In assessing the 2017 Notre Dame football schedule, the 12 contests that make it up can generally be put into specific categories. In case of three of those games, the spotlight figures to shine a lot more brightly because of their perceived prominence. In short, these are the marquee matchups that aren’t treated as just another opponent on the schedule.
Each of these battles is spread out over the course of the season, which helps Brian Kelly’s squad keep their emotions at an even keel. Had they been bunched together, Notre Dame likely would have been faced with the prospect of having to deliver a series of peak performances within a short period of time, something that’s hard to sustain, even for the best college football squads.
The marquee games on this year’s Irish schedule are:
Georgia, September 9
The Bulldogs make their first-ever visit to the Golden Dome, with the contest itself marking the first-ever regular season clash between the two schools. The only other time they’ve faced each other was at the conclusion of the 1980 season, when Georgia came away with a 17-10 victory and captured the national championship, primarily due to freshman sensation Herschel Walker.
This edition of the Bulldogs may not be national-title worthy, at least prior to the start of the season. However, they’ll still have plenty of firepower on their sidelines, with running back Nick Chubb a threat and second-year signal caller Jacob Eason having a number of weapons.
On the defensive side, Georgia does have issues with stopping the opposing running game, which so focusing on the run may be the best avenue toward pulling off the victory.
Ranked among the Top 25, the Bulldogs are likely already focusing on this game as the first real test for the campaign. That’s because the Irish are sandwiched between two home games against the likes of Appalachian State and Samford, while Notre Dame is coming off a home battle against Temple, with a trip to Boston College on the docket after facing Georgia. The Bulldogs can’t afford a non-conference loss, considering they do battle within the vaunted SEC.
Southern Cal, October 21
Like the Georgia game, this battle will be under the lights at Notre Dame Stadium. This game marks the 41st time that the Trojans have come to South Bend, with the Irish holding a 25-14-1 advantage in the home portion of this longstanding rivalry, which includes wins in their last two meetings.
The problem with assessing this year’s battle on the basis of those two games ignores the fact that Southern Cal enters the season as a Top 10 team. One of the chief reasons for that ranking is quarterback Sam Darnold, who could end up as the top pick in next year’s NFL Draft.
Right now, his receiving talent remains relatively raw, but by this midseason contest, they could be dangerous. As opposed to the Georgia matchups, going to the air against their defense might be advised, given the team’s weak pass rush.
Still, given the nine-game winning streak the Trojans had to conclude last season and the national title aspirations they have, the Irish will be hard-pressed to keep them in check. This game does come immediately after Notre Dame’s bye week, which gives them more time to prepare, though Southern Cal may be riding into town on the heels of a 7-0 start and plenty of momentum.
Stanford, November 25
Closing out the regular season could mean using the game as a springboard into a bowl game or having it serve as Brian Kelly’s swan song. Notre Dame may hold a 19-12 advantage in this series, but six of the last eight meetings have seen the Cardinal emerge victorious. That includes four straight losses at Palo Alto, where this game will be played and where Kelly has never won.
Having lost two players among the top 10 selections April’s NFL Draft, Stanford might be seen as being in a rebuilding year. However, they still have plenty of assets to use, including their always-strong offensive line. They’ll likely be protecting quarterback Keller Chryst.
When it comes to the Cardinal defense, linebacker Joey Alfieri is the player to try and keep in check. Given the team’s strength in the secondary, choosing to focus on the running game might be a strong consideration.
Some college football experts have determined that 2018 might be Stanford’s year to win the PAC-12, yet if Southern Cal happens to stumble along the way, the Cardinal may use the Notre Dame clash as a tuneup for the conference title game. This will be the last of three straight home games, so they’ll be in a groove when the Irish arrive to face a hostile crowd.
The Challenges Ahead
Given the talent on each of the above squads, it’s quite conceivable that Notre Dame comes away empty when all the dust settles at the end of November. Springing an upset might appear to be more likely for the two home games, yet each of those teams could also potentially end up handling the Irish with ease.
For teams coming off a 4-8 season, there aren’t really any easy games to check off, so Notre Dame simply needs to maintain the same focus for every clash and then let their abilities and a little bit of luck determine the final result.