November's slate? There's not a relative break to be found, with two trips west over a four-week span included.
But September? In September, for the first time since the opening month of 2008, Notre Dame's diverse football schedule takes a turn for the less-than-challenging, and thus, Brian Kelly's 2014 Irish will finish the season's opening month 4-0 -- for just the fourth time in the last 25 years.
If this prediction sounds familiar it's because it's been made here before, but only once in the seven summers I've worked for Irisheyes.com -- 2012, when Kelly and the Irish began 4-0 and rode that to an unexpected 12-0 regular season finish.
I don't see another undefeated month on tap for 2014, much less each of the three, but the Irish will escape September unscathed. Arguments for -- and against -- are discussed below:
No True Road GamesHome, home in prime time, Indianapolis in prime time, and Notre Dame's home away from home, New Jersey and the New Meadowlands (MetLife Stadium), also in prime time.
And against four foes vs. whom the Irish will -- without a doubt -- be favored (more on that below).
Notre Dame will have the crowd on its side in both neutral site matchups (Purdue in Indy, Syracuse in New Jersey), or at minimum, encounter a healthy split of allegiance.
Purdue was to be a home game for the Irish with the matchup against the Orange slated as a road contest -- the Irish make out better in both cases, as the Boilermakers rarely elicit much fervor from the Irish crowd in their biennial trip to the House that Rockne Built, and games in NFL Stadiums, especially a cathedral such as Lucas Oil, tend to fire up the college kids from South Bend.
A legitimately bad team in 2013, the Boilermakers have nonetheless played Kelly's Irish tough in three of the four contests during his tenure. But I'll reiterate a point made prior to the 2012 matchup, won in the final seconds by a Kyle Brindza field goal -- No good Notre Dame team has lost to Purdue since the Devine era, when the Boilermakers were still a legitimate contender.
Syracuse won a bowl game for first-year head coach Scott Shafer, defeating Minnesota in the Texas Bowl to conclude the season at 7-6. The Irish obviously caught a break against the rebuilding Orange, avoiding a campus matchup inside the Carrier Dome in Notre Dame's first contest against an ACC foe as part of its annual arrangement.
Notre Dame enjoys the first of its two bye weeks prior to traveling east for the matchup.
Opening Trap?The season kicks off against Rice, fresh off a 10-4 mark and Liberty Bowl appearance in 2013, credentials which place the Owls a few tiers above last year's tomato can opening foe Temple, and also recent foes such as San Diego State in 2008 and South Florida in 2011.
Ah yes, South Florida -- the sloppiest contest of the 52-game Kelly era occurred on opening day as well, a surreal game replete with weather delays, turnovers that took points from the home team and gave them to the fired-up road crew.
It was a debacle unlikely to reoccur to a Kelly-coached team, especially entering season five of his tenure.
In 2013, the Owls were blitzed by Mississippi State in their season-ending bowl appearance, 44-7, and struggled against quality foes such as Texas A&M (52-31) and Houston (31-26), while also losing to North Texas (28-16). Rice feasted on college football's doormats last fall, its best win coming against Marshall (9-4) in the Conference USA Championship game. (Which answers your next question: yes, there is a Conference USA Championship game.)
Fly in the Ointment: MichiganCan the Wolverines make it four out of five? The Brian Kelly era (and Charlie Weis era before that) brought a harsh new reality to the Notre Dame/Michigan series: the Wolverines tend to come up big while the Irish find a way to fall.
Last season, Michigan played like MICHIGAN when Notre Dame and Ohio State populated the opposite sideline. The rest of the season, the Wolverines were a rudderless, sinking ship, one that dropped six of its final eight contests to finish 7-6 after a 5-0 start.
The Irish will be favored for the fifth time in the last six seasons (2013 the exception) but September 6 in South Bend, prime time, is a contest likely to be decided by plays made in the fourth quarter with Notre Dame winning the series' getaway game, and thus maintaining its minuscule lead over the Maize & Blue as the program with the best winning percentage in college football history.
Notre Dame will start the season 4-0 with the win over Michigan its opening-month highlight.
Then the leaves begin to fall, and things get interesting entering October...