A glance at ‘15 schedule degree-of-difficulty

Three of Notre Dame’s more difficult 2015 opponents come in quick succession with Texas and Georgia Tech at home in the first three weeks, and a trip to Clemson in Week 5. There’s also USC, and physical Boston College and Stanford with which to contend as the regular season comes to a close.

Each season, we try to project the degree of difficulty of the Notre Dame football schedule, and invariably, it seems as if pre-season impressions are altered as the season progresses.

What looked to be an incredibly daunting slate heading into 2014 dissipated as Rice, Michigan, Syracuse, Stanford, North Carolina and Northwestern failed to live up to expectations. Still, Northwestern defeated the Irish in an early Christmas present gift-wrapped by Notre Dame. Louisville added to the November woes, and USC put a whipping on the Irish reminiscent of the Pete Carroll years.

What does 2015 have to offer? We’re in the early stages of an eight-month pre-season evaluation. But when Navy is projected as the eighth most difficult game, and Texas and Boston College are somewhere in the middle of the pack, it figures to be another challenging slate that independence usually provides.

Included in our early schedule evaluation are the four-year tally of records and the coaching stability of each program, which generally is another barometer that contributes to success/failure. The Irish will face just one head coach in his first season (Pittsburgh’s Pat Narduzzi) and seven who will be entering at least their third year on the job.

As we will do as the season approaches when we break down the opposition position-by-position, we include where Notre Dame would rank among its 12 opponents as a barometer for success/failure against the competition.

13) Massachusetts (Game 4; Sept. 26)
2014 Record: 3-9
4-year Record: 10-37
4-year Bowl Record: 0-0
Starters Returning: 19
Coaching: Mark Whipple (2nd year)
Summary: Following the failed Charley Molnar experiment, the Minutemen are truly in phase two of the Mark Whipple era. Whipple coached UMass from 1998-2003 when he led a 2-9 team to the 1-AA national championship in his first year. To improve upon last year’s three-victory campaign – which is one more than the two previous seasons combined -- he’ll need to turn around the nation’s No. 105 scoring defense and No. 115 rushing offense.

12) Wake Forest (Game 10; Oct. 14)
2014 Record: 3-9
4-year Record: 18-31
4-year Bowl Record: 0-1
Starters Returning: 16
Coaching: Dave Clawson (2nd year)
Summary: Winning at the FBS school with the smallest enrollment is a huge challenge for the second-year head coach who led Bowling Green to a five-year mark of 34-32. Before the Demon Deacons can make any progress record-wise, they’ll have to make inroads offensively. They ranked 127th in rushing offense in ‘14, averaging a comical 1.25 yards per carry and 39.9 yards per game.

11) @ Temple (Game 8; Oct. 31)
2014 Record: 6-6
4-year Record: 21-27
4-year Bowl Record: 1-0
Starters Returning: 19
Coaching: Matt Rhule (3rd year)
Summary: This will be Notre Dame’s second game in three seasons against Temple and Matt Rhule, a young up-and-coming head coach who could be on Notre Dame’s long list -- if not its short -- should Brian Kelly decide to make a coaching move after the 2015 season. Rhule and defensive coordinator Phil Snow took a defense that allowed 29.8 points per game in ’13 and turned it into the nation’s No. 4 scoring defense (17.5 ppg.). Keep an eye on Rhule and the Owls.

10) @ Virginia (Game 2; Sept. 12)
2014 Record: 5-7
4-year Record: 19-30
4-year Bowl Record: 0-1
Starters Returning: 10
Coaching: Mike London (6th year)
Summary: The head coach’s seat will remain hotter than warm until the Cavaliers can finish above .500, which London has accomplished just once in five seasons. And now he’ll have to do it with just 10 starters back and a rushing attack that ranked 100th nationally in ‘14. Considering Virginia lost five of its last six games, London got a reprieve not afforded most head coaches.

9) @ Pittsburgh (Game 9; Nov. 7)
2014 Record: 6-7
4-year Record: 1-3
4-year Bowl Record: 1-3
Starters Returning: 15
Coaching: Pat Narduzzi (1st year)
Summary: Optimism abounds in Pittsburgh with its fifth head coach since Dave Wannstedt’s last season with the Panthers in 2010, which included the failure-to-launch tenure of former Irish offensive coordinator Mike Haywood. Narduzzi’s defenses at Michigan State were killer. A bad year for Narduzzi was ranking 22nd nationally in scoring defense, as they did in ‘14. The Spartans still led the nation in rushing defense, and Pennsylvania should provide him the recruiting base to improve the Panthers’ No. 57 rush defense.

