Please note that this post-signing day ranking rates the opponents as we expect them to finish 2014 overall. Not preseason rankings, but where they would rank on a “true value” ranking if such existed, at the end of the regular season. It does not adjust for the game placement or the home/away factor. Our opinion is that the former is often more important than the latter. Not always, just often.
1. Florida State Seminoles
Defense wins championships, and the ‘Noles were magnificent defensively in 2013. The FSU defense held prolific Clemson to 14 points, Miami to 14 points, high-scoring Duke (ask A&M) to 7 and Auburn to 31, just 10 in the crucial second half. Sure, Timmy Jernigan, the linebackers and two defensive backs depart but the ‘Noles defense will merely reload and not rebuild. Leaders will be Mario Edwards, Eddie Goldman and our old buddy Ronald Darby.
The FSU defense, even with a new coordinator (Remember, they won it all with first year coordinator Jeremy Pruitt replacing Mark Stoops who left for Kentucky) will be the stoutest, by a lap or two, we will face in 2014, and yeah, that includes Stanford. It is improved over the defense we faced in the Champs Sports Bowl in Orlando after the 2011 season.
The Seminoles return 7 offensive starters including the Heisman Trophy Winner, and baseball pitcher-wanna be, Jameis Winston. Winston can not run like Manziel, he is a situational runner only.
They have the talent to reload, not rebuild. Devonta Freeman and Wilder leave? Old ND target Ryan Green is ready to step up. For what it’s worth, the Irish won over Chris Rix (a “special” encounter with Glenn Earl!!), Anquan Boldin and the rest of the ‘Noles when we last visited Tallahassee in 2002.
Last 5 years recruiting rankings (Rivals): 10/2/6/10/4
2. USC Trojans
USC hit bottom in Tempe, then Haden fired Lane Kiffin and the long Trojan nightmare was over. Lost a lot of talent, but there is still star power on the Trojan roster. This is the most unusual team we face in 2014. Of the universe outside of FSU they have the most explosive dynamic, NFL high draft choice type players, but have some gaping weak spots, particularly on defense. And their offensive line could be the limiting constraint on Sark’s offense. Nelson Agholor may be America’s best, or perhaps most dangerous receiver. Cody Kessler is no Heisman Trophy candidate, but no gimmee either. Buck Allen and Ty Isaac are vintage Trojan running backs. The offensive line is depleted, young and thin, but Damien Mama could help fill the gaps.
The defense is not deep, but sprinkled with studs like Leonard Williams and Sua Cravens. There are gaps in Troy’s defense but they have a lot of mistake-erasers including John “Juju” Smith. How dare we rate them ahead of Stanford? Well they beat the Tree in 2013 and Stanford may be a cut below where they were a year ago. Adoree Jackson will contribute immediately on one side of the ball or the other. Steve Sarkisian did an outstanding job at Washington. We play them in the 12th game of the season. usc’S frosh will be sophomores by that time, and the game will be in the Coliseum.
Last 5 years recruiting 1/4/8/13/10 (remember, Rivals heavily weights the top 15 recruits, so these ratings do not fully account for the limited scholarships)
3. Stanford Cardinal
While they won the Pac 12 and beat Oregon for the second year in a row, a disturbing pattern developed for Stanford. They won when they could bully teams physically (ASU twice, UCLA) but struggled in losses against physical football teams like Utah, USC and Michigan State whom they could not bully. We faced them with two gutted ines and were in the game in the fourth quarter. Don’t get overly gleeful about Stanford’s OL losses. Kyle Murphy and Josh Garnett will be juniors when they come to South Bend in October.
Will the Cardinal be able to replace defensive playmakers like Shayne Skov, as impactful a college LB as Luke Kuechly, Trent Murphy and Ed Reynolds? With a new defensive coordinator? Kevin Hogan gave Stanford the edge against us at QB in 2013. The script flips Notre Dame’s way in 2014 and Mr. Hogan-and Shaw- had a flaw-revealing New Year’s Day against Sparty.
