Notre Dame has a favorable schedule in 2016. The kind of schedule that could make a playoff run this season a real possibility. The Irish only have three true road games and will play at 3 neutral site locations. Considering neutral site games tend to basically be home games, that’s nine games in which the Irish will have a home field advantage. Add in only three ranked opponents in the pre-season top 25 polls, and the schedule falls very favorably for Notre Dame this fall.
Notre Dame will benefit from numerous teams on this year’s schedule losing their veteran quarterbacks and breaking in new starters. Even though this is a young team, and it appears most of these starters will be returning next year, this is already a really good team with a highly favorable schedule for success. Brian Kelly has put this program in a position to have a legitimate shot at the College Football Playoffs every season.
Today we rank each game in order of importance as the Irish are just days away from officially opening the 2016 season.
1. At Texas
Texas isn’t the best overall team on the 2016 Notre Dame football schedule. They’re not even ranked in the Top 25 let alone the top 12 like Stanford and Michigan State, but this is the most important game of the year.
Starting off the season on a Sunday, in front of 100,000 Longhorn fans, is going to be a big test for Notre Dame. Texas is going to want to protect their home against the Irish, especially after the 38 to 3 embarrassment the Irish gave them in South Bend. Notre Dame has also struggled on the road during the Brian Kelly era.
Notre Dame will have as many as 12 first time starters taking the field in Austin Sunday night as well. That many new moving parts is bound to produce some growing pains.
Charlie Strong had 2 signature wins last year against Oklahoma and Baylor (Baylor’s QB was hurt). While he is just 11-14 in two seasons at Texas, many think this could be his breakout season. Strong and the Longhorns will be very hungry and well prepared for this game. If the Irish lose this first game, they would have to win the next 11 straight in order to have even a remote shot at the playoffs.
This game has been one of the biggest games in college football the last few seasons, even though it doesn’t get quite the recognition of other marquee rivalry games around the country. Last year Notre Dame had the game won, but couldn’t hold off the Cardinal for the final 30 seconds.
Knowing the past it will probably be raining the whole game in South Bend and most likely come down to a last second play. But I think it’s time for the Irish to beat the Cardinal by double digits. Both teams will be in the middle of the college football playoff race this season and it can potentially be a top 10 or top 5 matchup. Hopefully the Irish can get a big win against a really good opponent and not give all Irish fans another heart attack in the final minutes of the game.
3. Michigan State
In recent history the Irish have played Michigan State really well, winning the last 4 of 5. Besides the fake field goal in overtime in 2010, it would be 5 straight wins against the Spartans.
Michigan State is coming off a college football playoff appearance last season and starts the season in the top 15 once again. The Spartans, however, will be starting a new quarterback with star quarterback Connor Cook off to the NFL. Another advantage for the Irish is that this game is being played in South Bend. The Irish were undefeated at home last season and it’s becoming harder and harder to beat Notre Dame at home with stadium additions, music, and improvements to the atmosphere.
4. At USC
The Irish have only won 2 of last 7 games at USC. Going to the Colosseum has been tough for the Irish, and this could be the final game keeping the Irish from the playoffs if they can go 11-0 or 10-1 heading into this game. Last season, even though the Irish were the superior team they still struggled with the talented personnel of the Trojans, mainly with the speed at the skill positions. A lot of these players who wreaked havoc on the Irish will return this season, including Ju Ju Smith Schuster.
Clay Helton is now the official head coach of the USC Trojans and they played very well after he took over as coach. Last year Cody Kessler was the big reason that USC put up a good fight against the Irish. He had unbelievable numbers in his time at USC and the Trojans are going to have to find a suitable replacement with him off to the NFL like Cook. Hopefully if the Irish are fighting for a playoff spot they can go to Southern California and take care of business like they did in 2012.
5. NC State
This may be one of the biggest trap games of the year. NC State won’t have the most talented roster that the Irish face this season, but because it’s a road ACC game it won’t be easy for the Irish. This is very similar to the Virginia game last year, a game the Irish should’ve controlled (obviously until Zaire got hurt).
Notre Dame needs to get off to a quick start like any game against an underdog, because the longer they keep the score close, the better chance NC State has of winning. The prime example of Notre Dame giving a team hope was the Northwestern game a few years ago. They just can’t afford to make a mistake like this if they want to make the College Football Playoffs.
Miami could possibly be one of the most up and down teams in college football. You never know what you are going to get from the Hurricanes. In past years they have been an undisciplined team. The Hurricanes had an 8-5 record last year, with two wins coming against non FBS Division 1 opponents. Now that Mark Richt is back at Miami that should change. They won’t be back on top next year by any means, but Miami is rarely ever lacking the talent for long.
Miami may be located on the best recruiting area for college football players. A geographic area that produces some of the best athletes in the country. As of late, however, the Hurricanes have seemed to lose recruits to teams all over the country. Notre Dame should win this game, but the Hurricanes have the potential to be a good team by the time this game rolls around. Again with this game is being played in South Bend, the advantage is with the Golden Domers.
7. Virginia Tech
Virginia Tech may be the most consistent program in the country. They have made a bowl game for the last 21 straight years. But their longtime coach Frank Beamer retired last year. Virginia Tech gave Ohio State their only loss at The Horseshoe in 2014. I expect the Hokies to put up a fight, and if this were a road game it would be a completely different story.
This game will be played at MetLife Stadium like it was a few years ago. It seems as though the Irish play big games at NFL Stadiums almost a few times a year. Syracuse had a 4-8 record last season, and I don’t see the Orange being much different next year. I do however give all Notre Dame’s opponents tremendous respect, just as Brian Kelly does if you have ever listened to his weekly press conferences on each team.
There will be a ton of Irish fans there. I just hope that the Irish can take care of business at MetLife Stadium and not make it as close as it was against the Orange in 2014.
Another good team on the Irish schedule is losing their star quarterback form last season, Keenan Reynolds. Reynolds had the most rushing touchdowns in the history of college football and the Irish were still able to handle Navy last year. Without Reynolds it’s not likely Navy will be much better than they were a year ago. Although Navy has received some votes in both polls, they won’t be able to duplicate what they did a year ago.
This game will be played at EverBank Field, home of the Jacksonville Jaguars. A good neutral site game against Navy that should only help out recruiting. The Irish have had a lot of recruiting success in Florida the last few years and hopefully that trend will continue.
The Blue Devils had a pretty good season at 8-5, and it seems as though Duke Football has turned a corner. If it wasn’t for that bad call against Miami where the Hurricanes had an illegal lateral, Duke would’ve had 9 wins. Duke, like other teams on the schedule will put up a good fight, but since this game is at Notre Dame Stadium the Irish have a big advantage.
Nevada could be a trap game in between the Texas and Michigan State games. It is also the first home game for the Irish. The Irish should take care of business in this game, and if they can’t beat the Wolf Pack it will be a long season.
If the Irish can handle Navy they won’t have a problem with Army, since Navy has beaten Army 14 straight years. The Fighting Irish lead the series 38 to 8 with 4 ties. The Irish will head back to the site of the first Shamrock Series game, San Antonio’s Alamo Dome. This should help recruiting and is the last Shamrock Series game scheduled for now.