Notre Dame Football: Early Game-by-Game Outlook for the 2014 Season
Every year, we hear talk that Notre Dame's schedule is among the toughest in the country. While sometimes it may be little less true than others, a quick look at the 2014 slate shows a gauntlet that should test the Irish early and often.
In Notre Dame's first season playing an ACC-aligned schedule, the Irish will take on the conference's best as they head to Tallahassee to play the defending national champions Florida State. Notre Dame will also visit Syracuse while hosting North Carolina and Louisville.
The Seminoles are far from the only elite team that Notre Dame will battle. According to early projections by Bill Connelly at FootballStudyHall.com, the Irish will play three top 10 teams, five in the top 25, and seven of the best 35.
While the challenge is steep, the last time Notre Dame faced a schedule that looked this difficult, they ran the table and made it to the BCS title game. While that might be far more difficult in 2014, getting to 11 wins could land Notre Dame a spot in the College Football Playoff, which is designed to reward schools for their strength of schedule.
Let's take an early game-by-game look at Notre Dame's 2014 schedule.
For a game that many expect to serve as a warm-up for Michigan, overlooking Rice is a mistake. The Owls are coming off a 10-win season and were the Conference USA champions.
Head coach David Bailiff has continued the program's steady ascent, though graduation hit the Rice roster hard. Only 10 starters return, and Driphus Jackson takes over the offense at quarterback.
The defense has had to shuffle pieces as well, and coordinator Chris Thurmond won't know exactly what he has until preseason camp. But there are intriguing weapons on both sides of the football and a season opener on national television against Notre Dame is the perfect stage for a scrappy underdog.
Still, for the Irish to reach double-digit wins, they need to get out of August with a season-opening victory. This is a must-win game for Notre Dame.
Brady Hoke's 11-win debut feels like a distant memory for Wolverines fans, who have watched Michigan regress the past two seasons. Hoke's team lost five games in 2012 after starting the season ranked in the top 10, and then lost six more last year.
Hoke replaced offensive coordinator Al Borges with Alabama coordinator Doug Nussmeier, though the new coordinator still inherits a quarterback situation that's unclear. Devin Gardner's continued struggles have some fans clamoring for the Shane Morris era to begin.
There are major questions up front for Michigan, with a very bad offensive line needing to replace first-rounder Taylor Lewan and Michael Schofield. But there's no discounting Michigan's success against the Irish, with Hoke beating Brian Kelly in three of the four years they've played, including a decisive victory last year in the Big House.
On paper, Notre Dame is a better team. But that hasn't mattered when these two programs have met, and in their final scheduled game before an indefinite hiatus, this is an early coin-toss battle that'll likely define both team's seasons.
There isn't an easier game on the Irish schedule than the in-state battle with Purdue. The Boilermakers were a putrid 1-11 in Darrell Hazell's first season, and the team wasn't even all that competitive, keeping just one conference game within a touchdown.
That being said, Purdue played the Irish tough, with Notre Dame needing to rally to win last September 31-24. Junior college reinforcements have been brought in to try and solidify the offensive line and the offense has a promising quarterback prospect in Danny Etling.
If the Irish are going to be successful in 2014, this is a game they need to win decisively. A big victory over the Boilermakers would also allow a young depth chart on defense to gain confidence against an offense that should still be very poor.
This is a must-win football game for Notre Dame.
The Irish leave the state of Indiana for the first time in late September, traveling to MetLife stadium at the Meadowlands to take on Syracuse. They'll find Scott Shafer's team ready to take a step forward after winning four of their last six games, including an important bowl victory over Minnesota.
The Orange look like they've found a quarterback in Terrel Hunt. He's a dual-threat player who will add some weaponry to an offense that was 99th in scoring in 2013. The Orange return four starting lineman and most of their skill players, so things should improve as Syracuse tries to run a variety of the up-tempo spread attack.
Defensively, Syracuse will be challenged in the front seven. Marquis Spruill has moved on to the NFL. So has defensive tackle Jay Bromley. An offense that struggles to score points and a defense with question marks isn't a promising proposition against the Irish.
In a neutral-site game that'll likely feature just as many Notre Dame fans as Syracuse, this is a football game that the Irish need to win if they're hoping to make it to 10 regular season victories.
