First rate: Schedules

Based upon winning percentages from a year ago, Boston College and Virginia face the toughest slate in 2015, but Georgia Tech’s is loaded with land mines.

The final segment of our First Rate series is the only one that doesn’t involve the coaches and players of Notre Dame and its 12 opponents per se, but rather, the personnel of the teams Notre Dame and its 12 opponents are playing.

The schedule – to a large extent – dictates the record of a team, sometimes as much as its own personnel determines its record. Catch a wave of top teams at the wrong time and a season can be sent spiraling out of control. On the flip side, build some confidence with some easy victories and a team can be propelled into an upset or two against quality competition.

One thing that can’t be controlled is how one’s opponents schedule games before and after playing you. For example, six of Notre Dame’s 12 opponents have more than a week’s preparation for the Irish, including 16 days for Clemson and Wake Forest, 14 for Boston College, and nine each for USC, Temple and Pittsburgh. Such is the impact of playing Notre Dame.

Following the guidelines of our First Rate series, the larger the ranking number, the more difficult the schedule. We’ve used Athlon’s pre-season rankings – 1 through 128 teams – as a guideline for determining difficulty of schedule.

13) Boston College
The Eagles’ first four games are at home – Maine, Howard, Florida State and Northern Illinois. Their most difficult home game is at Clemson, followed by at Louisville. Boston College faces four pre-season top 25s, including Virginia Tech at home and Notre Dame in Fenway Park. Boston College’s 10 FBS opponents have an average pre-season rank of 36.1 – the second best on the Irish slate – although the two home games against FCS schools lightens the load considerably. The .623 winning percentage of the 10 FBS opponents is the highest on this list. Five opponents won at least nine games last year – Florida State (13), Northern Illinois (11), Clemson (10), Duke (9) and Louisville (9).

12) Georgia Tech
The Yellow Jackets ease into the season with home tilts versus Alcorn State and Tulane before back-to-back road games against Notre Dame and Duke. Four of its last eight games are against top 25s – at Clemson, Florida State, Virginia Tech and Georgia. Georgia Tech has 12 days prep for what could be a crucial Coastal Division clash with Virginia Tech. Bad break – no Boston College, Wake Forest or Syracuse on the slate.

11) USC
The Trojans host Arkansas State and Idaho before an early-season clash with Stanford in the Coliseum. In the Pac 12 alone, USC plays four top 25-caliber teams – at Arizona State, Arizona, at Oregon and UCLA, in addition to Notre Dame, although the Trojans have nine days of preparation. Six opponents rank among Athlon’s pre-season top 26. The Trojans have one stretch of five road games out of eight.

10) Wake Forest
The Demon Deacons ease into the season against FCS Elon, at Syracuse, at Army and at home against Indiana, which is a logical way for a program of this caliber to open a campaign. Very few places to hide after that with Florida State and at Boston College, followed by six straight opponents all among the nation’s pre-season top 40, including trips to Notre Dame and Clemson.

9) Virginia
The Cavaliers do not have to play Florida State or Clemson, although five of their 12 opponents won at least nine games last year – Boise State (12), Georgia Tech (11), UCLA (10), Louisville (9) and Duke (9). The .604 winning percentage of Virginia’s ’15 foes is the second highest among Irish opponents. The Cavs get a reprieve between Notre Dame and Boise State at home by hosting William & Mary. Virginia plays away from home on consecutive weekends just once.

8) Stanford
Credit to the Cardinal for scheduling solid non-conference openers at Northwestern and at home versus Central Florida. It gets serious early with a trip to USC on Sept. 19. If the Cardinal can handle back-to-backs at home against Arizona and UCLA (with 12 days prep), they should go into their home Nov. 14 tilt against Oregon off wins over Washington, Washington State and Colorado before closing with the Ducks, Cal and Notre Dame.

7) Texas
Some tough assignments out of the gate for the Longhorns, who must face four top 25 teams within the first six games – at Notre Dame in game one, Oklahoma State in game four, at TCU in game five and Oklahoma in Dallas in game six. If Texas can split those six – wins over Rice and Cal and home would be a huge boost – the Longhorns likely are looking at an eight-victory season before closing at Baylor.

6) Notre Dame
The Irish play four of the projected top 30 teams in the country in USC and Georgia Tech at home and Clemson and Stanford on the road. Because the Irish bypassed a home game to play Boston College in Fenway Park, they will play just one game in Notre Dame Stadium after hosting USC on Oct. 17. Three of the first seven opponents are projected in the top 15. Notre Dame has one off weekend – the week after USC and the week before Temple.