Last 5 years recruiting 26/22/5/64/14
4. Michigan Wolverines
Michigan had a turbulent 2013 and one of the bitterest recruiting defeats of all time in losing Da’Shawn hand, regarded all recruiting season as a Michigan lock, to Alabama. Gardner played well against our Irish and Ohio State but was choppy and inconsistent. It would be a surprise, but not a shock if Shane Morris wins the job in the Spring, Tom Harmon’s 98 jersey notwithstanding.
The Maize and Blue were 6-1 on Halloween, then paraffined down the stretch for a 7-6 finish capped off by a 31-14 thrashing by Kansas State. Mattison manufactured some defense, but Borges is gone because his offense was held to 20 points a game during the final six contests. The Wolverines recruited a lot of highly-rated offensive linemen in the ’12 and ’13 recruiting classes, but a typically stout Michigan offensive line has not yet arrived. Doug Nussmeier, fresh off the plane from Tuscaloosa, will try to find an offense. This is a big year for Brady Hoke, but beware. Hoke always has his team play well against Notre Dame.
Last five years recruiting 20/21/7/5/31
5. Arizona State Sun Devils
Why are they ranked lower than Michigan? Because they get thrashed by physical teams like Stanford (twice) and Notre Dame (we had them on the ropes until the pick 6) and struggled against physical Wisconsin and Utah. Their 2013 record of 10-4 deserves an asterisk because they beat a USC team coached by Monte Kiffin’s son. Taylor Kelly, probably the second best quarterback we will play in 2014, returns, but Marion Grice and seven defensive starters depart. We catch them in a nice spot after they play UCLA, USC, open date, Stanford, Washington and Utah. Those are four physical football team and one that looks dashing in powder blue uniforms.
Last 5 years recruiting 35/58/38/34/22
6. Louisville Cardinals
While Bridgewater and Strong departed, Charley left a full cupboard and a burgeoning defensive tradition. The Cardinals were 23-3 the last two years, 3-0 against the SEC and bowl wins over Florida and Miami. Return 7 starters on each side of the ball for the returning prodigal Bobby Petrino. Petrino is a great, not good, developer of quarterbacks and he should be able to generate some offense even without Bridgewater. Granted, the Cardinals record has been helped by playing 12 non-BCS teams the last two years, but with three flirtations with greatness, under Schnellenberger, Petrino and Strong, the Cardinals football program is sound and they should easily be in the top half of the ACC. We play them on Senior Day and the Irish frosh should be fully acclimated by that time.
Last five recruiting classes 49/29/42/52/46
7. North Carolina Tar Heels
9-9 in Fedora’s first 18 games in Chapel Hill, the Heels came roaring down the stretch with a 6-1 finish, marred only by a two point loss to tricky Duke, and then beat Cincy 39-17 in “neutral” Charlotte in the Belk Bowl. Those last 6 wins were against BC, NC State, Virginia, Pitt, ODU and Cincy. Averaged over 40 points a game in their last seven with the kind of explosiveness that Fedora promised. And we’ll get to see Elijah Hood. They are the sandwich game. While we play them at home, it is between Stanford and Florida State. The Marquise Williams story is interesting. He took over at quarterback for the injured Bryn Renner and sizzled down the stretch with a glistening 15/6 TD/Int ratio. The Tar Heels return only 6 on D, but have 10 returning to a potent offense. NOTE:The Tar Heels, along with Michigan may be the most difficult teams to rank. Neither has settled into a pattern.
Last five years recruiting 29/16/44/42/23
8. Syracuse Orange
The Orange finished 7-6, without a signature win. But they lost by at least 20 to Northwestern, Clemson, Georgia Tech and Florida State. Let not pride go before an Irish Fall. The Orange have beaten the Irish in both the Carrier Dome, and thanks to Kameron Dantley, in South Bend in this century. Neverthelesss it is a team that, while pesky, is probably headed for the bottom third of the ACC.