Once again David Shaw's Stanford team is expected to be among the elite of college football. But things are changing in Palo Alto, with defensive coordinator Derek Mason now the head coach of Vanderbilt and the Cardinal needing to replace the heart of one of college football's toughest defenses.
Offensively, Stanford has its strongest collection of skill players in their renaissance era, with Ty Montgomery, Michael Rector and Devon Cajuste big-play receivers. Barry Sanders Jr. looks poised to take over the starting running back job for Tyler Gaffney. Though the offensive line needs to replace multiple starters, they'll do so with former elite recruits.
Trent Murphy, Shayne Skov and Ben Gardner are gone from Stanford's physical defense. But Henry Anderson, David Parry and Noor Davis are ready to make the leap forward, and the secondary is very talented.
After winning at least 11 games in each of the past four seasons, the Cardinal look poised to do it again. If Shaw is able to keep Stanford at the top of the Pac-12 while rebuilding his defense and coaching staff, he'll have solidified his place among the nation's elite.
Notre Dame gets Stanford at home, the site of their epic overtime victory in 2012. In one of the Irish's four "coin toss" games (with Michigan, Florida State and USC being the others), a win over the Cardinal could go a long way toward propelling the Irish into the College Football Playoff.
In the middle of the toughest stretch on the Irish schedule, Notre Dame better be ready to host North Carolina, a classic trap game sandwiched between Stanford and Florida State.
Larry Fedora rallied the Tar Heels, winning six of their final seven after losing five of their opening six games. That late-season momentum, combined with the defense's progress have North Carolina among the sleeper prospects in the ACC.
That's not to say there aren't question marks. The Tar Heels replace offensive coordinator Blake Anderson, who took the head coaching job at Arkansas State. New coordinator Seth Littrell helped pilot Indiana's high-powered attack, and he'll need to continue to improve North Carolina's scoring efficiency, and do so with uncertainty at quarterback.
Marquise Williams is expected to win the job though Bryn Renner entered 2013 as a two-year starter. The old adage of having two quarterbacks might apply here, with the Tar Heels likely still searching for answers at the game's most important position.
The Carolina game fits into the "should win" category for Notre Dame, one of four games (Arizona State, Northwestern and Louisville being the others) that the Irish will likely be favored in but need to play very well to win.
There's no tougher draw in college football than visiting Florida State. The defending national champions have Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston returning and are the odds-on favorite to make another title run.
Offensively, Winston's weapons will look different, with Kelvin Benjamin, Devonta Freeman, James Wilder Jr. and Kenny Shaw all gone. But the Seminoles have done a better job of reloading than just about every program not named Alabama. There are veterans ready to ascend and elite freshman competing to do battle. Tight end Nick O'Leary is also one of the best weapons in the country at the position.
There are concerns on the interior of the defensive line, with Timmy Jernigan's replacement not apparent. The back-end of the Seminoles defense is stocked with young talent, though losing Lamarcus Joyner and Terrence Brooks won't be easy.
Florida State faces Oklahoma State in the season opener and Clemson in mid-September. We should know plenty about the Seminoles' title defense by then, likely determining if the Irish's date with Florida State on October 18 will have postseason implications or not.
On paper, this game is the Irish's toughest and Notre Dame will visit Tallahassee a decided underdog. It'll take the Irish's best effort to leave victorious.
After a much-needed week off, Notre Dame heads to the nation's capital to take on annual opponent Navy. After surviving a scare last year against the Midshipmen, we'll get our first look at Brian VanGorder's strategy for defending the triple option.
There isn't a tougher assignment for VanGorder than Keenan Reynolds, who put together a monster season for the Naval Academy in 2013. Reynolds ran for three touchdowns and threw for another in the narrow 38-34 loss to the Irish. From that week on, Reynolds was one of college football's most productive players, running for a ridiculous 20 touchdowns in the season's final six games, while also not throwing an interception.
There will always be questions about Ken Niumatalolo's defense, but the Navy head coach knows how to control the clock and limit opponents' possessions. If the Midshipmen can keep things close into the second half, the Irish will be in for a battle.
After the Irish's record-setting 43-game winning streak ended in 2007, Navy has beaten Notre Dame three times, including Brian Kelly's first shot at the Midshipmen in 2010.
But this is a must-win game for Notre Dame, especially with a week off to prepare.
