Ranking Notre Dame’s 2020 ACC Opponents, Part II: 5 To 1
The who and where has been established with Notre Dame’s 10-game ACC football schedule this year in which the Fighting Irish will be eligible to compete for the league title.
Now it’s about when the games will be played.
Clemson is the clear favorite to capture its sixth consecutive ACC title, while Notre Dame on paper is the second-best team in the 15-team league after posting the sixth-best record (33-6) in the 130-team Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) the past five years. No one else in the conference is better than 23-16 over that span.
In the first of our two-part series, we counted down from No. 10 to No. 6 who we believe will be the strongest challenges to defeat and prevent the Fighting Irish from playing in the ACC championship game either on Dec. 12 or Dec. 19. Today we conclude with No. 5 to No. 1.
This is subject to change depending on how the schedule is assembled by the league.
5. Florida State (6-7)
Last Meeting: Nov. 10, 2018, Notre Dame 42, Florida State 13
Offense: First-year head coach Mike Norvell brings basically a fourth different system to FSU the past four years, but he thrived last year at Memphis with a 40.4 scoring average (No. 8 in the country).
The Seminoles return a veteran quarterback in James Blackmon (23 starts, 5,079 passing yards, 41 touchdowns and 23 interceptions) with plenty of skill-position talent around him. However, the Achilles heel of the program personnel-wise has been the line, which yielded 48 sacks last year, the fifth-most among 130 FBS teams.
Defense: Similar to USC in the past couple of years, there is still plenty of star power with the likes of projected first-round lineman Marvin Wilson or defensive back Asante Samuel Jr., who had 15 passes defensed last year. Yet the Seminoles were 90th in total defense last year and 119th in pass defense.
Summary: It feels really odd to place a team that has finished No. 5, No. 10, No. 17 and No. 20 in the Rivals recruiting rankings from 2017-20, respectively, this low. But the culture has been miserable the past several years, which explains the 18-20 record since 2017.
Still, it wouldn’t surprise us if Norvell, who was 38-15 at Memphis, can bring a similar turnaround effect that Louisville’s Scott Satterfield had last year in his initial season, which brings us to …
4. Louisville (8-5)
Last Meeting: Sept. 2, 2019, Notre Dame 35, Louisville 17
Offense: Among the 15 ACC teams, only Clemson and North Carolina rival the proven quarterback-running back-wide receiver combination the Cardinals possess with Micale Cunningham (2,061 passing yards, 62.4 percent completion mark, 22 touchdowns and five interceptions, plus 482 rushing yards), Javian Hawkins (1,525 rushing yards, 5.8 yards per carry) and Tutu Atwell (69 catches for 1,272 yards, 18.4 yards per reception).
If the offensive line can find an adequate replacement for left tackle Mekhi Becton, the No. 11 overall pick in last spring’s NFL Draft, it could be one of the top three or four scoring units in the 15-team ACC.
Defense: Significantly shoring up a unit that allowed 33.4 points per game (109th nationally) is the next step if the top 25 is to be cracked. Louisville returns seven starters, including all four linebackers, but in six games last year it allowed more than 500 yards total offense.
Summary: Satterfield did wonderful work his first season in 2019 while improving the Cardinals from 2-10 to 8-5 to earn ACC Coach of the Year honors. If the defense can make appreciable improvement this season, then Louisville could finish in the Associated Press top 25 for the first time since 2016 (No. 21), when quarterback Lamar Jackson won the Heisman Trophy.
3. At Pitt (3-9)
Last Meeting: Oct. 13, 2018, Notre Dame 19, Pitt 14
Offense: This is where the Panthers need a major upgrade. Last year they were 114th in scoring (21.2 points per game) and 119th in rushing (118.8 yards per game, 3.5 per carry).
Like Notre Dame, Pitt is experienced at quarterback with third-year starter Kenny Pickett (5,576 career passing yards) and a veteran line with four returning starters, led by first-team All-ACC center James Morrissey and third-team All-ACC guard Bryce Hargrove. Regardless, much more firepower is needed.
