Rating Notre Dame Fighting Irish Football’s 2020 ACC Opponents, Part I: 10 To 6
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Rating Notre Dame’s 2020 ACC Opponents, Part I: 10 To 6

The who and where have 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 championship.

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.

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Notre Dame versus Boston College in 2019
Notre Dame overwhelmed Boston College last November during a 40-7 win. This year they meet in Chestnut Hill, Mass. (Andris Visockis)

In the first of our two-part series, we count down from No. 10 to No. 6 who we believe will be the least formidable to strongest challenges to defeat and prevent the Fighting Irish from playing in the ACC championship either on Dec. 12 or Dec. 19. Tomorrow we continue with teams No. 5 to No. 1.

This countdown is subject to change depending on how the schedule is assembled.

10. Duke (5-7)

Last Meeting: Nov. 9, 2019, Notre Dame 38, Duke 7

Offense: Most glaring about a Blue Devils unit that was 114th among 130 FBS teams in total yards per game was how bereft it was of speed and explosiveness.

Thus, 13th-year head coach David Cutcliffe will take over the play-calling duties. Hired as the new line coach was Greg Frey, previously of Florida State and Michigan, and who will have the benefit of four starters returning.

Quarterback Chase Brice enrolled as a graduate transfer from Clemson after having a hand in the Tigers’ run to the 2018 national title. Top returning rusher Deon Jackson averaged only 3.7 yards per carry in 2019.

Defense: The Blue Devils return one of the better bookend tandems in the league with Victor Dimukeje and Chris Rumph II, who combined for 15 sacks last year. Still, it was 77th in scoring defense and allowed 39 points per contest during a five-game losing streak in October and November.

Summary: Cutcliffe has worked wonders at what used to be the worst Power Five program in the country, but Duke is still only 10-22 in the ACC the past four seasons.

Last year, Duke collapsed to a 1-5 finish, among it a 38-7 loss at home to Notre Dame and a 49-6 embarrassment at home to Syracuse.

9. Syracuse (5-7)

Last Meeting: Nov. 17, 2018, Notre Dame 36, Syracuse 3

Offense: New coordinator Sterlin Gilbert from Northern Illinois was hired to aid quarterback Tommy DeVito — who was sacked an astounding 44 times last season, most in the FBS. The receiving corps is a strength despite Trishton Jackson leaving early for the NFL.

Defense: Seven starters have to be replaced while new coordinator Tony White, from Arizona State, attempts to go from a 4-3 to 3-3-5 alignment with a rebuilding front.

Safety Andre Cisco’s 12 career interceptions are the most among active FBS players.

Summary: In 2018, the Orange had its lone top-25 finish over the past 17 years, finishing 10-3 and No. 15 in the Associated Press poll — and still was thrashed by Notre Dame in a 36-3 defeat. That in a nutshell captures the disparity between the two.

Syracuse couldn’t build on its 2018 success, and couldn’t implement much with their new coordinators this spring because of the cancellations from the coronavirus pandemic.

8. Georgia Tech (3-9)

Last Meeting: Sept. 19, 2015, Notre Dame 30, Georgia Tech 22

Offense: Last year was a massive adjustment under first-year head coach Geoff Collins after transitioning from a triple-option scheme under his predecessor.

The 2019 Yellow Jackets ranked 124th nationally among 130 teams in scoring with a paltry 16.7 points per contest. They also were three-and-out on 40-percent of their possessions. Quarterback James Graham completed only 45.1 percent of his passes for 1,164 yards.

It might take at least one more year to get up to ACC-level speed.

Defense: With the offense sputtering, the defense eventually wore out last season, allowing 32.4 points per game to rank 104th. Sixth-year senior linebacker David Curry leads the charge after recording a team-high 97 stops in 2019.

Summary: A good case could be made that the Ramblin’ Wreck should be in the 10th spot, but it is a road game, which is why they are not.

The future is showing promise after signing a No. 24-ranked recruiting class (one spot behind the Irish) in the 2020 cycle. Plus, the Ramblin’ Wreck added four transfers with potential impact, among them former Notre Dame safety Derrik Allen.

Getting to .500 will still be a challenge in 2020.

7. At Boston College (6-7)

Last Meeting: Nov. 23, 2019, Notre Dame 40, Boston College 7

Offense: There is a decent nucleus returning for first-year head coach Jeff Hafley on this side of the ball, although the Eagles were hapless versus the Irish last fall.

Four starters return along the line, led by All-ACC tackle Ben Patrula, David Bailey rushed 844 yards and 5.7 yards per carry last season while sharing time with AJ Dillon, who is off to the NFL, and tight end Hunter Long’s 28 catches averaged 18.2 yards.

Quarterback is the issue. Anthony Brown transferred to Oregon. Former walk-on Dennis Grosel started the final seven games last season, completing 48.4 percent of his passes for a modest 983 yards. If former Notre Dame signal-caller Phil Jurkovec, a top-100 recruit in 2018, receives a waiver from the NCAA that would make him eligible in 2020, that will prompt much intrigue.

Defense: Linebacker is a strength, headlined by Max Richardson, whose 108 tackles (14.5) paced the 2019 team. Former Ohio State co-defensive coordinator Hafley will try to shore up a unit that was 101st in scoring defense (32.2).

Summary: The Eagles were 57-69 during the 2010-19 decade, never finishing a season with more than seven wins. After losing six in a row in this series from 2001-07, Notre Dame has reasserted dominance with six straight wins of its own, with the last two by 33 and 29 points.

6. At Wake Forest (8-5)

Last Meeting: Sept. 22, 2018, Notre Dame 56, Wake Forrest 27

Offense: Although quarterback Jamie Newman, who passed for 2,868 yards and ran for 574 in 2019, opted to use his final season as a graduate transfer at Georgia, replacement Sam Hartman passed for 1,984 yards in 2018 when Newman was injured.

Having wide receiver Sage Surratt (66 catches for 1,001 yards and 11 touchdowns in 2019) as a top target will help, and so will a ground game that averaged a respectable 175.7 yards per game last season.

Defense: End Carlos Basham Jr. (57 tackles, 11 sacks and three forced fumbles) is the linchpin on a unit whose strength was forcing turnovers (25, which ranked 12th nationally).

Summary: Head coach Dave Clawson’s overachieving troops should remain competitive and play in a fifth straight bowl thanks to experience at quarterback and mainstays such as Surrat and Basham bypassing the NFL.

However, there is a significant chasm on the recruiting trail between the two schools, which is why the Irish have won the five meetings since 2011 by an average of 21 points.



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