We play twelve opponents in the regular season. There is, of course, a hidden, ghastly, unlisted opponent: the ghost of Alabama. Each Saturday, the newspapers will report the result of the Irish fray, and yet, in the air will be the measurement of how we would stack up in a rematch with the Crimson Tide. Get used to it. It is what it is.
This is not a ranking in order of team quality and relative strength. This is an attempt to go beyond who we play and to examine WHERE we play them (Home, away or Jerry Jones Stadium) and at what point in their schedule and our schedule we play them. Our premise here is that an evaluation of the difficulty of the GAME, not just the opponent, involves who each team played the prior Saturday, as well as open dates.
We rank them from the easiest tilt to the most difficult.
(12) Temple, August 31st, Notre Dame Stadium
In 1956, Hal Lear of Temple was the MVP of the NCAA Final Four when San Francisco’s Dons won their second consecutive National Championship. Since then, Temple athletics have been on a downhill slide. Despite once having had Bill Cosby play halfback for them, the Owls football history has been as ugly as the North Broad Street neighborhood that is the central artery of their campus. The Owls were 4-7 in 2012, and Steve Addazio, their head coach, was able to escape to become the head coach at Boston College. Their head coach is Matt Rhule. Yes, that Matt Rhule. Springboarding from previous triumphs while serving as an assistant coach with the Albright Lions, the Buffalo Bulls and the Western Carolina Catamounts, Rhule moved on to become the offensive coordinator for Al Golden before becoming the assistant offensive line coach for the Giants in 2012.
The Owls return 8 offensive and 8 defensive starters from last year’s team, and look to bolster the roster with lead recruit Jarron Alwan, a 3 star 6′ 212″ linebacker recruit from Cherry Hill.
They will be playing their first game under a new coach in Notre Dame Stadium against a team that is still smarting from the defeat on January 7th.
(11) Navy, November 2nd, Notre Dame Stadium
While Navy beat Air Force in 2012 and won the Commander in Chief Trophy, AFA might be better. But we play the game Middies the weak after we play Air Force in Colorado Springs, and will have had an extra week to prepare for academy/option football (okay, the AFA/Navy offense are not clones). Diaco now has the scheme to defeat the Naval Academy The Midshipmen return 7 offensive and 6 defensive starters, but if anything, the gap between Navy and Notre Dame has widened since we beat them 50-7 in Dublin. Remember, Notre Dame had won over 40 in a row over Navy until they hung a couple of losses on ol’ schematic genius.
(10) Air Force Academy, October 26th, Falcon Stadium
This is more difficult than Navy because we play them first, on the road, and because they typically throw the ball better than Navy, though that wasn’t true in 2012. We also play Air Force the week after USC, so there will be an inevitable emotional letdown after the big hullabaloo in South Bend. Granted, the Falcons finished third in the Commander in Chief standings losing to both Army and Navy. And they lost their Bowl Game to Rice to finish 6-7.
But they do have a week off before they entertain the Irish-at altitude. Now, the last time they played the Irish, they lost 33-59 to a Notre Dame team that was a mere shadow of the 2013 Notre Dame squad. Under current coach Troy Calhoun they did trounce the Irish 41-24 in Notre Dame stadium in 2007 when the current Kansas head coach was on the Notre Dame sideline.
(9) Brigham Young. November 23rd, Notre Dame Stadium
The Cougars come into Notre Dame stadium after the Irish’s second off week of the season. They will be facing a well-rested Irish team which will have the freshmen as fully incorporated into the team as they are going to be. Think Bryant, Smith, Vanderdoes. The Cougars did finish 8-5 with a 23-6 Poinsettia Bowl win over San Diego State. Linebacker Kyle Van Noy will anchor another solid Bronco Mendenhall defense, but Ezekiel Ansah is off to the NFL. They are all aflutter in Provo over Taysom Hill, but after a few years of playing a healthy Denard Robinson, the Irish will put Hill in his place. By November Hill will have accrued nice numbers against the likes of Middle Tennessee, Houston and Idaho State, but this is a Diaco defense. And Hill is not Robinson.
(8) Purdue, September 14th, Ross-Ade Stadium
If you predicted that Purdue would take Notre Dame into the final minute and lose by a Kyle Brindza field goal with seven seconds left, raise your hand. Otherwise, ignore Purdue at your peril. This is a very dangerous spot, as we go to the banks of the Wabash the week after the emotionally-charged nighttime tilt against the dangerous Wolverines in Ann Arbor. This game is in the dictionary as a definition of “let-down spot.”
Remember after we play Stanford, the regular season is over.
