With the 10th and final First-Rate ranking in the books, we have analyzed the a) talent level, b) coaching ability and c) strength of schedule of Notre Dame and its 12 upcoming opponents, which, theoretically, should give us the best-to-worst teams on the slate.
Of course, it didn’t quite work out that way a year ago when we had USC in the No. 1 spot on the Irish 2015 schedule, followed by the Irish and Clemson tied for second, Georgia Tech at No. 4, Stanford, Pittsburgh, Texas, Boston College, UMass, Temple, Navy, Virginia and Wake Forest.
The Trojans (8-6) had a tumultuous season with a mid-season coaching change while Georgia Tech tumbled to 3-9. Stanford (12-2), UMass (3-9), Virginia (4-8) and Wake Forest (3-9) stayed true to form while Texas (5-7) and Boston College (3-9) finished worse than expected. A veteran Temple team was an out-of-the-blue 10-4, although the AAC tends to be fluid. Pittsburgh (8-5) was appropriately ranked in the No. 6 slot. As usual, Navy’s 11-2 record was accomplished with lesser talent.
The won-lost record listed after each team’s name is the cumulative record of its 2016 opponents from last season. Keep in mind that for the purpose of this ranking, lower means more difficult. In other words, No. 13 means the most difficult schedule and No. 1 is the easiest.
13) USC (101-58) – Seven of USC’s 12 regular-season opponents won at least eight games last season. Looming the largest is Alabama in the leadoff spot on Sept. 3, followed by Utah State, which has won 36 games the last four seasons. Notre Dame is the third non-conference foe. The Trojans must travel to Stanford (with the Cardinal coming off a bye week) and Utah before the end of September. The middle portion of the slate eases up, but the last four opponents – Oregon, at Washington, at UCLA, Notre Dame – are expected to challenge for double-digit victories.
12) Texas (89-64) – Five of the Longhorns 12 regular-season opponents won at least 10 games last year – Notre Dame, at Oklahoma State, Oklahoma (in Dallas), Baylor and TCU – although three of the five are in Austin. The Longhorns travel to Kansas – which was winless last year – on the second-to-last weekend of the slate. But they close with TCU after taking on Baylor, at Texas Tech and West Virginia leading up to the Jayhawks. Better make their hay early against UTEP, Iowa State and at Kansas State with three of the first five foes legitimate top 10 contenders.
11) Stanford (83-72) – Only one opponent won as many as 10 games last season, and that was Notre Dame. But the Cardinal better be ready out of the gate with Kansas State, a bye, USC, at UCLA, at Washington, Washington State and the Irish representing the first half of the schedule. If they can come out of that stretch with a 5-1 mark, they’ll have a great shot at competing for a playoff berth over the final six weeks of the season where they’ll likely be favored in five of those games with the trip to Oregon on Nov. 12 the largest stumbling block.
10) Syracuse (90-65) – The non-conference slate of Colgate, South Florida, at Connecticut and Notre Dame in East Rutherford, N.J. is commensurate to Syracuse’s current standing, although FCS Colgate won nine games last year, South Florida won eight and the Irish claimed 10 victories. After taking on Louisville the second week of the season, the Orange will have a stretch of at Wake Forest, Virginia Tech and at Boston College, which gives them a chance for success. November looks fairly brutal with at Clemson, N.C. State, Florida State and at Pittsburgh. The Orange will need every second of its two-week preparation for the Tigers.
9) Notre Dame (91-65) – Of Notre Dame’s 12 regular-season opponents in 2016, nine lost at least five times a year ago. That could prove to be deceiving with teams such as Texas, N.C. State, Miami and Virginia Tech – four teams that combined for 24 losses – all expected to be on the rise. Of the three foes with double-digit wins a year ago, two – Michigan State and Stanford (both 12-game winners) – come to South Bend while the third (Navy) is at a neutral site. Just one of the last five games last season was in Notre Dame Stadium while three of the last four this year are in Jacksonville, San Antonio and Los Angeles.
8) N.C. State (90-64) – With William & Mary, at East Carolina, Old Dominion, a bye and a home game against Wake Forest out of the gate, there’s a legitimate chance that the Wolfpack will be 5-0 when the Irish come to Raleigh on Oct. 8. The depth and the development of the N.C. State program under fourth-year head coach Dave Doeren will be tested from that point with Notre Dame, at Clemson, at Louisville, Florida State, Miami and at North Carolina representing six of the last eight games. The Wolfpack are the only ACC Atlantic Division team that has to play both Coastal Division frontrunners Miami and North Carolina.
7) Michigan State (90-61) – Five teams that won at least 10 games in 2015 are on the ’16 schedule although all but Notre Dame will be played in Spartan Stadium – Wisconsin, Northwestern, Michigan and Ohio State – where the Spartans are 20-1 the last three years. (Northwestern will be coming off a bye.) Road trips to Indiana, Maryland, Illinois and Penn State are manageable for a juggernaut like Michigan State. At Illinois and Rutgers are a couple of good buffer games between Michigan and Ohio State. Brigham Young is an interesting non-conference game between at Indiana and Northwestern.
