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Saturday, May 25, 2024
The Observer

Reidy: Ranking Notre Dame football’s opponents, from Tennessee State to OSU

The Notre Dame football team walks off the field at Aviva Stadium in Dublin, Ireland, after beating Navy 42-3 on Aug. 26.
The Notre Dame football team walks off the field at Aviva Stadium in Dublin, Ireland, after beating Navy 42-3 on Aug. 26.

This spring, ESPN’s Football Power Index ranked Notre Dame’s schedule the 19th-toughest in college football. Of their final 11 games, the Irish will face eight teams that won eight or more games last year. Headlining that list are serious playoff contenders in Ohio State, USC and Clemson. With their season-opening rout of Navy behind us, here’s how the Irish schedule stacks up from easiest to hardest.

No. 11: Tennessee State (Home, Sept. 2)

Notre Dame’s next game, its first against an FCS school, should be its easiest. Under former star running back Eddie George, the Tigers have gone 9-13 across the last two seasons. Additionally, TSU has not met a Power 5 program since the end of 2021, when Mississippi State dished out a 55-10 beatdown. The Irish stayed an extra night in Dublin after trouncing Navy in the season opener, so the possibilities of a letdown game here are minimal.

No. 10: Central Michigan (Home, Sept. 16)

Sandwiched between two of Notre Dame’s four toughest matchups, CMU could make some noise in South Bend. The Chippewas scored 44 points at Oklahoma State and hung with Penn State for a half last year. But they still went 4-8 and now return only a few starters on offense. The Irish should improve to 7-0 against the Mid-American Conference.

No. 9: Stanford (Road, Nov. 25)

Notre Dame has a bone to pick with Stanford. Last October, a stunning home loss to Stanford dropped the Irish to 3-3 before they caught fire down the stretch. But this year’s game sets up differently for the Irish, who will likely have plenty to play for down the stretch and have dominated their last two visits to Palo Alto. Meanwhile, this is a rebuilding season for Stanford under new head coach Troy Taylor. Everything points Notre Dame’s way. But uncertainty runs wild in a rivalry matchup nearly three months away.

No. 8: Wake Forest (Home, Nov. 18)

The Irish haven’t lost on Senior Day in seven years, and the odds of a streak-breaker in 2023 are slim. Wake must overcome a poor defense, the loss of a historic quarterback and diminishing talent in the receiver room. Furthermore, the Demon Deacons have never beaten Notre Dame in five opportunities. Still, the storylines around this game could make it interesting. How will graduate quarterback Sam Hartman handle a reunion with his former team? Will the Irish take their foot off the gas with their most difficult games in the rearview mirror?

No. 7: Pittsburgh (Home, Oct. 28)

Like Wake Forest, Pitt marches into South Bend on the heels of an Irish bye week. And an argument can be made for this game entering the top five, as the Panthers traditionally play the Irish tough. In 2012 and 2018, Notre Dame’s last two 12-win seasons, Pitt took the Irish to the brink of imperfection. Now, former Irish quarterback Phil Jurkovec expects to fully return to Notre Dame Stadium after missing last year’s trip back with Boston College due to injury. If he finds his 2020 form and Notre Dame starts slow, an upset could be imminent.

No. 6: NC State (Road, Sept. 9)

The positioning of these next three games is very interchangeable. Notre Dame’s week two trip to Raleigh is their lone road test of the first four weeks, which poses some concern. And as seasoned offensive coordinator Robert Anae and transfer quarterback Brennan Armstrong reunite, the Wolfpack offense should improve.

When the two were together at Virginia in 2021, Armstrong led the ACC in passing yards, so the Irish defense must come prepared. They’ll have extra time to prepare with the Pack’s opener falling on a Thursday. A program with eight-plus wins in five of the last six seasons, NC State can and will compete with Notre Dame.

No. 5: Louisville (Road, Oct. 7)

This early-October contest leads into Midterm Week with the USC rivalry, increasing risks of overlooking Louisville and performing poorly in general. Notre Dame can take solace in Cal transfer Jack Plummer, who struggled mightily in South Bend last season, becoming the starter.

But Cardinals head coach Jeff Brohm provides a dangerous setup for the Irish. Beating Notre Dame would be an impressive signature win in his first year at his alma mater. During Brohm’s tenure at Purdue, the Boilermakers shocked No. 2 Ohio State, No. 2 Iowa and No. 3 Michigan State. While the Irish likely won’t reach the nation’s top three by week six, Louisville is still no cakewalk.

No. 4: Duke (Road, Sept. 30)

No team on the Irish schedule screams “trap game” at the volume of Duke. Among Notre Dame’s three most difficult games, only Ohio State comes with another game seven days later. It’s this one. Last season, the Irish followed their two battles against top-five opposition with a 26-21 loss to Marshall and a 35-32 edging of Navy. Not exactly desirable.

Fortunately, we’ll know much more about the Blue Devils soon. They’ll start the season by hosting No. 9 Clemson on Labor Day. What we do know is that Hartman has at least 340 passing yards and three touchdown passes in both career meetings with Duke.

No. 3: USC (Home, Oct. 14)

Now for the cream of the crop. Midway between Ohio State and Clemson lies the 97-year rivalry between Notre Dame and No. 6 USC. Should the Irish fall to the Buckeyes three weeks prior, another loss here would almost certainly drive them from playoff contention.

Thankfully, we’ve already seen a sliver of what the Trojans have to offer, as told by their 56-28 week zero defeat of San Jose State. Reigning Heisman quarterback Caleb Williams will have his way. But the USC defense is once again suspect. Notre Dame wields a quarterback who knows a thing or two about shootouts. That and improved play in the trenches may be enough, even if Williams plays his best football.

No. 2: Clemson (Road, Nov. 4)

Had this been a list of most valuable games on the schedule, No. 9 Clemson would’ve taken the top spot. According to ESPN Analytics, the Irish will likely split with Ohio State and USC. Such an 8-1 start would make this game the equivalent of the 2017 Notre Dame-Miami game. A win would put the Irish on a Playoff path, a loss would almost certainly end their hopes.

Head coach Dabo Swinney remembers the 35-14 whooping Notre Dame inflicted on his team last November. Given Swinney’s pickup of Playoff-tested offensive coordinator Garrett Riley, the Tigers will be ready. As will Death Valley, the toughest environment Notre Dame will have played in since the pandemic.

No. 1: Ohio State (Home, Sept. 23)

What more needs to be said? No. 3 Ohio State enters as both a perennial championship contender and a program that has essentially given away the last two Big Ten titles to the enemy in Michigan. And while this primetime clash on the first Saturday of fall means nothing for their conference dreams, the Buckeyes will be hungry from the start in 2023.

They’ll be loaded, too, featuring All-American wideout Marvin Harrison Jr. among an NFL-worthy group of pass-catchers. OSU’s big question mark (offensive line) will oppose one of Notre Dame’s (defensive line). By winning up front and bothering talented, but raw quarterback Kyle McCord, the Irish might just find a way to shine in their new green jerseys.

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