Notre Dame isn't known as the most popular team in college football, but fans of all color combinations should laud the Irish for their 2014 schedule.
With the College Football Playoff beginning this season, the selection committee should place a greater emphasis on which teams each school plays from start to finish. Exactly how much emphasis remains to be seen, according to ESPN's Brad Edwards.
In any case, no one on the selection committee is likely to question Notre Dame's strength of schedule. On paper, the Irish have what appears to be a rough, if not brutal, road ahead.
Let's take a look at some quick numbers.
|Notre Dame's 2014 Football Schedule|
|Date||Opponent||Opp. 2013 Record||Projected Returning Starters|
|Sept. 13||Purdue (Indianapolis, Ind)||1-11||13|
|Sept. 27||at Syracuse (East Rutherford, N.J)||7-6||15|
|Oct. 11||North Carolina||7-6||15|
|Oct. 18||at Florida State||14-0||13|
|Nov. 1||Navy (Landover, Md.)||9-4||15|
|Nov. 8||at Arizona State||10-4||14|
|Nov. 29||at USC||10-4||14|
Notre Dame faces 10 teams that had winning records last season, six of which had double-digit wins. Thanks to Notre Dame's scheduling agreement with the ACC in conjunction with its partial membership, the Irish will travel to Florida State on Oct. 18.
The Seminoles, of course, are the defending national champs with the best player in college football, quarterback Jameis Winston.
By themselves, previous records aren't necessarily indicative of how a team will look the following year. Which players (and coaches) are coming back play a role, too. In all, Notre Dame's opponents project to have an average of 14 starters returning, according to Phil Steele.
Even then, there's context. Louisville, for example, loses head coach Charlie Strong to Texas and quarterback Teddy Bridgewater to the NFL. That doesn't mean the Cardinals won't be a competitive team with a good first-year coach, Bobby Petrino, but it's worth noting.
On the other hand, Northwestern has a majority of its starting 22 returning from last year's 5-7 disaster. The Wildcats were ranked 16th in the country heading into their Oct. 5 game against Ohio State, a 40-30 loss. That's when things went south and Northwestern lost six straight games. It's not clear what head coach Pat Fitzgerald did to anger the football gods, but it must have been something wretched.
The Wildcats are better than that, and they'll be out to prove it in '14.
With Northwestern, Navy, North Carolina and Rice, there really aren't any pushovers on Notre Dame's schedule. Even Purdue showed last year in a 31-24 loss to the Irish that there are few "gimmes" on any schedule.
Yes, Purdue is beatable—quite beatable, in fact. So are a handful of teams on the '14 schedule. But beatable shouldn't be confused with easy.
So did Notre Dame schedule its way out of a CFP appearance?
First, these agreements are formulated years—sometimes many years—in advance. It's impossible to truly know how good or bad a team is going to be. The exception here is the aforementioned agreement with the ACC.
Secondly, you're never going to get an argument here that scheduling tough is a bad thing.
That said, as the Irish begin spring practice, questions loom about who will step up in the defensive front seven. Nose tackle Louis Nix is gone, as is the entire linebacker unit.
That could be a major problem against a power offense like Stanford's.
Quarterback Everett Golson returns after sitting out the '13 season with an academic issue, but how will he look? Will the Irish utilize two quarterbacks again?
These aren't the best questions to answer when your opponents are Florida State, Arizona State and the like.
In an era when strength of schedule is such a focal point, Notre Dame should be commended for its 12-game slate. Nevertheless, it will be a tough route to navigate. Without at least 10 wins, it's going to be hard for the Irish to make the four-team playoff.
Still, it's an attractive schedule. Get double-digit wins and there's likely no debate about the Irish's postseason destination.
Ben Kercheval is a lead writer for college football.
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