6) Duke (82-71) – The Blue Devils have the luxury of bypassing both Florida State and Clemson, although North Carolina, at Pittsburgh and at Miami will be a challenging end to the regular season. It’s probably safe to say that Duke will not match their 4-2 road record of ’15 with back-to-back trips to Northwestern and Notre Dame to close out September, at Louisville and at Georgia Tech to conclude October, and the aforementioned end of the season. Still, Duke has a shot at a 3-0 start with FCS North Carolina Central and Wake Forest to open the season.
5) Miami (82-70) – With Florida A&M, Florida Atlantic and at Appalachian State out of the gate, long-time Georgia head coach and first-year Hurricane head coach Mark Richt has a great shot at a 4-0 start before taking on Florida State at home on Oct. 8. A bye the week before traveling to Georgia Tech on Oct. 1 will help. Clemson and Louisville are absent from the slate. Four of the last six games are on the road, including Notre Dame on Oct. 29 the week after an Irish bye. Pittsburgh, at Virginia, at N.C. State and Duke is a favorable November.
4) Virginia Tech (79-71) – After a home-opener against Liberty, Hokies’ first-year head coach Justin Fuente will have a shot at a marquee victory early in his stint in Blacksburg with a neutral site game (Bristol, Tenn.) against Butch Jones’ Tennessee Vols. Then it’s Boston College, East Carolina, and a bye before traveling to North Carolina. The Hokies have a shot at making a November run with at Duke, Georgia Tech, at Notre Dame and Virginia closing out the regular season. For the second straight season, Clemson, Florida State and Louisville are for the other ACC teams to contend with, not the Hokies.
3) Navy (81-72) – Seven of Navy’s 12 regular-season opponents lost at least six games in ’15. It likely won’t be as easy for the Midshipmen as it was in the 11-victory campaign of a year ago with only eight starters (one on offense) returning. Houston, which suffered its only loss of the season by 21 points to Navy, must travel to Annapolis, where the Midshipmen were 7-0. Navy does not have to play AAC East Division frontrunners Cincinnati and Temple, the latter a 10-game winner from a year ago. Navy has three byes for the season, including one before playing Army on Dec. 10. One of those byes comes the week before traveling to rival Air Force.
2) Army (71-77) – The Black Knights are one of only two teams on the Irish schedule that played opponents in ’15 that combined for a losing record. A trip to Temple opens the season. Air Force comes to West Point the week before Army travels to San Antonio to take on Notre Dame. After the Irish, the Black Knights play FCS Morgan State, followed by three weeks of prep for Navy in Baltimore. At Duke, at Wake Forest and Notre Dame are the only Power 5 opponents on the schedule.
1) Nevada (62-87) – A shocking nine of 12 opponents lost at least seven games last year, including FCS Cal Poly to open the season. To Nevada’s credit, two of the first four games are at Notre Dame and at Purdue with the Boilermakers coming off a bye. So, too, is Hawaii the week before Nevada travels to Honolulu. Eleven-win San Diego State and Utah State, both of whom knocked off the Wolf Pack in ’15, are the mid-November games.
1. Notre Dame (43– QB 1st, RB 3rd, WR 6th, OL 2nd, DL 4th, LB 4th, DB 6th, ST 4th, C 4th, S 9th)
2t. Stanford (44 – QB 5th, RB 1st, WR 11th, OL 4th, DL 3rd, LB 2nd, DB 4th, ST 1st, C 2nd, S 11th)
2t. Michigan St. (44 – QB 8th, RB 4th, WR 7th, OL 3rd, DL 2nd, LB 1st, DB 2nd, ST 9th, C 1st, S 7th)
4. USC (52 – QB 3rd, RB 2nd, WR 1st, OL 1st, DL 7th, LB 3rd, DB 1st, ST 10th, C 11th, S 13th)
5. Virginia Tech (58 – QB 9th, RB 7th, WR 2nd, OL 7th, DL 6th, LB 11th, DB 3rd, ST 3rd, C 6th, S 4th)
6. Miami (61 – QB 2nd, RB 10th, WR 9th, OL 8th, DL 5th, LB 7th, DB 7th, ST 5th, C 3rd, S 5th)
7. N.C. State (62 – QB 10th, RB 6th, WR 4th, OL 10th, DL 1st, LB 5th, DB 8th, ST 2nd, C 8th, S 8th)
8. Texas (76 – QB 4th, RB 5th, WR 10th, OL 6th, DL 8th, LB 6th, DB 5th, ST 11th, C 9th, S 12th)
9. Duke (81 -- QB 11th, RB 9th, WR 8th, OL 5th, DL 9th, LB 12th, DB 10th, ST 6th, C 5th, S 6th)
10. Nevada (83 – QB 7th, RB 8th, WR 5th, OL 9th, DL 10th, LB 13th, DB 11th, ST 7th, C 12th, S 1st)
11. Syracuse (87 – QB 6th, RB 11th, WR 3rd , OL 11th, DL 11th, LB 8th, DB 9th, ST 8th, C 10th, S 10th)
12. Navy (108 – QB 13th, RB 12th, WR 12th, OL 13th, DL 13th, LB 10th, DB 12th, ST 13th, C 7th, S 3rd)
13. Army (111– QB 12th, RB 13th, WR 13th, OL 12th, DL 12th, LB 9th, DB 13th, ST 12th, C 13th, S 2nd)