American Bowl.
There was nothing positive to take from Purdue’s disastrous 1-11 season under new head coach Darrell Hazell. The Boilermakers did not beat an FBS opponent and finished No. 121 among 125 FBS team in total offense.
Much of the blame for the offensive deficiencies falls on quarterback play. Etling, a pro-style passer who qualified for the prestigious Elite 11 competition in high school, took over after four games, but he fared little better than opening-day starter Rob Henry. The Boilermakers managed just seven total points in a three-game midseason stretch against Nebraska, Michigan State and Ohio State.
Etling’s true freshman season ended when he threw four touchdowns and no interceptions in a loss to Indiana in the season finale. The Sept. 13 meeting with Notre Dame at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis will be the first real test of progress for Etling and the 2014 Boilermakers.
In a decision that came as a surprise to nobody, Teddy Bridgewater entered the NFL draft with a year of eligibility remaining. That leaves new (and old) head coach Bobby Petrino with Gardner as the leading candidate to succeed the most prolific quarterback in program history.
After redshirting in 2012, Gardner saw only mop-up duty in 2013 behind Bridgewater. He completed all five of his pass attempts in a blowout win over Florida International in a game that was known mostly for being played with a running clock in the fourth quarter.
At 6’5”, he has prototypical height for Petrino, who has had his most success with vertically blessed passers such as Brian Brohm and Ryan Mallett. Unfortunately for Notre Dame, Gardner will have plenty of time to become comfortable and gain experience. Louisville doesn’t come to South Bend until Nov. 22.
Hunt and the Orange were expected to struggle in their first season in the ACC. That’s not exactly what happened, as Syracuse went 4-4 in conference play and earned a surprising bowl bid, upsetting Minnesota in the Texas Bowl.
After sitting out the opener and throwing just four passes the next week, Hunt seized the starting role by throwing seven touchdowns and no interceptions in consecutive wins over Wagner and Tulane. The Orange generally only pass out of necessity, as Hunt topped 200 yards in just one of the final 10 games of his sophomore season.
Notre Dame has struggled with mobile quarterbacks recently. Hunt will present a challenge for new coordinator Brian VanGorder’s defense when the Irish and Orange square off at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J. on Sept. 27.
Siemian was the throwing component of Northwestern’s two-quarterback rotation the past two seasons, along with runner Kain Colter. It’s all Siemian now in the wake of Colter's departure. As a junior, Siemian completed less than 60 percent of his passes with a subpar 11-9 ratio of touchdowns to interceptions, and the the Wildcats fell from 10-3 to 5-7.
The Florida native almost led the ‘Cats to an upset of Ohio State in early October but regressed as the autumn chill began to sweep through the Midwest. A 4-of-13 performance in a last-second loss at Nebraska was the low point, but Siemian did toss four touchdowns in a 37-34 win at Illinois to end the season on a high note.
He won’t enter the Nov. 15 game at Notre Dame with much hype. But neither did Steve Schnur and the rest of his Wildcats teammates when they came to South Bend in 1995 as four-touchdown underdogs and stunned the Irish 17-9 en route to the Rose Bowl. If star running back Venric Mark can earn a sixth season of eligibility, another upset could be in store.
Kessler looked lost early in the 2013 season, particularly in a horrendous 10-7 home loss to Washington State that all but ended Lane Kiffin’s tenure at USC. He rebounded to have a strong second half, outside of an ugly 14-10 defeat at Notre Dame that set offensive football back decades.
He enters his junior year with a new offense under head coach Steve Sarkisian, although Sarkisian’s system differs only slightly from his former colleague’s. While not a runner, Kessler is effective when throwing outside the pocket, much as predecessor Matt Barkley was.
Despite backups Max Wittek and Max Browne having more raw ability, Kessler showed better command and heads into the spring as the favorite to retain the starting job. If he survives until Notre Dame’s Nov. 29 visit to Los Angeles, he’ll do something Barkley never did—start a game against the Fighting Irish in the Los Angeles Coliseum.
Hogan has led the Cardinal to consecutive Pac-12 titles, but he isn’t perceived as one of the league’s top quarterbacks. The perception, fair or not, is due to Stanford’s reliance on the run game since Andrew Luck’s departure following the 2011 season. The team attempted just 311 passes in 14 games in 2013.
Neither Hogan’s 61 percent completion percentage nor 20-10 ratio of touchdowns to interceptions jumps off of the stat sheet, especially with six of his 20 touchdowns coming against woeful California. He is a factor in the running game, however, amassing close to 400 yards last season.
