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Notre Dame Football: Most Challenging Opponents on Irish's 2014 Schedule

Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly runs onto the field with his team  prior to a in a NCAA college football game with Michigan State Saturday Sept. 21, 2013 in South Bend, Ind. (AP Photo/Joe Raymond)
JOE RAYMOND/Associated Press
Connor KillorenSenior Analyst IJune 14, 2016

One fact will always remain a constant: It'll never be easy.

Such is the case for the Notre Dame football program, as the Irish are tasked with what should be considered one of the nation's most brutal schedules on an annual basis.

The Irish's 2013 season was no different, as they finished with the nation's 30th-ranked schedule, as rated by Jeff Sagarin. But, as should be expected, 2014 won't be any different. In fact, it may be even more of a treacherous journey, one that begins with a home opener against Rice on Aug. 30.

Which opposing teams have led fans and media pundits alike to grimace at that 2014 slate?

For starters, let's begin with the defending national champions.

For the full Notre Dame schedule for 2014, click here.

 

Florida State

Like Notre Dame, the Seminoles were mired in mediocrity for the better part of the 2000s. Their 2012 season marked a proposed "return to glory," as head coach Jimbo Fisher and Co. finished 12-2 after a 31-10 Orange Bowl victory against Northern Illinois.

Yet it was 2013 that truly restored the program's proud championship tradition.

David J. Phillip/Associated Press

The Seminoles ran the table en route to the final BCS National Championship Game, in which they defeated the Auburn Tigers, 34-31, in dramatic fashion.

The player who spearheaded the championship season—quarterback Jameis Winstonwon the Heisman Trophy along the way and will return for the 2014 season. Despite his return, Florida State will be tasked with replacing four early entries to the NFL draft: running backs Devonta Freeman and James Wilder Jr., receiver Kelvin Benjamin and defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan.

The Seminoles also lost defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt, who left to take the same position at Georgia. Linebackers coach Charles Kelly was chosen to replace him, although how fluid that transition remains to be seen.

 

Stanford

If you're not accustomed to Stanford being one of Notre Dame's toughest opponents on an annual basis, you need to acquaint yourself.

The Cardinal aren't going anywhere, and their ongoing success since former head coach Jim Harbaugh left to coach the San Francisco 49ers hasn't been a fluke.

Danny Moloshok/Associated Press

In that span, Stanford has been to three consecutive BCS bowl games, including two appearances in the Rose Bowl.

But if there is one reason to believe that streak may be in danger, it would be the departure of defensive coordinator Derek Mason, who recently accepted the Vanderbilt head coaching job. He had been with Stanford since the 2010 season and served as the Cardinal's associate head coach and defensive coordinator in each of the past two seasons.

Coupled with the defections of defensive end Trent Murphy and offensive guard David Yankey, the Cardinal may be in for a season of transition.

But with the program's excellent recruiting efforts during the past few seasons, don't expect any sort of a precipitous drop-off.

 

USC

Following Lane Kiffin's messy departure from USC, it was rather expected that the Trojans would be in for a rough go of things heading forward.

However, interim head coach Ed Orgeron guided the program to a surprising 10-4 record and a 45-20 victory against Fresno State in the Las Vegas Bowl.

David Cleveland/Associated Press

While there was an outpouring of support for Orgeron to be named the head coach, athletic director Pat Haden chose to make an outside hire in Washington head coach and former USC assistant Steve Sarkisian.

Having directed the explosive, dynamic USC offenses of the early to mid-2000s with former head coach Pete Carroll, Sarkisian may prove to be a seamless transition, particularly with the wealth of talent on the offensive side of the ball.

Sure, the Trojans lost Marqise Lee to the NFL draft, but they still possess the services of receiver Nelson Agholor, quarterback Cody Kessler and a deep, experienced offensive line. That unit alone should lead USC to a number of victories, though the team needs to continue its excellent defensive play to reach the upper echelon of college football.

The Trojans finished the 2013 season with the nation's 15th-ranked rushing defense, 14th-ranked passing efficiency defense and 13th-ranked total defense.

Should those rankings persist in 2014, USC may very well be a legitimate national championship contender.

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