5) Pittsburgh
Five of Pat Narduzzi’s first seven games as the first-year head coach of the Panthers are away from home, including a non-conference tilt against Iowa, Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech. Four of the last five are at home, including a nine-day prep before Notre Dame. The Panthers open with Youngstown State and at Akron to get Narduzzi off to a 2-0 start.

4) Clemson
The Tigers inexplicably open with back-to-back FCS opponents (Wofford and Appalachian State). They begin October with home games against Notre Dame and Georgia Tech. Their other toughest game is against Florida State, which also is at home. Their most difficult games on the road are against Louisville and N.C. State. Clemson will have 16 days between its visit to Louisville and its home game versus the Irish. All things considered, a very favorable slate for the Tigers.

3) Navy
Navy enters its first season in the American Athletic Conference against mostly low-rated squads. Connecticut, Tulane, SMU, Tulsa and Army all are among the bottom 25 percent. Besides Notre Dame, the highest projected opponents are Memphis and Houston, which makes this a good fit for the Midshipmen as they try to raise their football profile incrementally. With Colgate and East Carolina at home, at Connecticut and Air Force at home to open the season, Navy could be undefeated when they take on the Irish.

2) Temple
The Owls open the season at home against Penn State and at Cincinnati, followed by two more road games. Notre Dame comes to Philadelphia on Halloween. Two of the Owls’ toughest Athletic American Athletic foes – Memphis and Central Florida -- visit Lincoln Financial Field. Two other top foes – Houston and Navy – are not on the slate. Temple opponents won just .463 of their games (69-80) last season.

1) Massachusetts
After a trip to Colorado, a home game against Temple and a visit to Notre Dame, the Owls likely will be smarting. It gets dramatically easier from there with seven of the remaining nine opponents ranked among the bottom 25 percent in the FBS. The highest pre-season rank among its 12 opponents besides Notre Dame is Colorado. To UMass’ credit, there are no FCS schools on the slate.

Here is the running tally:

1. USC (40--QB 1st, RB 3rd, WR 3rd, OL 1st, DL 5th, LB 2nd, DB 3rd, ST 4th, C 7th, SCH 11th)
2t. Notre Dame (43 -- QB 7th, RB 2nd, WR 2nd, OL 3rd, DL 6th, LB 1st, DB 2nd, ST 11th, C 3rd, SCH 6th)
2t. Clemson (43 -- QB 4th, RB 6th, WR 1st, OL 5th, DL 2nd, LB 7th, DB 5th, ST 8th, C 1st, SCH 4th)
4. Georgia Tech (53 -- QB 2nd, RB 8th, WR 13th, OL 4th, DL 7th, LB 10th, DB 1st, ST 6th, C 2nd, SCH 12th)
5. Stanford (59 -- QB 5th, RB 4th, WR 6th, OL 2nd, DL 11th, LB 3rd, DB 13th, ST 3rd, C 4th, SCH 8th)
6. Pittsburgh (65 -- QB 6th, RB 1st, WR 5th, OL 7th, DL 8th, LB 9th, DB 9th, ST 2nd, C 13th, SCH 5th)
7. Texas (77 -- QB 10th, RB 7th, WR 8th, OL 8th, DL 3rd, LB 12th, DB 4th, ST 13th, C 5th, SCH 7th)
8. Boston College (78 -- QB 13th, RB 5th, WR 10th, OL 11th, DL 1st, LB 6th, DB 12th, ST 1st, C 6th, SCH 13th)
9. UMass (82 -- QB 8th, RB 11th, WR 4th, OL 6th, DL 13th, LB 8th, DB 11th, ST 10th, C 10th, SCH 1st)
10. Temple (85 -- QB 11th, RB 12th, WR 11th, OL 12th, DL 10th, LB 5th, DB 6th, ST 5th, C 11th, SCH 2nd)
11t. Virginia (89 -- QB 12th, RB 10th, WR 7th, OL 9th, DL 4th, LB 11th), DB 8th, ST 7th, C 12th, SCH 9th)
11t. Navy (89 -- QB 3rd, RB 9th, WR 12th, OL 10th, DL 12th, LB 13th, DB 7th, ST 12th, C 8th, SCH 3rd)
13. Wake Forest 95 -- QB 9th, RB 13th, WR 9th, OL 13th, 9th, LB 4th, DB 10th, ST 9th, C 9th, SCH 10th)

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