Sneak Peek At Notre Dame Fighting Irish Football’s 2021 Schedule
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Sneak Peek At Notre Dame’s 2021 Schedule

Notre Dame’s one-year deal as a full football member in the Atlantic Coast Conference in 2020, because of the pandemic, came with some perks. Among them was a much lighter schedule because of the overall down season in the ACC.

Five of the nine league opponents during the regular season finished with losing records, while Pitt and Boston College each were 6-5.

The lone non-conference opponent Notre Dame faced was South Florida, which ended up 1-8. The won-lost record for the 2020 regular season opposition was 44-63 (.411), one of the worst ever faced by the Fighting Irish.

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Notre Dame Fighting Irish football head coach Brian Kelly with USC head coach Clay Helton
Brian Kelly and USC's Clay Helton will hopefully renew their rivalry this fall at Notre Dame Stadium after a one-year hiatus in 2020. (Bill Panzica)

The 2021 slate is projected to be much more challenging. In its “way too early” top 25 for next season, ESPN featured four Notre Dame opponents: North Carolina (No. 7), USC (No. 9), Cincinnati (No. 11) and Wisconsin (No. 17), with the Irish ranked at No. 15.

The good news is the first three are all at home — where the Irish have not lost in three years — while the outing with the Badgers will be in Chicago, a friendly home to Notre Dame.

An “upset special” also could be lurking at Florida State in the Labor Day Sunday opener. The last time Notre Dame opened a season on a Sunday night was at Texas in 2016. The once-powerful Longhorns were trying to bounce back from a 5-7 season the year prior (including a 38-3 loss at Notre Dame) and needed a marquee win against the Irish to set a better tone.

Likewise, the once-powerful Seminoles are attempting to rebound from a 3-6 finish (including a 42-26 defeat at Notre Dame) and return to power.

While Notre Dame is still likely to be favored in most (if not all) 12 regular-season games, a few more scheduling land mines appear to be in place for 2021. Here is the chronological overview, with last year's record in parentheses.

Sept. 5 — at Florida State (3-6)

How the mighty have fallen! The 2013 national champs are 14-20 the past three seasons, allowed 36.0 points per game in 2020 under first-year head coach Mike Norvell and averaged only 25.8 on offense.

Six huge transfers, led by former UCF quarterback McKenzie Milton (8,638 career passing yards and 1,078 career rushing yards) and South Carolina defensive lineman Keir Thomas, are being counted on for a revival.


Sept. 11 — Toledo (4-2)

The designated Mid-American Conference “W” six days after the Sunday night opener, the Rockets have been a respectable 38-21 under head coach Jason Candle.

This is expected to be more competitive than the 52-0 slaughter of hapless USF last season in the second game, maybe something more like the 39-10 win over Nevada in 2016 after opening with a loss at Texas also on a Sunday night opener.

Sept. 18 — Purdue (2-4)

Head coach Jeff Brohm has been a disappointing 12-19 the past three years after a 7-6 start in 2017. The Boilermakers lost the electrifying Rondale Moore to the NFL, but All-America candidate David Bell is back after catching 139 passes his first two seasons.

Formerly on the Notre Dame schedule every year from 1946-2014, Purdue returns for a six-year stint, first with the matchup this year and then five straight from 2024-28.


Sept. 25 — vs. Wisconsin (4-3)

Paul Chryst is 56-19 (.747) in six seasons at Wisconsin, which has become a consistent top-15 to top-20 program the past 25 years.

There will be plenty of intrigue in this matchup at Chicago’s Soldier Field with former Badgers starting quarterback Jack Coan likely receiving the nod for Notre Dame against Graham Mertz, a top-50 recruit two years ago.

After exploding out of the gates last season, including a 49-11 rout of Michigan, the Wisconsin offense went stagnant in losses to Northwestern (17-7), Indiana (14-6) and Iowa (28-7), before toppling Minnesota in overtime (20-17) and defeating Wake Forest in the bowl game, 42-28.

Oct. 2 — Cincinnati (9-1)

More intrigue again with former Bearcats defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman going against his former team that he helped to a 31-6 record the past three seasons, notably a No. 8 finish in the Associated Press poll last year, ending with a last-second loss to Georgia in the Peach Bowl.

American Athletic Conference Offensive Player of the Year Desmond Ridder returns for his fourth season as starting quarterback after passing for 2,296 yards and rushing for 592 in 2020.

Oct. 9 — at Virginia Tech (5-6)

After a promising 19-8 mark in head coach Justin Fuente’s first two seasons (2016-17), the program has backslid to 19-18 the past three years and did not partake in a bowl this past season for the first time in 27 years.

Six players opted to enter the NFL Draft, and quarterback Hendon Hooker transferred to Tennessee.

Oct. 23 — USC (5-1)

Head coach Clay Helton temporarily got off the hot seat with a quality year and returns third-year starting quarterback Kedon Slovis, who completed 67 percent of his passes for 1,921 yards last season.

Wideout Drake London leads a strong receiving corps, and edge rusher Drake Jackson headlines a defense that lost several early defections to the NFL. There always is plenty of skill talent here, but the line recruiting has been sporadic.

Oct. 30 — North Carolina (8-4)

The Tar Heels’ talent level has elevated the past few years under head coach Mack Brown — and ESPN even had them No. 7 nationally in the “way too early” 2021 rankings.

The lofty rating is thanks mainly to the return of quarterback Sam Howell, all five offensive line starters and a much more experienced defense.

Nov. 6 — Navy (3-7)

It’s been feast or famine the past three years for the Midshipmen, going from 3-10 in 2018 to 11-2 in 2019, and then falling back to 3-7 last season, with 40-7 and 15-0 defeats to military rivals Air Force and Army, respectively.


Nov. 13 — at Virginia (5-5)

Until 2015, Notre Dame had never played a football game in the Commonwealth of Virginia. This year it will have two such outings.

A poor start was capped by winning four of the last five. Quarterback Brennan Armstrong is another good dual threat the Irish defense will face after he passed for 2,117 yards and rushed for 552 last year under head coach Bronco Mendenhall.

Nov. 20 — Georgia Tech (3-7)

The Yellow Jackets lost five of their last six under second-year head coach Geoff Collins, including 31-13 at home to Notre Dame while heavily relying on true freshmen Jeff Sims and Jahmyr Gibbs at quarterback and running back, respectively.

However, the defense especially needs to step it up after permitting a whopping 36.8 points per game.

Nov. 27 — at Stanford (4-2)

David Shaw has posted a sparkling 90-36 record with the Cardinal, and ended last season with four straight wins following a 4-8 campaign in 2019 and 0-2 start in 2020.

Four top players on offense left for the NFL, including quarterback Davis Mills, and the defense allowed 31.7 points per contest.

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