Notre Dame Fighting Irish Football 2021 Schedule: Early Themes
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Notre Dame’s 2021 Schedule: Early Themes

After a one-year foray into a full, 10-game ACC conference schedule because of the coronavirus pandemic, the 2021 Notre Dame slate returns to a more national feel.

Pac-12 rivals USC and Stanford are back, and so is Navy, a series that was interrupted in 2020 for the first time since 1927. There is Big Ten representation with a one-time traditional rival (Purdue) and one that hasn’t been faced since 1964 (Wisconsin).

There still are five ACC members on the docket, plus two-opponents from Ohio — Toledo and Cincinnati — dot the schedule.

In the next two weeks, with spring drills slated to begin later this month around the country (if not already at some schools), we will count down Notre Dame’s 12 games in the order of what we believe will be the degree of difficulty. We will revisit after spring drills as well.

Some of the overall storylines include these half-dozen:

Notre Dame Fighting Irish football
The 2021 opener at Florida State could be more dangerous than the Seminoles' 3-6 record from last year might indicate. (ACC Media)

1. Any Given Sunday

For the second time in three years, Notre Dame was originally scheduled to open on Labor Day Monday versus an ACC foe. It was at Louisville in 2019, and this year it was supposed to be at Florida State, which has fallen on hard times, including 3-6 last year with a 42-26 loss at Notre Dame.

Instead, the game was moved to Labor Day Sunday. The last time the Irish opened a season on a Sunday was at Texas in 2016. Like Florida State, the Longhorns had been reeling and desperately needed a win against a name foe like the Irish — who it had lost to 38-3 the previous year — to signal that it might be back. Indeed they did (50-47 in double overtime), which sent Notre Dame into a 4-8 spiral.

Head coach Brian Kelly’s troops are in a much healthier overall place now than five years ago, but these are the type of settings on the road and in an opener with a new offensive line and quarterback that can be dangerous.

2. Return Of A Rival

The Purdue Boilermakers are back on the slate (Sept. 18) for the first time since 2014. The in-state rivals had met every year from 1946-2014, and their 86 meetings (Notre Dame leads series 58-26-2 when including 2012-13 “vacated” wins) are the third most for the Fighting Irish, behind Navy and USC.

Now in his fifth year at West Lafayette, head coach Jeff Brohm’s promising start his first two seasons, highlighted by a 49-20 dismantling of then No. 2-ranked Ohio State in 2018 that led to an extension through 2024, was followed by disappointing 4-8 and 2-4 results the past two seasons.

3. Back In Chicago 

The originally scheduled two-game series with Wisconsin — 2020 at Green Bay’s Lambeau Field (canceled) and 2021 at Chicago’s Soldier Field — has been much anticipated because of the venues and the fact that the Badgers have become a bona fide top-25 program over the past 25 years.

Since 1993 they also have had eight AP top 10 finishes, including No. 7 in 2017, compared to Notre Dame’s five.

The intrigue is heightened even more with graduate transfer quarterback Jack Coan potentially at the throttle for the Irish after posting a 12-6 record as the starter for the Badgers.

4. Reunion Weekend

Kelly coached the Bearcats from 2007-09, leading them to a 12-0 mark in 2009 prior to accepting the Notre Dame job that December. He joins Urban Meyer as having the unique distinction of leading 12-0 regular seasons at two Football Bowl Subdivision schools.

Meanwhile, first-year Notre Dame defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman was an instrumental figure in Cincinnati’s 31-6 record the past three years under head coach Luke Fickell — as was former Notre Dame offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock.

5. The Virginians

Until 2015, the Notre Dame football team had never played in the state of Virginia. This year it will play both, in Blacksburg versus Virginia Tech (Oct. 9) and then in Charlottesville against Virginia (Nov. 13).

Those two schools both visited Notre Dame in 2019, with the Irish eking out an 11th-hour 21-20 victory against the Hokies to begin a 16-game winning streak, the third-longest by the program since 1950.

6. Bye The Ways

One aspect of the schedule Notre Dame has perfected is having the bye week come right at the halfway point, and usually to coincide with fall semester break. It did so again in 2021 with the Oct. 16 bye prior to hosting archrival USC Oct. 23.

Meanwhile, the ACC is continuing its own tradition of byes prior to facing Notre Dame, with North Carolina, Virginia Tech and Virginia all having an open week prior to facing Notre Dame.

Here is the full schedule, with the all-time Notre Dame series record in parentheses:

2021 Notre Dame Football Schedule

Date — Opponent (Series Record)

Sept. 5 — at Florida State (4-6)

Sept. 11 — Toledo (0-0)

Sept. 18 — Purdue (58-26-2)

Sept. 25 — vs. Wisconsin* (8-6-2)

Oct. 2 — Cincinnati (1-0)

Oct. 9 — at Virginia Tech (2-1)

Oct. 23 — USC (48-37-5)

Oct. 30 — North Carolina (19-2)

Nov. 6 — Navy (79-13-1)

Nov. 13 — at Virginia (3-0)

Nov. 20 — Georgia Tech (29-6-1)

Nov. 27 — at Stanford (21-13)

* at Soldier Field In Chicago

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