Power Ranking Notre Dame's 2014 Schedule from Easiest to Toughest

Mike Monaco@@MikeMonaco_Contributor IJune 16, 2014

Power Ranking Notre Dame's 2014 Schedule from Easiest to Toughest

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    Michael Conroy/Associated Press

    Don’t look now, but we’re only two-and-a-half months out from the return of Notre Dame football.

    The Irish commence their 2014 campaign Aug. 30 against Rice at Notre Dame Stadium and wrap up the regular season Nov. 29 against USC in the L.A. Coliseum.

    Notre Dame’s slate of games features six tilts at home, three on the road and three at a neutral sitethe Shamrock Series game against Purdue at Lucas Oil Stadium, and two away games, against Navy and Syracuse, at FedEx Field and MetLife Stadium respectively. 

    In ranking those 12 matchups from easiest to toughest, we’ll consider the projected quality of the opponent, the venue and the time of the season.

    Let’s see how the schedule is shaping up.

12. Purdue

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    Purdue head coach Darrell Hazell
    Purdue head coach Darrell HazellGene J Puskar/Associated Press

    It would be difficult for Purdue to do worse than it did in 2013.

    The Boilermakers limped to a 1-11 record, lost all eight Big Ten games and only defeated Indiana State—yes, the Sycamores—in Week 2.

    Things will likely get at least marginally better in head coach Darrell Hazell’s second season in West Lafayette, but Purdue still looks like the weakest opponent on Notre Dame’s schedule.

    Moreover, Notre Dame will face the Boilermakers in the Shamrock Series game in Indianapolis, and the mix of an off-site home game and fresh uniforms always seems to provide an extra boost for the Irish. It all adds up to what appears to be Notre Dame’s easiest game on the 2014 docket.

11. Navy

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    Navy quarterback Keenan Reynolds
    Navy quarterback Keenan ReynoldsMarcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    Navy finished 9-4 a season ago, but the Midshipmen didn’t earn their wins against the toughest of opponents. Although Navy is a disciplined squad, Notre Dame should still be well prepared to face one of its traditional opponents.

    The interesting aspect about this year’s matchup is the timing. The Irish battle Florida State in mid-October, have a bye week and then square off with Navy. That extra week is always welcome in preparing for the triple option, and it could be even more helpful this year. If the Irish falter against the Seminoles, the bye week should allow enough time to put that defeat in the rearview mirror.

10. Northwestern

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    Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald
    Northwestern head coach Pat FitzgeraldCharles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press

    Even though Notre Dame hosts Northwestern at home and faces Navy at FedEx Field in Landover, Maryland, the contest with the Wildcats seems tougher from the Fighting Irish perspective.

    The Northwestern game is slotted right in the middle of a season-ending, five-week stretch in which the Irish face Navy, Arizona State, Louisville and USC, as well.

    The Wildcats, who began last season with four consecutive wins before dropping their next seven games, do return running back Venric Mark. The 5’8”, 175 lb. back only played in three games last season due to a broken ankle, but Mark scampered for 1,366 yards and 12 touchdowns in 2012—when the Wildcats finished 10-3.

    Still, with the Irish at home, this should be one of their three easiest games.

9. Rice

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    Rice quarterback Driphus Jackson
    Rice quarterback Driphus JacksonBob Levey/Getty Images

    The Owls will make the season-opening trip to South Bend for their first game against the Irish since 1988.

    Rice is coming off a 10-win season and its first Conference USA championship. While the Owls are probably in the same ballpark as the next team on our list (Syracuse), Notre Dame gets Rice in the season opener at home. Irish head coach Brian Kelly shouldn’t have any concerns about having his team raring to go in 2014.

    The Owls rushed for 227.4 yards per game in 2013, but they must replace more than 63 percent of that production after losing running back Charles Ross and quarterback Taylor McHargue.

8. Syracuse

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    Syracuse quarterback Terrel Hunt
    Syracuse quarterback Terrel HuntBob Levey/Getty Images

    Second-year head coach Scott Shafer and the Orange will host Notre Dame at MetLife Stadium on Sept. 27 in Week 5.

    Shafer led Syracuse to a 7-6 campaign last year, capped by a 21-17 win over Minnesota in the Texas Bowl.

    Senior quarterback Terrel Hunt is set to power the offense. The dual-threat signal-caller had some of his biggest games down the stretch in 2013; he completed 29-of-43 passes and rushed for 90 yards against Boston College, then threw for 188 yards and carried for 74 more against the Golden Gophers.

    Couple Hunt’s ability with the Orange playing at MetLife Stadium, and this matchup could be a bit tougher for Notre Dame.

    But, Notre Dame faces the Orange coming off a bye week, and the Orange don’t have enough of a proven track record to vault past the remaining seven opponents.

7. Louisville

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    Head coach Bobby Petrino returns to lead Louisville.
    Head coach Bobby Petrino returns to lead Louisville.Associated Press

    These final seven teams all could have top-25 potential at some point during the 2014 season.

    Most notably for the Cardinals, they must replace quarterback Teddy Bridgewater. But if Louisville’s spring game was any indication, redshirt sophomore Will Gardner appears at least somewhat capable of filling those shoes. Gardner completed 32 of 37 passes for 542 yards and four touchdowns in the scrimmage.

