Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick often talks about the Irish's responsibilities of being an independent in today's era of college football.
As the BCS era ends and the College Football Playoff begins, the importance of playing a robust schedule—one of Swarbrick's primary talking points— becomes essential for earning one of the four postseason spots in the playoff.
A quick look at Notre Dame's 2014 schedule helps you understand Swarbrick wasn't kidding.
Once again, the Irish enter the season with one of the most difficult schedules in the country. After navigating their way through a meat grinder in 2012, head coach Brian Kelly will need to prepare his team for another gauntlet.
Six teams on the Irish schedule won 10 games or more. The only teams with losing records in 2013 are from the Big Ten, with Purdue and Northwestern two of the "easier" games on the Irish dance card.
Notre Dame's scheduling alliance with the ACC also begins this season, with the Irish facing stiff competition. They'll play Syracuse at the Meadowlands, returning the Irish to the New York area. They'll battle North Carolina in October, one of the hottest teams in the country at the end of 2013. They'll face the Bobby Petrino's Louisville team. And they'll travel to Tallahassee to battle the defending champs, taking on Florida State in their own backyard.
With a defense still searching for an identity and an offense that'll need to score some points, there's plenty of work to be done between now and Labor Day weekend.
Let's take a look at the five toughest games on the Irish schedule.
|Notre Dame's 2014 Schedule|
|10/18/14||at Florida State||14-0|
|11/8/14||at Arizona State||10-4|
|* Neutral Site Location|
5. At Arizona State
You could make a case for North Carolina or Louisville with this slot, but playing a road game gives the tiebreaker to Todd Graham's squad. Especially with quarterback Taylor Kelly returning.
Last year, the Irish pulled off an impressive 37-34 victory over the Sun Devils in the Shamrock Series. This year, they'll head to Tempe, a game previous athletic director Steve Patterson fought hard to keep.
The Sun Devils lose a lot, especially on defense. But with Kelly at quarterback, expect them to put up points by the bushel. With nine new starters likely on defense for ASU, it could be a shootout in the Valley of the Sun.
On paper, it's hard to call Michigan one of the five best teams on the Irish schedule. But this is the final grudge match between the two winningest programs in college football until Swarbrick and Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon kiss and make up.
The Irish's season was derailed early last September when Devin Gardner wreaked havoc on Bob Diaco's defense. The Irish offense also missed countless opportunities as well.
But Michigan fell apart down the stretch, losing six of their final eight games after starting the year 5-0. Brady Hoke replaced offensive coordinator Al Borges with Alabama playcaller Doug Nussmeier. (It's now Nussmeier's job to try and get Gardner to fit into a pro-style system.)
Another early season litmus test for the Irish likely will tell the tale of the season.
3. At USC
The Irish finish the regular season in Southern California, with another Thanksgiving weekend battle for the Jeweled Shillelagh. A new head coach will be leading the Trojans, with Steve Sarkisian returning to Troy after five seasons at Washington.
The Trojans will lose some key ammunition, but have plenty of firepower left. Quarterback Cody Kessler played well down the stretch and could thrive if Sarkisian brings an up-tempo offense with him. Even with Marqise Lee leaving early, Nelson Agholor looks like the next great Trojan wide receiver.
On defense, Justin Wilcox joins Sark in Los Angeles, inheriting a defense that could return eight starters. Defensive lineman Leonard Williams and safety Su'a Cravens look like the next All-Americans in cardinal and gold.
Another year, another head coach, another really intriguing matchup with USC.
David Shaw will field another very good team at The Farm this year.
While quarterback Kevin Hogan will have to break in a few blockers up front, the Cardinal might be the only team to best the Irish in their recruitment along the offensive line the past few seasons. The receivers and tight ends return. Stanford will need to replace workhorse Tyler Gaffney, but have plenty of capable options.
On defense, Trent Murphy, Ben Gardner and Shane Skov all depart. But the Cardinal will be strong in the trenches and might have the most skilled secondary the Irish will face. Defensive coordinator Derek Mason took the Vanderbilt job, but Shaw promoted from within, giving the coordinator job to Lance Anderson, who worked under both Mason and Vic Fangio.
Consistently one of the most physical teams at the point of attack in the country, only a difficult schedule (six teams from the final AP Top 25 poll) will keep the Cardinal from once again being among the nation's best.
1. At Florida State
There may be no tougher game to play in the country.
The Irish head to Tallahassee, where defending Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston and a slew of talented players await. The Seminoles do lose a handful of skill players to the NFL draft, but have reloaded over the past few recruiting classes.
Seven starters return to the Seminoles defense. Stars Timmy Jernigan, Christian Jones and Lamarcus Joyner are headed to the NFL, but Charlie Kelly could have a defense better than the one he inherited from Jeremy Pruitt.
We'll get a feel for how good the Seminoles are in their season opener against Oklahoma State. But the mid-October showdown between Notre Dame and Florida State will likely be one of college football's most high profile matchups.
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