Darrell Hazell, fresh off an 11-3 division championship, season for Kent State’s Golden Flashes is the new head coach for the Boilermakers, replacing Danny Hope. He was named the Mid-American coach of the year. Hazzell was an assistant for six years under Jim Tressell. Like him or not, Tressell was a magnificent college football coach, and if you need confirmation, just ask any Michigan fan. Hazzell learned well, and inherited a 5-7 Kent State team from Doug Martin, then matched that record in 2011 before exploding to 11-3 last year, when the Golden Flashes averaged 33 points a game. Rob Henry is back to play quarterbck for the Boilers, and Bruce Gaston may be a thorn in the Irish OL’s side again.
Don’t sleep on this one.
7) Pitt, November 9th, Ketchup Stadium
Paul Chryst may have settled down the Pitt program after the Wannstedt/Mike Haywood/Todd Graham merry-go-round. His offensive line is starting to develop the size profile that Chryst had at Wisconsin. Sunseri graduated and Russell Shell left, but there is an intriguing qb battle between former Rutgers shooting star Tom Savage and Chad Voytik. The shocking thing about Pitt, the school of Mark Spindler and Hugh Green, is that the defense is woefully undersized at all position s and will have difficulty matching up with the Notre Dame offense.
Chryst started his career 0-2, including a loss against those pesky Penguins of Youngstown State, but Chryst held the team together, and they finished 6-6 before losing a bowl game to Ole Miss.
This is not a bad spot for the Irish, as it follows the two academies and precedes an open date. Pitt has a road game against Georgia Tech the week before we play them. This is probably the best timing “slot” of any game the Irish play all year.Further, given the fact that Pitt has bid farewell to the storied legacy of Goldberg, Cassiano, Stebbins and Chickerneo, and is now a Steelers town, Notre Dame will have a lot of fans in attendance.
(6) MSU, September 21st, Notre Dame Stadium
This is arguably the third best program in the Big X, considering the inconsitency of Nebraska and that Bielema has left Wisconsin.Did you know that Michigan State is 5-3 versus Wisconsin in their last 8 tilts.
A former Irish nemesis, the Spartans have been controlled by the Irish the last two years. We are their fourth game, following Central Michigan, South Florida and the Mighty Penguins of Youngstown State. So they can spend some preparation time for us. But they did lose their best offensive player, Leveon Bell, and their best defender, William Gholston, to the NFL draft. Certainly, Andrew Maxwell is back as the second-year starter, but the receiving corps does not contain the NFL prospects of the last several years. While you can never take the Spartans for granted we have beaten them by 18 and 17 points the last two years, and we have improved more since last year.
(5) USC, October 19th, Notre Dame Stadium
That dark cloud over Heritage Hall is more ominous that the usual LA smog. It is a growing and voracious pack of buzzards, eager to peck at the carcass of Lane Kiffin. When last seen on the gridiron, the talent laden Trojans were coming off the Sun Bowl field in El Paso after having extended their losing streak to three games with an astonishing 21-7 loss to mighty Georgia Tech. The Trojans were so excited about both 2012 and 2013 that there was a well-documented brawl among team members in the locker room. Kiffin reacted with typical aplomb, and channeled the Queen of Hearts, decapitating both coordinators including Daddy.
College coaches rearrange deck chairs on their career Titanic by (1) changing coordinators (2) having more physical practices and (3) promising “It’s Different this time!” There are more future NFL players on the SC roster than ther are on the roster of any other regular season ND opponent. But coaching matters. SC arrives after the Irish have an open date. The Trojans play at ASU, then have an open date, then entertain Arizona before they travel to South Bend. The Notre Dame coaching staff never makes the same mistake twice, and the hype and diffracted focus that occured in
2011 will not be repeated.
Enjoy this moment, Irish fans. Haden is no chump; Mike Garrett stuck him with Kiffin on Garrett’s way out the door. Haden just made a great hire for his basketball coach, (Andy Enfield of Florida Gulf Coast, the giant-slayer) outwitting and out classing UCLA in the process. Rhodes Scholar Haden has a short list and a big checkbook (fattened by the fact that attendance has dwindled under Kiffin, and the seats must be filled). His next coaching selection will be a dandy. And SC will, once again, be SC. And quickly.
(4) Oklahoma, September 28th, Notre Dame Stadium
First the Irish won last year, 30-13, in Norman. They lost their four year starter at QB. We have our second year starter back and better. Second, the Sooners struggle on the road. While they beat Florida State in Tallahasee two years ago, they have not rung a lot of big bells away from Norman. They struggle with physical football teams, losing to Kansas State last year. And they were crushed, 41-13, by A&M in the Cotton Bowl. Most of their Big XII opponents are pass-happy and do not live in the trenches. We do.