    With head coach Bobby Petrino back for his second stint with the Cardinals, the offense could be explosive with weapons like Dominique Brown, Michael Dyer and DeVante Parker.

    Notre Dame faces Louisville in the penultimate week of the season, right before the USC game.

6. North Carolina

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    North Carolina wide receiver and punt returner Ryan Switzer
    North Carolina wide receiver and punt returner Ryan SwitzerGerry Broome/Associated Press

    The Tar Heels checked in at No. 16 in Brian Pedersen’s post-spring practice top 25 for B/R.

    While explosive tight end Eric Ebron may be gone—the Detroit Lions picked Ebron with the 10th overall pick in the NFL draft—there are still a litany of playmakers with which head coach Larry Fedora can work. Whoever is named the starting quarterback—either junior Marquise Williams or redshirt freshman Mitch Trubisky—can throw and hand off to the likes of T.J Logan, Quinshad Davis and Ryan Switzer.

    Notre Dame’s date with the Tar Heels is in between games against Stanford and Florida State, possibly making this an even tougher game on which to focus. Despite the placement, however, the North Carolina contest still ranks sixth because the Irish are at home.

5. Arizona State

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    Arizona State quarterback Taylor Kelly
    Arizona State quarterback Taylor KellyLM Otero/Associated Press

    Notre Dame topped Arizona State 37-34 in last season’s battle at AT&T Stadium in the Shamrock Series.

    The Sun Devils bring back much of their offensive firepower, headlined by redshirt senior quarterback Taylor Kelly, junior running back D.J. Foster and redshirt junior wide receiver Jaelen Strong.

    But Arizona State must retool the defense. Defensive tackle Will Sutton (third round) and outside linebacker Carl Bradford (fourth round) were NFL draftees, but those were just two of six departed defensive players who earned first- or second-team All-Pac 12 recognition in 2013.

    Notre Dame must travel to Tempe, Arizona, for the tilt against the Sun Devils, placing Arizona State ahead of North Carolina and Louisville.

4. Michigan

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    Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner
    Michigan quarterback Devin GardnerTony Ding/Associated Press

    The Wolverines stumbled to a 7-6 mark in 2013, but there are still plenty of pieces in place for head coach Brady Hoke.

    And aside from how Michigan looks on paper, the strength of this rivalry is enough to claim this Week 2 battle a spot among the four toughest games. The rivalry will tale a break of an undetermined length after this year’s rendition, and Notre Dame Stadium should be rocking for the 7:30 p.m. kickoff.

    Nothing will come too easily against the Wolverines, who downed the Irish 41-30 last season. But until we see Michigan and quarterback Devin Gardner reclaim the form from that shootout victory, the Wolverines can’t crack the top three of our list.

3. Stanford

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    Stanford head coach David Shaw at Notre Dame Stadium in 2012.
    Stanford head coach David Shaw at Notre Dame Stadium in 2012.Associated Press

    Without defensive coordinator Derek Mason and standouts Trent Murphy, Shayne Skov and Ed Reynolds, this will be a different Stanford squad making the trip to South Bend.

    The Irish face the Cardinal fairly early in the season—Week 6 (Oct. 4)—which works to Notre Dame’s benefit. As Stanford integrates new starters, especially defensively, it could take time to click.

    The Irish also get Stanford at home, where they held firm at the goal line in a 20-13 overtime win in 2012.

    While the Cardinal don’t reach the top two on our list, Stanford is still a tremendous obstacle for the Irish. Our own Brian Pedersen ranked the Cardinal at No. 7—five spots ahead of USC—in his post-spring practice top 25.

2. USC

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    USC wide receiver Nelson Agholor
    USC wide receiver Nelson AgholorUSA TODAY Sports

    Ah, yes, USC.

    Though the Trojans may have finished only 10-4 in 2013 and are welcoming back new head coach Steve Sarkisian, they edge Stanford here.

    USC downed Stanford 20-17 last season, and the Trojans bring back quarterback Cody Kessler, wide receiver Nelson Agholor, defensive end Leonard Williams, inside linebacker Hayes Pullard and defensive back Su’a Cravens.

    The decisive factor is the location and timing. The Irish must travel to California and face the Trojans in the Coliseum at the end of November in the regular-season finale, at which point Sarkisian’s uptempo offense figures to have calibrated itself.

    Pedersen pegged the Trojans as the No. 12 team in the nation in his post-spring rankings.

1. Florida State

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    Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston
    Florida State quarterback Jameis WinstonUSA TODAY Sports

    Surprise, surprise.

    This was the easiest decision of the rankings, as the Seminoles return a horde of talent from their national championship squad. Quarterback Jameis Winston, tight end Nick O’Leary and wide receiver Rashad Greene should keep the offense powered.

    Moreover, the Irish must make the trip down to Tallahassee, Florida, after facing Stanford and North Carolina in consecutive weeks. The Seminoles thrashed their opponents at Doak Campbell Stadium in 2013, and Florida State has lost only four home games in the last four seasons. Only two of those losses were to teams outside the Top 10, and those two defeats were by a combined three points.

    In other words, it’s tough to top the ‘Noles at Doak Campbell.

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