8) Navy (Game 6; Oct. 10)
2014 Record: 8-5
4-year Record: 30-21
4-year Bowl Record: 2-1
Starters Returning: 11
Coaching: Ken Niumatalolo (8th year)
Summary: Irish fans know the routine. No matter how much of a mismatch it looks like on paper against the Midshipmen, it’s likely to be a struggle as Brian Kelly and his staff keep trying to figure out how to master defensing option football. Just 11 starters return for Navy, but one of them is record-setting quarterback Keenan Reynolds. Sixty minutes of anxiety is a certainty.

7) Texas (Game 1; Sept. 5)
2014 Record: 6-7
4-year Record: 31-21
4-year Bowl Record: 2-2
Starters Returning: 13
Coaching: Charlie Strong (2nd year)
Summary: The Longhorns showed just how far they have to go during the regular season with the 101st-ranked rushing attack and 109th scoring offense. Progress was put on hold as well when Strong’s first season in Austin ended in a 24-point loss to Arkansas in the Texas Bowl. Look for the toughness quotient to take a step forward in ’15, but the competitive Big 12 may force the progress to be made in smaller increments. Playing the Longhorns in the opener might be the best time to catch them in ’15.

6) Boston College @ Fenway (Game 11; Nov. 21)
2014 Record: 7-6
4-year Record: 20-30
4-year Bowl Record: 0-2
Starters Returning: 9
Coaching: Steve Addazio (3rd year)
Summary: The Eagles will be facing somewhat of a rebuilding process with less than half of their starters returning. But Addazio’s hard-nosed style of coaching will help narrow the gap quickly. The greatest certainty is that the Irish will have to be prepared for Boston College’s relentless rushing attack late in the season when the last couple Notre Dame defenses have been beaten up pretty badly and unable to compete at a high level. Make sure the chinstraps are securely fastened against Addazio’s Eagles.

5) Georgia Tech (Game 3; Sept. 19)
2014 Record: 11-3
4-year Record: 35-21
4-year Bowl Record: 2-2
Starters Returning: 13
Coaching: Paul Johnson (8th year)
Summary: After an 11-3 season in his second year in Atlanta, Johnson averaged just seven victories over the next four campaigns. Then along came the 2014 season, and the Yellow Jackets claimed the up-for-grabs Coastal Division of the ACC. They put the finishing touches on a great season with a convincing Orange Bowl victory over Mississippi State. More option football to confound the Irish.

4) USC (Game 7; Oct. 17)
2014 Record: 9-4
4-year Record: 36-16
4-year Bowl Record: 2-1
Starters Returning: 16
Coaching: Steve Sarkisian (2nd year)
Summary: Some figured that by the time the Irish played USC to conclude the ’14 regular season, the probation-restricted Trojans wouldn’t have enough healthy talent to compete. It turned out to be the other way around, and Notre Dame took a thumping. Now the Irish must contend with a stabilized USC program in Year Two of the Sarkisian regime. This one comes in mid-October in Notre Dame Stadium for what figures to be another much-at-stake clash.

3) Notre Dame
2014 Record: 8-5
4-year Record: 38-15
4-year Bowl Record: 2-2
Starters Returning: 19
Coaching: Brian Kelly (6th year)
Summary: No Power 5 program has more starters returning than Notre Dame, and that doesn’t even count the players who weren’t able to participate during the ’14 season. The Irish are loaded, but there’s still a matter of coming to grips with the quarterback position, the role of the rushing attack, and that sieve-like defense over the final half of the regular season.

2) @ Stanford (Game 12; Nov. 28)
2014 Record: 8-5
4-year Record: 42-12
4-year Bowl Record: 2-2
Starters Returning: 13
Coaching: David Shaw (5th year)
Summary: Shaw’s wherewithal as a head coach will be tested as the first significant chink in the armor following the departure of Jim Harbaugh showed itself in ’14 as the Cardinal lost five times for the first time since ’09. Just 13 starters return, but by the time the Irish play them, they’ll be a much more experienced bunch. The Cardinal still had the nation’s No. 2 scoring defense in ’14, and the Irish have lost in each their last three trips to Stanford Stadium.

1) @ Clemson (Game 5; Oct. 3)
2014 Record: 10-3
4-year Record: 42-11
4-year Bowl Record: 3-1
Starters Returning: 11
Coaching: Dabo Swinney (7th year)
Summary: Some wondered whether the emotional Swinney truly was the right man for the job when he took over full-time in ’09. The Tigers lost 12 times in Swinney’s first two seasons, and then were embarrassed by West Virginia (70-33 in the Orange Bowl) to conclude the ’11 campaign Since then, however, the Tigers are 32-7 with bowl victories over LSU, Ohio State and Oklahoma. Questions answered.


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