Notre Dame football fans have spent the offseason looking at the 2017 schedule and making quick assessments about potential wins and losses. Some of those selections are made with an added dose of confidence, while others have an uncertainty about them because of their status as wild card games.
A wild card game is one in which there’s no guarantee about what Brian Kelly and his staff can expect to face during the course of a contest. In the case of the 2017 Irish, four specific clashes meet this criteria and deserve a closer look.
Temple, September 2
The Temple Owls come to South Bend to get the season started, with the team headed by new head coach Geoff Collins. The Owls have been able to increase their win total by four games during each of the past two seasons, numbers that are unsustainable.
However, coming off a 10-4 record that saw them win the American Athletic Conference, the Owls still have offensive weapons that can do damage against Notre Dame. In addition, Collins’ reputation as a strong defensive coach could help prevent any slide following the losses on that side of the ball.
The question marks arise from the fact that because it’s the first game of the season, Collins and his staff may still be getting the team in sync. While the Irish have won each of the two meetings in this series, the new coach phenomenon makes this contest hard to figure out.
Michigan State, September 23
Over much of the last half-century, Notre Dame has done well when visiting East Lansing, including during their last trip in 2012, a 20-3 victory. Last season, the Spartans beat the Irish and had a 2-0 mark before then watching the season collapse with nine losses in the last ten games.
An ugly and ongoing scandal involving some Michigan State players has Spartans head coach Mark Dantonio trying to focus on preparing for the 2017 season. Prior to meeting Notre Dame, Michigan State faces a pair of MAC teams at home and then has a bye.
Are those games confidence builders that will be aided by a week of rest? Or will they serve as an early indicator that the 2016 troubles are continuing. The Irish may have finished with a better record than the Spartans last year, but they’re not in a position to take anyone lightly this season.
Miami, November 11
Last year, Notre Dame started off strong against the Miami Hurricanes and then squeezed out a tight victory. This year, the scene shifts to South Beach, where the Irish haven’t won in their last five trips and haven’t tasted victory in 40 years.
Hurricanes head coach Mark Richt is in his second season with the school and is looking to build on a 9-4 rollercoaster campaign in 2016. Four wins, followed by four losses were then followed by five wins to close out the season.
Given that streaky play from last year, it’s uncertain if the Irish will be facing a team in a tailspin or one in the midst of a winning streak. Last year’s five-game surge at the end came after losing to a weak Notre Dame team and since the embers of a rivalry still crackle, Kelly and his squad need to be on their toes.
Navy, November 18
This storied rivalry dates back 90 years, though the Irish still hold a commanding 76-13-1 lead in the series. The problem is that in the last decade, they’ve lost four of the last 10 clashes, including last season’s 28-27 heartbreaker in Jacksonville.
The Midshipmen have won at least eight games in a season in all but one of the last 14 years. That level of consistency and their recent success against Notre Dame has coincided with the tenure of head coach Ken Niumatalolo, who emphasizes the run.
The Irish run defense has been miserable over the past two seasons, which could make for a long afternoon. Whether or not they rise to the occasion in this game is likely dependent on the course of their season, since this will be the second-last regular season matchup. Another struggle-filled campaign could set the stage for the deflated Irish to wave the white flag here.
The Realistic Outlook
Zeroing on any one game right now could be seen as an exercise in futility, with every contest currently a question mark for a 4-8 team looking to get back on track. Still, the four games above are winnable contests that may determine whether Notre Dame goes bowling or Brian Kelly starts polishing up his resume.