After Three Cancellations, What Are Notre Dame’s Most Difficult Games?
Notre Dame’s schedule still has some power even with games against Wisconsin, USC and Stanford wiped away. A game against Clemson, the likely preseason No. 1 team and winner of two of the last four national titles, gives any schedule a reasonably high floor.
Still, with the Big Ten and Pac-12’s decision to move to conference-only seasons, the Irish are down to nine games and miss out on a chance to play a pair of teams that have appeared in pretty much every preseason top 25.
The Badgers were considered Big Ten West favorites once again and were popping up as a preseason top-15 team. USC, thanks to a potent offense, was earning top-25 consideration. And Stanford, despite a 4-8 season in 2019, is a rebound candidate that appears to have put a rash of offensive injuries behind it and starts a former five-star quarterback.
All told, they were three capable opponents and three chances to notch quality wins. It’ll be hard for Notre Dame’s replacement games to match the magnitude of the lost opportunities. In Athlon Sports’ early July ranking of Notre Dame’s toughest games, the Oct. 3 meeting with Wisconsin landed second behind only Clemson’s Nov. 7 visit and the Nov. 28 trip to USC was third.
Those were two of the games that shaped a schedule Athlon rated as the college football’s 14th-most difficult before conference-only decisions were made. Athlon also ranked Stanford’s Oct. 10 visit to South Bend as Notre Dame’s sixth-most difficult game.
Among Notre Dame’s remaining nine games, though, there are still a few with some intrigue and potential to be real challenges. Athlon’s updated Notre Dame schedule rankings offer a hint at which games may take on larger importance and bring a bigger spotlight. They bumped the Nov. 21 home game versus Louisville to the second spot, with the Oct. 17 trip to Pittsburgh as the third-most difficult.
“Louisville is the complete opposite of Pittsburgh,” Athlon’s Jon Kinne wrote. “Javian Hawkins had a huge freshman year with 1,525 rushing yards — including 122 in the season opener against Notre Dame — and Tutu Atwell developed into one of the country’s best receivers. But if Louisville is going to make giant strides, the Cardinals can’t finish 102nd in total defense again.”
The Cardinals went 8-5 in head coach Scott Satterfield’s first year and took a six-win jump with a new option-based and run-heavy offense. They put 14 points on Notre Dame in the first quarter in last year’s season opener before the Irish adjusted and won 35-17. To get to the 10-win mark some preseason expectations foresee, they’ll need to generate stops more often.
Pitt, meanwhile, also went 8-5, but was carried by a stingy defense that returns nearly all its best playmakers and a pair of first-team All-ACC selections. The Panthers’ path to 10 wins requires an offense that was frequently sleepwalking to finish higher than 13th in the ACC in scoring.
“This may be the sneakiest game on the Irish schedule,” Kinne wrote. “The Panthers always play Notre Dame tough and the Pitt defense from front to back is one of the best in the ACC. If Pat Narduzzi’s team can run the ball on offense and quarterback Kenny Pickett can make some plays downfield, Pittsburgh could be a major ACC Coastal division contender.”
Wake Forest, coming off an 8-5 season, moved up to fourth-most difficult game. The Demon Deacons lost starting quarterback Jamie Newman to Georgia as a graduate transfer, but have a strong defensive framework, an experienced backup to replace Newman and some skill position playmakers. The Sept. 26 game versus Notre Dame is still scheduled to be played in Charlotte, N.C., instead of on Wake Forest’s campus.
“Remember when a team saw Wake on their schedule and just chalked up a win?” Kinne wrote. “That’s no longer the case as Dave Clawson has led the Demon Deacons to four straight bowl games. Wake Forest has been led by its offense in recent years, but with defensive end Carlos Basham Jr. and linebacker Ryan Smenda Jr. returning, that side of the ball should be a strength this time around.”
Navy, originally eighth in Athlon’s initial ranking, moved up to fifth. Notre Dame will play the Midshipmen in Annapolis, Md., in a true road game for the first time in the series’ 93-year history. Duke’s Oct. 31 visit to Notre Dame Stadium is sixth, followed by a road game at Georgia Tech (Nov. 14), home versus Arkansas (Sept. 12) and home versus Western Michigan (Sept. 19).
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