Being an independent for Notre Dame has it’s advantages and disadvantages. The advantages of Notre Dame’s football schedule is it can pretty much schedule anybody they want as long as it doesn’t interfere with another school’s conference slate. The disadvantage lies in the travel schedule with trips out West and to the South can be long and tedious.
But I’m not here to talk about the politics involved with Notre Dame being an independent in a college football world dominated by conferences. I’m here to take a look at their schedule and rank it from easiest game (Wake Forest) to their most difficult (Stanford). As usual Notre Dame plays one of the most difficult schedules in the country despite what Colin Cowherd tells you while you are driving in your car.
Group One: Gimme Games
These are games that there are no excuses not to win them.
@Wake Forest November 5th-While the Irish have struggled in their last 18 true road games (6-12) there is absolutely no excuse to lose to Wake Forest this late in the season. From top to bottom the Fighting Irish will have more talent, depth, and better coaching than the Demon Deacons. This will also mark the smallest crowd Notre Dame has played in over a decade with the BB&T Field only seating 31,500. Expect most of it to be filled by shades of blue and gold. A blowout should be expected and delivered by the Fighting Irish.
@Purdue October 1st-The Fighting Irish have won 5 of the last 6 meetings against their in-state rival including a resounding win last year in Brian Kelly’s debut in South Bend. Purdue is notoriously a bottom feeder in the Big Ten and this year they still won’t have a shot at winning the conference. There is no Kyle Orton or Drew Brees on this Boilermakers team to worry Irish fans. In what will probably be a hard fought battle for a half I fully expect the Irish to pull away with a swarming defense that won’t let Purdue score more than two touchdowns.
Group Two: Winnable Games
Notre Dame should win these game on paper but with a few bad breaks here or there anything could happen.
South Florida September 3rd-The Bulls are a legit contender for the Big East title with QB BJ Daniels expected to have a huge season and with the incoming transfer of highly touted TB Darnell Scott from Colorado they should score some points. Head coach Skip Holtz had a pretty successful first season in Tampa with victories over Miami and Clemson in the bowl game. Notre Dame is 12-3 in their last 15 home openers and Brian Kelly was 3-0 vs. South Florida as the head man at Cincinnati. Notre Dame should win this game with the home crowd being electric for the opener.
@Pittsburgh September 24th-Pitt no longer has the Stache with Wannstedt but that is probably a good thing for the Panthers. First year head coach Todd Graham beat Notre Dame last season with an upbeat Tulsa squad playing a somber ND team reeling from an ass kicking delivered from Navy and the sudden accidental death of videographer Declan Sullivan during practice that week. The Pitt offense should be explosive under Graham and look for RB Ray Graham (no relation to the coach) to have an All-American type season for the Panthers. ND is 13-4 vs. Pitt since 1988 and were up comfortably last season late in the third quarter (20-3) before letting the Panthers back in the game. With a more experienced squad and a defense that is relentless I would expect the Irish to win comfortably.
Air Force October 8th-The Falcons run the type of offense that gives Notre Dame fits: the dreaded option attack. Last year Air Force ran for over 4000 yards while beating Navy and Georgia Tech and just barely losing to Oklahoma in Norman. Air Force is for real and ND is just 4-4 against the last 8 non-BCS schools. But if Notre Dame wants to step to the big boy table (BCS Bowl contender) they have to overpower and manhandle an undersized and depth depleted squad like Air Force at home. There is no reason why Notre Dame shouldn’t be able to run the ball down their throats with hopefully a healthy Cierre Wood at the time. Last season Air Force was 103rd vs the run, giving up over 200 yards a game.
USC October 22nd-This is NOT your Pete Carroll led USC team to be feared. USC has been on a downward spiral for the last 3 seasons and it should continue in 2011. With Lane Kiffin at the helm and sanctions looming over the program which has hurt their depth USC should once again struggle to finish any better than 8 wins. This will also be the first night game at Notre Dame stadium since 1990 vs. Michigan. Expect an electric and downright crazy atmosphere. The only way USC wins this game is if QB Matt Barkley throws for over 400 yards. Not. Going. To. Happen. FUSC.
Maryland November 12th-Call me crazy but Maryland could definitely pull the upset at FedEx Field in Landover, MD. QB Danny O’Brien is a very good player and the Terps have a coach in Randy Edsall who has beaten Notre Dame with an underman team before. The Terps have a potent offense along with a defense that returns 7 of their top 10 tacklers. Notre Dame will have to bring their A game to win it and not turnover the ball against a Terps team that was 4th in the nation in turnover margin.
Boston College November 19th-The old Holy War game is almost always a difficult task for the Fighting Irish. Last season Notre Dame destroyed the Eagles 31-13 thanks to an inept offensive performance from BC. This season I think BC will be much improved led by the best inside linebacker in the game (apologies to Manti Te’o) in Luke Kuechly. The Butkus Award favorite in on pace to set the NCAA record for tackles and should have plenty of opportunities agains the quick spread attack that Notre Dame implements. There is little doubt Notre Dame is the better team but in these type of rivalries anything can happen. I expect a much closer battle this year compared to last.
Group Three: Could Go Either Way
Notre Dame will have to play their absolute best to win these games.
Michigan Sept 10th and Michigan State Sept 17th-The Wolverines have a first year head coach in Brady Hoke and their should be some time to adjust to his system. But this is Michigan we are talking about and it’s going to be their first night game ever in Ann Arbor which is just unimaginable with the way TV dominates schedules these days. Michigan will be up for it and you know Shoelace will be looking to put another 500 yards total offense on the Fighting Irish defense. The reason why I have these games grouped together is because ND always schedules them back-to-back which is not only dumb but completely retarded. Last year Michigan State stunned the Irish in OT with a fake field goal for a TD. 9 of the last 11 matchups have been decided by single digits and the Spartans return an experienced team that won 11 games last year. I can see Notre Dame winning one of these games but not both. The last time it happened was in 2004.
Navy October 29th-Until Notre Dame stops playing the respect card to Navy they will continue to get pounded by the Midshipmen. After winning a NCAA record 43 straight games the Irish have dropped 3 of 4 to Navy. Much of it has to do with effort and not focusing on the task at hand. It’s been way too long since Notre Dame stopped the Navy triple option offense. This season Navy does not have Ricky Dobbs at QB but they will still look to run the ball and have FB Alexander Teich back who ran for 210 of the 367 yards against the Irish. If Notre Dame wants to be taken serious they will come out and fight and will their way to victory. This will be a make or break game on the season for Brian Kelly and his team.
@Stanford November 26th-If the season goes as planned for both of these programs this end of the year matchup will decide who gets a BCS Bowl bid. Stanford will be led by the best QB in the nation in Andrew Luck. You may have heard of him. Luck tore up ND last year in rout to a 37-14 victory in Notre Dame Stadium. This season look for the Fighting Irish to have a shoot out reminiscent to the 2009 matchup in Stanford that saw the Cardinal win 45-38. This should be the toughest game on Notre Dame’s schedule and even with a first-year head coach in David Shaw I expect Stanford to compete for a BCS Bowl game.
SportsCrack.com Preseason Prediction: 10-3 with a bowl game victory.