He has been at his best in big games. Against Notre Dame, Oregon and in conference championships and bowls, he is 6-1, with the lone loss coming earlier this month in the Rose Bowl to Michigan State. Stanford’s Oct. 4 trip to South Bend will be a spotlight game with playoff implications.
Michigan’s 2013 season was a borderline disaster, as the Wolverines limped to a 7-6 finish after a 5-0 start. Gardner and the offense were the primary reasons for the tailspin, but the senior stepped up in the season’s two biggest games. Michigan totaled 41 points against both Notre Dame (a 41-30 win) and Ohio State (a 42-41 loss).
He missed the team’s Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl loss with a foot injury but should be fine for spring practice and the 2014 season. He has good size, great escapability and a knack for making big plays. He’ll have a new mentor this season, as Doug Nussmeier arrives from Alabama to direct the Wolverines offense.
Notre Dame has to hope that Gardner’s trajectory against Notre Dame is similar to that of predecessor Denard Robinson. After Michigan’s 35-31 win over the Irish in 2011 in Ann Arbor, Robinson tossed four interceptions on four consecutive passes in a 13-6 loss in South Bend a year later.
Can the Irish defense avenge a poor performance against Gardner on Sept. 6, as it did against Robinson in 2011?
North Carolina sputtered to a 1-5 start last season, but its fortunes changed after Williams took over for an injured Bryn Renner. The Tar Heels won six of their last seven to finish 7-6, with the lone loss coming to ACC Coastal champion Duke.
With Williams, we’re finally seeing what Larry Fedora’s system is capable of in Chapel Hill. Williams doesn’t have as strong of an arm as Renner did, but he has the mobility that Fedora prefers and was so successful with at Southern Miss with Austin Davis.
North Carolina comes to Notre Dame for the first time in eight years on Oct. 11. After playing Stanford, the Irish defense will have a quick turnaround against an entirely different system.
Williams and Fedora seem like a perfect match. Will it be enough for the Tar Heels to pull off an upset in South Bend?
By playing Navy in the season opener in 2012, Notre Dame had the luxury of not having to face Reynolds, who did not take over the starting reins until later in his freshman season. Last year, he and the Midshipmen came within one botched reverse play from winning in South Bend for the third time in four tries.
Navy has had some great triple-option quarterbacks in the Paul Johnson-Ken Niumatalolo era, but none ran the offense as well as Reynolds does. The junior led the Mids to a 9-4 record in 2013 and broke the NCAA record for rushing touchdowns in a season by a quarterback.
The storied rivalry will be renewed on Nov. 1 at FedEx Field just outside of Washington, D.C., only 30 miles from the Naval Academy. Notre Dame won the only other meeting between the teams at the home of the Washington Redskins 30-0 in 1998. With Reynolds, it’s safe to say the Midshipmen won’t be blanked this time around.
Notre Dame held on late to defeat Arizona State 37-34 last season at AT&T Stadium. When they meet again Nov. 8 at Sun Devil Stadium, quarterback Taylor Kelly will be in his third year as a starter in Todd Graham’s system. The athletic senior threw for 3,635 yards in 14 games in 2013, leading the Sun Devils to the Pac-12 Championship Game.
He is productive with his legs as well, as nine of his 37 total touchdowns came on the ground. The season ended on a low note for the Idaho native, as Arizona State dropped its final two games by double-digit margins. Kelly threw for just 298 yards combined in those two defeats to Stanford and Texas Tech.
Nothing is exceptional about his game, which makes him a long shot to succeed on the next level, but he has respectable size, speed and arm strength. Combine that with Graham’s spread attack, and the offense should be strong enough for the Sun Devils to again be a Pac-12 title contender.
The Heisman Trophy winner returns to Tallahassee, looking to become the first two-time winner of sports’ most prestigious award in 39 years. Notre Dame has not faced the reigning Heisman winner since 2005, when Matt Leinart’s USC Trojans needed the “Bush Push” to avoid an upset in South Bend.
Winston threw for more than 4,000 yards and had 40 touchdowns as a redshirt freshman last season, as Florida State went 14-0 and claimed the school’s third national title. He was unflappable, despite much of the attention on him late in the season coming from the fallout from a rape allegation, for which charges were not filed, per ESPN's Mark Schlabach.
The Fighting Irish won their one and only trip to Doak Campbell Stadium 34-24 in 2002, but this is a far superior Seminoles team to the one that went 8-5 in 2002. That starts with Winston, who, in his first season, took Florida State from a perennial underachiever to the top of college football. Notre Dame gets its one and likely only chance to dethrone Winston and the Seminoles on Oct. 18.