9. Navy Midshipmen
Keenan Reynolds may be the most perfect QB fit for Navy in the Niumatalolo era. Reynold led the Middies to a 9-4 record, the Commander in Chief Trophy and a 12th straight win over West Point. Notwithstanding, they have no business staying on the field with the Irish, and it is this game that will most likely illustrate the difference in defensive approach between Brian Van Gorder and Bob Diaco. Our offense has averaged 48 points a game against the Middies in the last three years, and we just need a few stops and not let Navy attack us with death by a thousand cuts. Van Gorder will handle this.
10. Northwestern Wildcats
The Wildcats were unbeaten at 4-0 heading into a night game against Ohio State in Evanston. The Purple Haze gave their all and were in it until a late TD made the final OSU 40-northwestern 30. The Wildcats then lost 6 more in a row before recovering against the woeful Illini. They missed on a bowl game for the first time in four years. The biggest recruiting note is that the United Steelworkers recruited the Northwestern players, led by slick QB Kain Colter. No one, absolutely no one, knows with certainty what level of distraction the Union effort will pose for Fitzgerald. There is a poignant note in the Wildcats visit to Notre Dame Stadium. It will have been the fiftieth autumn since another visitor came down the toll road from Evanston, Ara Raoul Parseghian, with the redoubtable Tom Pagna in tow!
11. Rice Owls
The Owls, formerly ensconced inthe Southwest Conference, are now in Conference USA and won the championship on the way to a 10-4 recrod. Two of the Owl losses were to SEC teams, A&M and Mississippi State. They return 10 offensive starters inclduing 2000 yard passer Taylor McHargue and 1000 yard rusher Charles Ross. They run to set up McHargue’s passing. Their defense, their Achilles Heel, returns 8 starters. They are our opening game. Openers are openers. Don’t forget that. What is nice is that their explosive offense will provide fodder for Van Gorder’s blandishments in the Spring and pre-season.
12. Purdue Boilermakers
Where should we start? That they were 1-11? That the win was a 20-16 squeaker over Indiana State’s Sycamores? That they lost 7 games by at least 20 points? This was the weakest link in a declining Big Ten conference. Darrell Hazell, the Tressel disciple, has his quarterback in Danny Etling, and while he’s no Drew Brees, passed for over 1600 yards, with a 56% completion rate and a 10/7 TD/Int ratio after taking off his redshirt. Compounding things, the Boilers lose four starters from their offensive line. We play them in “neutral” Indianapolis. The last time we did so we lost 23-21. It was 1984, unequivocally Orwellian.
Schedules are like mushrooms and snowflakes, no two are alike. But there are two things worth noting about the 2014 schedule. First it is the beginning of the transiiton of the center of Notre Dame’s football gravity from the Big Ten to the ACC. While the ACC/Big Ten opponent ratio is only 4/3 in 2014, the gap will widen in 2015 (ACC 6/Big Ten 0) and beyond. To an extent, your opponents influence your program, and Notre Dame should only benefit from reduced contagion with an atrophying Big Ten Conference.
Second, we have only three STRONG final four candidates on the schedule, FSU, USC and Stanford. (Sure, others could surprise but those three, 11 months ahead, look the soundest.) We have played more difficult schedules at the high end. But this might be Notre Dame’s toughest schedule from teams 4-11 since Leahy’s days. Each of those teams, Michigan, ASU, Louisville, North Carolina, Syracuse, Navy, Rice and Northwestern have at least a puncher’s chance of qualifying for a bowl game. Yes, each has flaws, but each could be annoying if the Irish are less than at their best.
THE 2014 NOTRE DAME FIGHTING IRISH MUST DEVELOP A HIGH FLOOR UNDER ITS PERFORMANCE LEVEL. Letdowns, off days, sandwich games are part of the reality of college football and every team has several of them. But the bar must be raised in Spring and then held high. 2014 will be an interesting year. We are only sure that the games will be fun to watch!