Defense: This could be sixth-year head coach Pat Narduzzi’s (36-29 overall) best defense, which is his forte, with the Panthers.
Complementing fifth-year senior safety Damar Hamlin’s return on the veteran defense are fellow All-ACC picks Jalen Twyman (tackle), Patrick Jones II (end) and Paris Ford (safety) on a unit that finished 15th nationally in total defense (312.9 yards allowed per game) and No. 1 in sacks per game (3.92).
The bonus is the addition of lineman Rashad Weaver, an NFL prospect who had 14 tackles for loss (6.5 sacks) in 2018 but sat out last season with an ACL injury.
Summary: We have the Panther third because this game is on the road against an operation that has a strong history against Notre Dame as a tough out and a propensity to pull off the upset — including national champ Clemson's lone defeat in 2016 and toppling 10-0 Miami in 2017.
It could be another low-scoring affair like the 19-14 Irish victory in 2018. Who shines more at quarterback will dictate a lot.
2. At North Carolina (7-6)
Last Meeting: Oct. 7, 2017, Notre Dame 33, North Carolina 10
Offense: USC won’t be on the schedule this year, but the Tar Heels possess the pass and run balance that the Trojans would have with 10 of the 11 starters returning on this side of the ball.
Quarterback Sam Howell tossed a single-season school-record 38 touchdown passes last year as a freshman and has two 1,000-yard receivers returning in Dazz Newsome and Dyami Brown, with the latter averaging 20.3 yards per catch.
In the backfield, Michael Carter rushed for 1,003 yards and 6.0 yards per carry in 2019, while power back Javonte Williams added 903 yards on the ground.
Defense: Remember Chazz Surratt playing at quarterback in the 33-10 loss to Notre Dame in 2017? He now returns as a first-team All-ACC linebacker, the headline performer of a decent unit that finished 49th overall last year.
Summary: We had this as a toss-up with Pitt as the second-most treacherous game because both are on the road. If one could match Pitt’s defense with North Carolina’s (or Louisville’s) offense, that could be a College Football Playoff (CFP) contender.
Second-year head coach Mack Brown’s influence and recruiting have made the Tar Heels a popular dark horse pick to advance to the ACC title game and finish in the AP top 25 for only the second time this century (the other was No. 15 in 2015). An intangible is how they react to dealing with expectations and their ability to handle success.
1. Clemson (14-1)
Last Meeting: Dec. 28, 2018, Clemson 30, Notre Dame 3
Offense: The two wideouts who were the difference in the 2018 CFP win versus Notre Dame are gone. Tee Higgins turned pro after his junior season in 2019, and Justyn Ross has been ruled out for 2020 because of surgery on his neck. Top returning targets include Amari Rodgers (30 catches, 424 yards, four touchdowns) and Joseph Ngata (17 catches, 240 yards, three scores).
Junior quarterback Trevor Lawrence is the Heisman front-runner, and running back Travis Etienne surprisingly returned despite having rushed for 4,038 yards, 7.8 yards per carry and 56 touchdowns his first three years.
The question mark is the line, which must replace four starters.
Defense: Coordinator Brent Venables lost three starting defensive backs and two linebackers from last season, most notably the freakish Isaiah Simmons, the No. 8 overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft.
The line should be the strength with tackles Justin Foster and Nyles Pinckney, second- and third-team All-ACC picks last years, respectively, Tyler Davis, and Xavier Thomas.
Linebacker James Skalski (105 tackles last year) leads the second level, while cornerback Derion Kendrick was second-team All-ACC in 2019.
Summary: Head coach Dabo Swinney’s program is the best to enter Notre Dame Stadium since Oct. 15, 2005, when USC arrived with a 27-game winning streak and as a reigning national champion for two years.
The Tigers are 69-5 the past five years with two national titles. Consider this a mini-playoff. At home this is a winnable game, maybe even more so than USC in 2005, which came down to the closing seconds.
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