The Sooners have a nice schedule spot as they are off the week before they come to South Bend. In the last several years, the OU defense has not been of vintage Stoops quality. They have a deep, and outstanding receiver corps, but who will they get to throw them the ball?. At this stage, we are simply a better football program than Oklahoma.
There is an X-Factor here. Stoops, and his brother Mike, are graduates of Cardinal Mooney in Youngstown, and grew up in a very Catholic family. He has been aware of Notre Dame and its traditions since the cradle. If he could fashion a way to win this one, he would.
(3) ASU, October 5th, Jerry Jones Stadium
…at which the New York Football Giants won the first regular season NFL victory
This is a nasty spot and a nasty coach for the Irish. The Irish will fly to the Metroplex the week after having played Oklahoma at the end of a four week stint of @ Michigan @ Purdue, then MSU and the Sooners at home. All signs point to a letdown, like it or not.
Then there’s the Todd Graham factor. Graham brought the mighty Hurricanes of Tulsa into Notre Dame Stadium in 2010 and escaped with a 28-27 win. He then moved to Pitt and in 2011 hosted the Irish in Ketchup Stadium, right there near the confluence of the Monongahela and the Allegheny and the Irish needed a great run by Jonas Gray to clinch a 15-12 win.
So he, personally, will not shrink from playing Notre Dame. Taylor Kelly may be the best quarterback we face in the regular season. Last year he completed 67% of his passes and had a 29/9 TD/Int ratio. The Sun Devils also rushed for over 200 yards a game. The Sun Devils return 7 offensive starters and 8 defensive starters from an 8-5 team and a bowl romp over Navy. Then Graham brought in TEN JC recruits to shore up his roster in his recruiting class. The Sun Devils had been 6-6 and 6-7 under the esteemed Dennis Erickson in the two years before Graham’s arrival.
This game has “Why are we playing this team in this venue on this weekend?” written all over it. Don’t get caught watchin’ the paint dry!
(2) Michigan, September 7, Michigan Stadium
1987. That’s the last time we had an easy win in Michigan Stadium. It was ND 26-Michigan 7 that day. Michigan is in a very similar position to where the Irish were just one year ago:
Third year under a new coach. Three years to clean up the mess and disarray of a prior coach (Rodriguez in their case) One okay and two VERY GOOD recruiting classes A trusted defensive coordinator, Greg Mattison in their case. Breaking in a new quarterback, but one more in line with the preferred offensive scheme.
There is one big difference. In the first two years of the Hoke regime, the Maize and Blue HAVE NOT LOST AT HOME. Devin Gardner is not Andrew Luck, but he’s not Denard Robinson either, and that cuts both ways. Borges will now be able to run more of his regular stuff. Former ND target Taco Charlton was the defensive star of their Spring game. Michigan, under Mattison, has held opponents to under 20 points a game the last two years, even with Rodriguez’ leftovers. Mattison now has better talent to work with.
Buckle your chin straps, lads. This is a key game. Because if we win this one we are in good shape for a nice stretch.
1) Stanford, November 30th, Stanford Stadium
The most underappreciated team in college football. Have won BCS bowl games in 2 of the last three years and took Oklahoma State into OT after the 2011 season. Only Oregon, Stanford and mighty Alabama have won two BCS games in the last three years. The Cardinals are proud owners of four consecutive wins over USC, and five of the last 6. USC gets the ink and the oohs and the ahhs, and Stanford gets the wins.
But the Irish staff respects and UNDERSTANDS Stanford, and in his first year, 2010, Kelly was sagacious enough to identify the physical Stanford way as containing many of the elements the irish want to model. This game comes at the end of the season for both teams (unless Stanford has nosed out Oregon for the Pac XII North in which case they would play the following Saturday in the championship game.)
Stanford lost only Sam Schwartzstein from the OL and is now fully working the wonderfrosh, Andrus Peat, Kyle Murphy and Josh Garnett in with the returnees, in what will be the best offensive line, by a margin, that the irish will face in the regular season. The Cards rushed for 187 yards in the Rose Bowl win over Wisconsin.The Irish do have the scheduling advantage here, as the Cardinals face Oregon, SC and Cal in the three weeks prior to tihe Irish visit while the irish will be coming’ off a home game against Brighham Young which follows an open date.
The Cardinals return defensive stalwarts like Ben Gardner, Shayne Skov, Henry Anderson, James Vaughters. Trent Murphy and Wayne Lyons. This game will be a mighty struggle. It always is. It’s STANFORD.