When Notre Dame travels to Tempe to play Arizona State, they'll be battling against one of the country's most underrated quarterbacks in Taylor Kelly. The redshirt senior will likely rewrite the Sun Devils' record books in his final season piloting Todd Graham's offense, after throwing 57 touchdown passes the past two seasons.
Kelly's also a dual-threat, running for nine touchdowns in 2013. The Sun Devils return seven starters on the offensive side of the ball, including a loaded receiving corps and running back D.J. Foster, whose 63 receptions were the most by any running back in the country.
As dangerous as the Arizona State offense is, the defense is filled with question marks. The Sun Devils return just two starters on defense, needing to replace standouts like Will Sutton, Davon Coleman, Chris Young, Robert Nelson and Osahon Irabor.
In a game that could be a shootout in the desert, scoring points and limiting turnovers will be essential. Brian Kelly did one of his best coaching jobs of the season last year beating the Sun Devils in the Shamrock Series. He'll have his hands full trying to do it again.
After beating Mississippi State in the Gator Bowl and finishing 2012 in the top 20, Northwestern fell back down to earth in 2013, failing to qualify for a bowl and finishing a woeful 1-7 in the Big Ten. After Pat Fitzgerald's squad made a name for itself winning the close ones and doing the little things right, that all went backwards in 2013, with the Wildcats finding ways to lose, often in the most painful of fashions.
After splitting time with Kain Colter, Trevor Siemian will get the first chance at winning the quarterback job, assuming he holds off one-time Notre Dame recruit Matt Alviti. The Wildcats will also hope for a better season from Venric Mark, who battled injuries and fell off precipitously from his 1,371-yard season in 2012. Northwestern needs to find a big play threat on offense. Perhaps USC transfer Kyle Prater can supply that, with the 6'5" former blue-chipper eligible to play immediately.
The Wildcats return seven starters on a defense that didn't play up to expectations in 2013 either. And after an offseason that had players debating joining a union and challenging the basic tenants of being a student-athlete, it's hard to know what to expect from a Northwestern program that had become a model of consistency until slipping up last season.
Northwestern isn't a great team, but it's not a bad one either. The Irish should win this football game, but will need to play well to do so.
Bobby Petrino returns to Louisville, a rare college football coach who was allowed to come home again. While a scandal at Arkansas and his mid-season departure from the Atlanta Falcons certainly tarnished the head coach, there are few better tacticians in college football.
Saying goodbye to Charlie Strong and Teddy Bridgewater can't be easy. But there are great expectations for the Cardinals, with a veteran offensive line and a deep wide receiving corps. Piling up almost 1,000 yards of offense in the spring game didn't hurt, either.
Louisville needs to replace eight starters from their defense, including five from the front seven and safeties Hakeem Smith and Calvin Pryor. But Petrino inherited a veteran team that won a lot of football games, and if he can get Will Gardner to competently fill Bridgewater's shoes, this is a dangerous team.
On paper, the Cardinals are a top 20 football team that should challenge in their first season in the ACC. Visiting South Bend late in the season will be a test for both programs, with expectations high on both fronts.
This is likely a game that the Irish will be favored in, but we'll see how quickly Petrino can get things rolling in Louisville.
The Steve Sarkisian era begins at USC, with the Trojans turning to Pete Carroll's other old offensive coordinator to see if he can bring the magic back to Troy. Athletic director Pat Haden pulled the plug on the Lane Kiffin era in September after a blow-out loss to Arizona State, and while interim coach Ed Orgeron rallied the Trojans to a nine-win regular season, he moved on after being passed up for the head job.
Talent won't be the Trojans' problem. With eight starters returning on both sides of the ball, USC has the same top-level skill players that Pete Carroll used to rebuild Troy. But depth is still a concern, with scholarship limitations still in place from NCAA sanctions.
Cody Kessler won a spring battle at quarterback, returning to the starting lineup. Nelson Agholor will take over for Marqise Lee as the team's top receiving weapon, though he's joined by a collection of talent. On the defensive side of the ball, new defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox inherits a group that was in the top 25 of eight different statistical categories.
The Irish will end their regular season spending Thanksgiving weekend in Los Angeles. The last time they visited Southern Cal, they clinched a spot in the BCS title game. After winning three of their last four against their national rival, Notre Dame will have their hands full.
In a game where roster attrition will likely decide how well both teams hold up, expect a close game.