Notre Dame Football: Irish's 5 Can't-Miss Games of 2014

Mike MonacoContributor IMay 9, 2014

Notre Dame Football: Irish's 5 Can't-Miss Games of 2014

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    Michael Conroy/Associated Press

    After finals week ended Friday for Notre Dame students, it won’t be long before the Irish football team returns to campus in June for summer workouts.

    The regular season is not far behind, and football is creeping back into the national spotlight with this weekend’s NFL draft.

    Looking at Notre Dame’s 2014 schedule, there’s a strong slate of games.

    Let’s spotlight Notre Dame’s five most exciting matchups in 2014. The rankings will take into account the quality of the opponent, history with the team, time and location of the game and time of the season.

No. 5: Rice

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    Rice redshirt junior quarterback Driphus Jackson
    Rice redshirt junior quarterback Driphus JacksonLM Otero/Associated Press

    Week 1 (Aug. 30)

    3:30 p.m.

    Notre Dame Stadium

    There are probably marginally sexier opponents on Notre Dame’s schedule—even schools like North Carolina, Arizona State and Louisville come to mind—but it’s tough to top the thrill of a season opener.

    With this year’s Irish squad, in particular, all the uncertainty and novelty should attract even more interest.

    Fans will be anxious to see how the starting quarterback—whoever that may be—performs and if he tightens his grip on the job. How will new defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder’s defense look?

    On top of that, Rice is fresh off a 10-win season and its first Conference USA championship

    The buzz of a season opener and the sneakily solid Rice team earn the Owls the No. 5 spot in the rankings.

No. 4: Stanford

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    Stanford quarterback Kevin Hogan
    Stanford quarterback Kevin HoganJae C. Hong/Associated Press

    Week 5 (Oct. 4)

    3:30 p.m.

    Notre Dame Stadium

    Two years later, Stanford returns to the site of one of, if not the best game in the Brian Kelly era: the 20-13 overtime win for the Irish in 2012.

    In 2014, Stanford will mark another exciting game. Stanford will likely be ranked, there’s a budding rivalry between these programs and it will probably be Notre Dame’s toughest opponent to that point in the season.

    Still, the Cardinal lost defensive coordinator Derek Mason and defensive standouts Trent Murphy, Shayne Skov and Ed Reynolds, among others. At least as of now, there doesn’t appear to be enough separation between Stanford and USC to have the Cardinal jump the Trojans in our rankings.

No. 3: USC

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    USC head coach Steve Sarkisian
    USC head coach Steve SarkisianStephen Dunn/Getty Images

    Week 14 (Nov. 29)

    Time: TBA

    Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum

    The Trojans hold the edge over Stanford in our most enticing games.

    The 2014 version of the Notre Dame-USC rivalry will be the 86th all-time meeting between the schools.

    It’ll be difficult to top the atmosphere at the Coliseum in the final week of the regular season in the days after Thanksgiving, especially if both squads settle into the Top 25.

    USC has the flash of a new head coach in Steve Sarkisian, who has ramped up the speed of the offense, as Stewart Mandel writes for SI.com.

    Redshirt junior Cody Kessler returns for his second season as the starting quarterback. He tallied 20 passing touchdowns and tossed just seven interceptions last season while completing 65.4 percent of his passes.

    It’s a rivalry game to close out the regular season. Only two contests on the Irish schedule can beat that.

No. 2: Michigan

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    Tony Ding/Associated Press

    Week 2 (Sept. 6)

    7:30 p.m.

    Notre Dame Stadium

    We can debate and compare the strength of Notre Dame’s rivalries with USC and Michigan all we want. But that’s not the focus here.

    Michigan and Notre Dame are set to square off in Week 2, and the next matchup after that is still to be determined, as the rivalry goes on hiatus.

    That added angle is enough to position the Michigan game as one of the marquee tilts of Notre Dame’s season. When you factor in the 7:30 p.m. start time, under the lights at Notre Dame Stadium, the buzz around this game should be soaring.

    As for the opponent, the Wolverines are aiming to get back on track following a 7-6 season in which they lost their final three games. New offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier will be tasked with turning Devin Gardner back into the quarterback who shredded Notre Dame in 2013 for 294 passing yards and four scores to go along with 82 yards on the ground and a rushing touchdown.

No. 1: Florida State

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    Jameis Winston
    Jameis WinstonDavid J. Phillip/Associated Press

    Week 8 (Oct. 18)

    Time: TBA

    Doak Campbell Stadium

    No one will confuse this for a rivalry, much less one on par with that of USC or Michigan. Notre Dame and Florida State have only met seven times in the history of their stories programs.

    It doesn’t matter.

    Florida State is the defending national champion, and the Seminoles boast the reigning Heisman Trophy winner, a guy by the name of Jameis Winston. Naturally, ESPN.com’s Mark Schlabach pegged Florida State as the No. 1 team in the nation in his early look at the Top 25.

    This figures to be Notre Dame’s premiere game of the season. The Irish will head into enemy territory to face the nation’s best. It will be especially interesting to see how Notre Dame’s new-look defense fares against Winston and the rest of the Seminoles.

    Mark your calendars.

     

    *All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.

    Mike Monaco is a lead Notre Dame writer for Bleacher Report. Follow @MikeMonaco_ on Twitter.