Before they met in the 2013 BCS National Championship Game, Alabama and Notre Dame were contrasted for the strength of their respective schedules.
The Irish, it was said, were 12-0 by virtue of not having played anyone, and Alabama would crush them because it was battle-tested by the SEC. Its most recent win, on a neutral field against Georgia, was more impressive than any the Irish had accrued all year and was a de facto national title game unto itself.
Of course things are actually more complicated than that. However, the game played out in a way that justified the story, with Alabama winning 42-14: a margin that was deceptively small (despite being so large). Because of that game, Notre Dame and Alabama's schedules will forever be enticing to compare with one another, so why not give it a shot before 2014?
|Alabama vs. Notre Dame 2014 Schedules|
|Week 1||vs. West Virginia (N)||vs. Rice|
|Week 2||vs. Florida Atlantic||vs. Michigan|
|Week 3||vs. Southern Miss||vs. Purdue (N)|
|Week 4||vs. Florida||OPEN DATE|
|Week 5||OPEN DATE||vs. Syracuse (N)|
|Week 6||at Ole Miss||vs. Stanford|
|Week 7||at Arkansas||vs. North Carolina|
|Week 8||vs. Texas A&M||at Florida State|
|Week 9||at Tennessee||OPEN DATE|
|Week 10||OPEN DATE||vs. Navy (N)|
|Week 11||at LSU||at Arizona State|
|Week 12||vs. Mississippi State||vs. Northwestern|
|Week 13||vs. Western Carolina||vs. Louisville|
|Week 14||vs. Auburn||at USC|
|Source: FBS Schedules|
There is something ironic about the two seasons after Alabama won that game and created this storyline. In each case, it has actually been granted a favorable schedule—at least when compared with the rest of the SEC.
Which is to say: Notre Dame's schedule might be harder than the Tide's this coming season. Even after losing Rose Bowl champion Michigan State from its usual cast of opponents, ND still plays five of the 13 best teams from last year's F/+ ratings at Football Outsiders.
Alabama, by comparison, plays just one.
The Irish would survive with relative ease—just as Alabama should—against West Virginia then crush Florida Atlantic and Southern Miss, which would put them at 3-0 before a home game with Florida.
The Gators are, along with Notre Dame, one of my favorite bounceback candidates in 2014, and especially with the presence of former UF safety Cody Riggs in the Irish secondary, that game would be a heck of a lot of fun to watch. It would also likely feature two 3-0 teams (Florida starts with Idaho, Eastern Michigan and Kentucky), making it an early keystone moment in the season.
It remains to be seen how Kurt Roper, who took command of the Florida offense after thriving at Duke last season, will affect the regular-season tempo of the Gators. If he can get Jeff Driskel in a rhythm out of the shotgun, as he did in their spring game, there's a chance that unit can be deceptively decent.
Notre Dame would be a small, home-field favorite, but I think this is where it would meet its first defeat.
The next four games are tricky and would likely define much of the Irish's season. A home date with Texas A&M is sandwiched between true road games at Ole Miss, Arkansas and Tennessee.
Even with the new FieldTurf at Notre Dame Stadium, the Irish should be able to win at home against a fast but soft Texas A&M team—especially if it starts true freshman Kyle Allen at quarterback. Allen is talented, sure, but the enormity of the stage at such a hallowed field might prove to be too much for a player so young (not unlike Christian Hackenberg at Ohio State in 2013).
The Irish would probably fall at either Ole Miss or Tennessee, though it's hard to say which. It would need to escape this stretch of the schedule 3-1 to remain competitive in the conference, which is exactly what I'll predict they would do.
For posterity, let's say it loses on the road against a good Ole Miss team and wins a nail-biter in Knoxville over the still-one-year-away Volunteers.
After a second open date, the following game at LSU might get ugly. So much has changed between then and now, but the image of JaMarcus Russell shredding Notre Dame in the 2007 Sugar Bowl is etched in my mind indelibly. And that was on a (technically, but not really) neutral field instead of at Tiger Stadium.
A close home win over Mississippi State (which should be plucky next year) and a blowout over Western Carolina would then lead Notre Dame into the faux-Iron Bowl against Auburn with a record of 8-3 and, potentially, a chance to win the SEC West with some sort of tiebreaker over the Tigers (depending on how they fare elsewhere).
However, in this case, the new fast track at Notre Dame Stadium would come back to bite the Irish severely. Perhaps I am overplaying the importance of the FieldTurf—I do not think, in the long term, it is really that big of a deal—but Auburn is a team created to play on such a surface. For reference, look at its offensive output against Missouri in the SEC Championship Game last season:
My prediction for Notre Dame would thus be an 8-4 record, which is nothing to scoff at in the big, bad SEC. Even though I'm on the record saying Alabama will fare (much) better, calling for 8-4 is not intended as an insult—merely a recognition of certain weaknesses.
Notre Dame loses Stephon Tuitt and Louis Nix from the front line of last year's defense. Sheldon Day has had his moments, but even with the new blitzing scheme of defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder, such an untried defensive line would find it difficult against the blocking of teams like Auburn and LSU.
Oddly enough, though I do think Notre Dame's schedule includes more good teams than Alabama's, I wouldn't be surprised to see it exceed this projection (8-4) in real life. Other than Florida State and Stanford, no team it plays jumps out as particularly strong along the line. It matches up fairly well.
What it doesn't match up well with is SEC competition.
I don't think it's fair to merely point at a game like the 2013 national title game and say it's conclusive proof of Notre Dame's shortcomings against the SEC—football is a little more complicated than that—but I think it's just as wrong to ignore those results altogether.
When you think about it that way, predicting the Irish to go 8-4 against Alabama's schedule is actually putting it kindly.