Matt Cashore / IrishIllustrated.com

7th Annual First-Rate Series

The Irish will face 10 of the nation’s top 40 defenses from a year ago. Six of those opponents return at least seven starters, including Georgia with 10.

Add up all the talent on a team in the pre-season, mix in an analysis of the respective coaching staffs and schedules, and you have a pretty good barometer as to what to expect this fall when Notre Dame takes on two teams from the American Athletic Conference (Temple and Navy) and Pac-12 (USC and Stanford), one each from the SEC (Georgia), Mid-American (Miami Ohio), and Big Ten (Michigan State), and five from the ACC (Boston College, North Carolina, N.C. State, Wake Forest and Miami).

What you need to know before we begin the annual process of rating Notre Dame and its 12 opponents by position.

NO PUSHOVERS

This is a better slate of opponents than the opportunity that slipped away from Notre Dame in 2016.

Much better.

Five Irish opponents – USC, Georgia, Stanford, Miami and N.C. State -- are legitimate top 25-caliber teams in 2017 with the first three possibly pushing for top-10 status.

Temple, despite losing head coach Matt Rhule to Baylor, won 10 games each of the past two seasons.

North Carolina and Miami lost a ton of talent in the NFL draft. But the Tar Heels won eight games a year ago and have become a frontrunner in the ACC while the Hurricanes under Mark Richt have a bevy of returning athletes and recruited well.

Former Irish assistant coach Chuck Martin has his best and most experienced team in four seasons at Miami (Ohio) after ripping off six straight victories last season to finish 6-2 in conference play.

Two teams generally considered to be at the bottom of the pack in the ACC – Boston College and Wake Forest – annually put forth two of the better defenses in the country.

Navy, obviously, can beat Notre Dame any year.

Michigan State, which won just three games a year ago, lost a ton of senior talent and remains in the midst of off-the-field turmoil.  But do you really think Mark Dantonio is going to stay down for long and be a pushover in Spartan Stadium on Sept. 23?

After turning what should have been an 8-4/7-5 season at worst into a 4-8 disaster, Notre Dame can’t take any opponent for granted. Not until there’s proof that the Irish truly are back in Brian Kelly’s eighth season, despite the apparent improvements with the hiring of three new coordinators and a cutting-edge Director of Football Performance.

DEFENSE REIGNS SUPREME

Coming out of the spring, most agreed that the Notre Dame offense was loaded with a promising young quarterback, a bevy of running backs and big receivers, and an offensive line returning four starters.

The Irish offense will have to be good from the outset.

Ten of Notre Dame’s 12 opponents ranked among the nation’s top 40 in total defense last year: Temple (No. 3), Boston College (No. 9), Georgia (No. 16), Miami (No. 20), N.C. State (No. 24), Miami (Ohio) (No. 25), Michigan State (No. 32), USC (No. 36), Stanford (No. 38) and Wake Forest (No. 40).

Six of those defenses have at least seven starters returning: Georgia (10), N.C. State (8), Stanford (8), Miami (Ohio) (8), Miami (7) and Boston College (7).

Georgia, in particular, is loaded on all three levels of its defense. One could make an argument that the Bulldogs have the best linebacker corps in the country with the secondary unit not far behind.

PASS RUSHERS

Still unsure as to whether Mike McGlinchey is a legitimate first-round draft choice?

The Irish left tackle will be challenged by several elite pass-rushers from Boston College (Game 3), N.C. State (Game 8), and Wake Forest (Game 9).

The Eagles boast defensive end/outside linebacker Harold Lowery, who recorded 16½ sacks in ’16.

McGlinchey had his hands full against the Wolfpack’s DE-Bradley Chubb last year when he had three sacks against Notre Dame. Chubb had 21½ tackles for loss a year ago. 

The Irish kick off a challenging November slate against Demon Deacon/Mike Elko-trained DE-Duke Ejiofor, who had 10½ sacks and 17½ tackles for loss in ’16.

Four other returning players had more sacks last year alone than Notre Dame’s defensive line combined heading into 2017: Miami DE-Joe Jackson (8), N.C. State DE-Darian Roseboro (7), Stanford DT-Harrison Phillips (6½), and Navy OLB-D.J. Palmore (6).

• Temple (Game 1) was 14th in the country in sacks last year.
• Georgia (Game 2) should be able to create an improved pass rush with a depth-laden defensive line and its top-notch linebacker corps.
• Miami (Game 10) and Stanford (Game 12) tied for 22nd in the country in sacks in ’16. The Hurricanes ranked among the nation’s top 35 in eight categories in ’16, including No. 5 in tackles for loss (108).
• Former Irish recruit DE-Porter Gustin and OLB-Uchenna Nwosu (USC, Game 7) combined for 20½ tackles for loss in ’16.

HEISMAN CANDIDATES

In addition to Oklahoma QB-Baker Mayfield, defending Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson from Louisville, and Oklahoma State’s QB-Mason Rudolph, USC signalcaller Sam Darnold is one of the hottest names on the list of potential winners.

A still-recovering Nick Chubb, who shares the ball-carrying load with Sony Michel, rushed for 1,130 yards in ’16. If he returns to his freshman form in 2014 when he had 1,547 yards and 7.1 ypc. – he was averaging eight yards per carry when he was injured in ‘15 -- he’ll be among the finalists in New York.

RECRUITING

While the Irish certainly are making inroad on the recruiting trail – particularly along the defensive line where help is needed – Notre Dame’s top rivals in the fall more than held their own in the annual battle for talent replenishment.

Stanford and USC kept pace with the Irish while Miami and Georgia made legitimate claims for inclusion among the nation’s top 10.

It won’t be a surprise if one or two true freshmen land a starting spot for the Bulldogs offensive line. Early-entry freshman DT-Marlon Tuipulotu will make an immediate impact for USC. Miami loaded up on receivers for one of the top hauls in the country.

ODDS AND ENDS

• Former LSU quarterback Brandon Harris, who struggled with the Tigers, moves into the spot vacated by North Carolina’s No. 2 overall NFL pick – Mitchell Trubisky.

• There’s only one new head coach on the Irish slate this fall. Geoff Collins, who replaces Temple’s Matt Rhule, coordinated the No. 6 scoring defense in the country at Florida in 2016 after a No. 11 score-ranking in 2015.

• Technically, USC has just two offensive line starters returning in ’17. But guard/center Toa Lobendahn – who suffered a season-ending knee injury in the opener against Alabama – is back.

Other top-rated talent to keep an eye on:

• Miami RB-Mark Walton (1,117 yards, 14 TDs), DE-Chad Thomas, LB-Shaq Quarterman and WR-Ahmmon Richards (934 yards as a freshman);

• Georgia LBs Roquan Smith (95 tackles), Davin Bellamy (9 tackles for loss), Natrez Patrick, and Lorenzo Carter.

• USC RB-Ronald Jones II (134 yards, 51-yard TD run vs. Notre Dame), WR-Deontay Burnett (13 catches for 164 yards and three TDs in Rose Bowl), LB-Cameron Smith, CB-Iman Marshall and FS-Chris Hawkins.

• Notre Dame’s best player/NFL prospect is red-shirt junior offensive guard Quenton Nelson, who will challenge Washington State’s Cody O’Connell for the distinction of No. 1 guard in the country.


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