The 2021 Notre Dame schedule would not be described as easy. The Irish open the season against a very athletic Florida State team. They host two of the best quarterbacks in Kedon Slovis (USC) and Sam Howell (UNC). There’s a visit to Virginia Tech – always a hostile environment. Then there’s the neutral field clash with Wisconsin, and a potential top-10 battle against Cincinnati. With much of that coming in the middle part of the season, the Irish are in for a grind.
But it’s not unwinnable.
Notre Dame Schedule Overview
For the first time in three years, Notre Dame will avoid Georgia and Clemson in the regular season. Ohio State looms the next two seasons, but not in 2021. The Irish, ranked seventh in the initial Coaches Poll, don’t face a team higher than ninth (UNC) in that first poll. Number 10 Cincinnati, #14 USC, and #15 Wisconsin rounds out their slate of ranked opponents. And as Notre Dame enters a new era without quarterback Ian Book, it’s worth wondering whether the Irish can run the table for the third time in four regular seasons. Looking at the schedule, it seems difficult but doable, so here’s a ranking of each game by difficulty, and how Notre Dame could win or lose each contest.
12. vs. Navy, 11/6/21
Why Notre Dame could win: This is hands down the easiest game on the Notre Dame schedule.. Navy was a dismal 3-7 last season and has among the least returning production in the American Conference, on both sides of the ball. Notre Dame has dominated this series, winning eight of the last nine. The Irish have won five of those games by at least 17 points, scoring 38+ points on seven occasions. It’s a mismatch on paper and on the field, as the Irish should continue to dominate this friendly rivalry. If quarterback Jack Coan plays clean, Notre Dame should rack up points again in 2021.
Why Notre Dame could lose: Lack of preparation. Trap game. Sloppy offense or turnovers. There are few legitimate reasons why this game should be close. If Notre Dame enters unfocused after back-to-back primetime games versus USC and UNC, then maybe the Midshipmen pose a slight problem. But, ultimately, this one should be a blowout.
11. vs. Toledo, 9/11/21
Why Notre Dame could win: Notre Dame should win this game on talent alone. Toledo is one of the better teams in the MAC, but the Irish shouldn’t have a problem in their home opener. They have lost just one game to a Group of 5 team in the past decade, and Toledo shouldn’t become the second. With a capacity crowd back at Notre Dame Stadium, Notre Dame will be prepared to put on a show. If in control early, the Irish can experiment with different offensive schemes, or getting younger role players some snaps.
Why Notre Dame could lose: The Irish will enter this game on just six days of rest after playing on Sunday night at Florida State. The energy in that opener could be on another level, with the Seminoles looking to garner a marquee win after running up a 21-26 record these past four seasons. If Notre Dame gets away from that game unscathed, Toledo shouldn’t become an issue, but a physical or very long game in Tallahassee could become a problem with short rest coming up.
10. vs. Georgia Tech 11/20/21
Why Notre Dame could win: Georgia Tech was a relaxing 31-13 tuneup to the thrilling Clemson game in 2020. In 2021, the Irish should expect to roll again in the final home game of the season. Syracuse and Duke may save Georgia Tech from being the worst in the conference, but they are far from a good team. Quarterback Jeff Sims is talented, but he was extremely mistake-prone as a freshman. And with a defense that gave up 37 points a game, a sloppy offense won’t do the trick. Notre Dame’s defense, led by new defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman, should handle the Yellow Jackets, and the Irish offense should firmly have their identity by late November.
Why Notre Dame could lose: Like many teams, Georgia Tech did beat Notre Dame down the field on occasion. Although the secondary looks to be better, they had significant struggles in 2020. Entering his second year, Sims could surprise and take a massive step after gaining valuable experience as a freshman. His dual-threat ability could pressure Notre Dame’s front seven, creating threats not present in the 2020 contest. If the offense looks better, they could at least put up a respectable total, putting some semblance of pressure on the Irish.
9. vs. Purdue 9/18/21
Why Notre Dame could win: This in-state ‘rivalry’ should not be competitive. Purdue started two quarterbacks last year and figures to continue that battle this fall. In a top-heavy Big 10, Purdue won’t be incredibly competitive, and beating Notre Dame is a big ask. The Irish often find some kind of offensive groove after whichever early Group of 5 game is on their schedule, and expect their new starting quarterback to have gelled by this point. Purdue’s defense is highly suspect, and this should be a relatively comfortable victory for the Irish.
Why Notre Dame could lose: Just the third game on the Notre Dame schedule, Purdue does bring an extra challenge. Zander Horvath may be the best individual player the Irish will have dealt with at this point in the season. The jack-of-all-trades averaged 124 all purpose yards per game, gaining at least 118 yards in five of six games.
With three 100-yard rushing games and one 100-yard receiving effort, Horvath is an exceptional athlete who can take over games. In an upset of Iowa last season, Horvath rolled for 129 rushing yards. Notre Dame needs their linebackers to contain Horvath from chunk plays, putting the pressure on Purdue’s suspect passing game. If Freeman can’t engineer a defensive effort centered around stopping Horvath, it could be a long and tiring day for the Irish defense.
8. @ Florida State 9/5/21
Why Notre Dame could win: Despite Florida State being a traditional powerhouse, they simply haven’t been good recently. A losing record over the last four years has the Seminoles desperate for success, but they haven’t found it in recent seasons against Notre Dame. The Irish handled the Seminoles 42-26 last season, in a game not as close as the score indicated. It was the second straight game against Florida State in which the Irish notched 42 points. Florida State’s lack of success has begun to affect their recruiting, and Notre Dame clearly has a talent advantage here. If the Irish play their game, and the new offense clicks enough in game one, this should be a victory.
Why Notre Dame could lose: This could turn into a game that seriously scares Irish fans. The atmosphere is going to be insane, and Tallahassee will be rocking for the primetime opener. It has shades of the 2016 Notre Dame-Texas game that the Irish lost 50-47 in overtime. Texas turned into a 5-7 team, while the Irish tailspun their way to a 4-8 record.
Furthermore, it could be the return of McKenzie Milton. Milton of course was severely injured in 2018 and nearly lost his leg. Three years later, he’s back and it’s the sort of emotional boost that could lift an otherwise mediocre team. If Milton puts together a performance in front of a huge home crowd, the Irish could be scrambling to pull out an opening victory. Getting out to an early advantage and taking the crowd out of it early will be pivotal to avoiding an upset alert.
7. @ Stanford, 11/27/21
Why Notre Dame could win: This annual rivalry returns to the Notre Dame schedule after the COVID-induced hiatus, and it’s one in which the Irish have recently gained the upper hand. In 2019, Notre Dame won at Stanford for the first time since 2007, as the Cardinal went 4-8 in a down year.
Stanford was 4-2 last season but lost quarterback Davis Mills to the draft and needs to break in a new signal-caller. Stanford figures to be a middling Pac-12 team, and this just isn’t one of the tougher games on the schedule for the Irish. Defensively, the Cardinal gave up nearly 32 points per game. Assuming Notre Dame’s new-look offense has gelled well by their final game, they should be able to slice up Stanford’s defense for a convincing road win.
Why Notre Dame could lose: Stanford is always going to be a tricky place to play, and head coach Brian Kelly has not had much success there. Even in 2019, with a 10-2 team, Kelly’s Irish struggled to pull away. They needed a punt block from Isaiah Foskey to spark them into action, kicking the offense and defense into high gear. Without a big defensive play or momentum swing early, the Irish could fall asleep against a dangerous rival. If Stanford is anything above mediocre, this becomes a road game the Irish want nothing to do with.