Notre Dame Schedule: Ranking Games By Difficulty, 1-6

Notre Dame Schedule Picks Up In Difficulty

The Notre Dame schedule is nothing short of a grind in 2021. Having looked at the six easiest games on the schedule, here’s the more strenuous half of the schedule, ranked by difficulty. This list is a daunting one, as it includes four preseason top-15 games. The only non-ranked opponents are a pair of tricky trap games against potentially surprising ACC opponents. Whether Notre Dame can make it back to the playoff relies on whether they can escape these six games unscathed.

6. Vs. UNC, 10/30/21

Why Notre Dame could win: This game is probably lower on the list than most expect and the most controversial ranking. But simply, UNC’s best chance was last season. Now top quarterback prospect Sam Howell is really all that’s left in the Tar Heel offense, which lost their top two receivers and top two running backs. The defense will be decent, although they lost a fantastic linebacker in Chazz Surratt to the draft. And lest it is forgotten, UNC’s best team in five seasons went 8-4 with losses to Florida State and Virginia. They also squeaked by Boston College and Wake Forest by one possession.

Somehow, that resume put UNC at No. 9 in the Coaches Poll, but Notre Dame beat the Tar Heels by 14 last season on the road. At home in front of a fired-up Halloween weekend crowd in South Bend, the Irish should be favorites in this one. Kyren Williams punished UNC for 124 yards in 2020, while quarterback Ian Book was clinical with 279 yards and a touchdown. Maintain that efficient offensive approach and Notre Dame can still score 30+ on the Tar Heels. 

Why Notre Dame could lose: Sam Howell could be the top pick in the NFL draft, or at least the top quarterback selected. He’s got the type of game-changing talent that every team wants under center. Notre Dame certainly has some questions in the secondary, and Howell has the talent to exploit any holes. The Tar Heel defense returns ten starters and could be a very strong unit as well, and Notre Dame will be coming off a grind of a game versus USC the week before. Back-to-back primetime games to end a grueling middle stretch of the season could have the Irish tired and less than sharp for this game. If UNC can keep it close, Howell can take over in the fourth quarter and spur the Tar Heels to the road upset.

5. @ Virginia, 11/13/21

Why Notre Dame could win: The Irish handled Virginia’s best team in recent years back in 2019, with a 35-20 win at home. Virginia’s biggest threat is generally their running game, and it’s something that the Irish thrived against last season. Brennan Armstrong is the biggest threat, and if he’s contained, then Notre Dame should stifle the Virginia offense. For the Irish, the air game may be the road to success against a Cavaliers’ defense that gave up over 300 passing yards per game last season, but their dynamic backfield should also present problems to Virginia.

Why Notre Dame could lose: However, despite a 3-0 all-time record against the Cavaliers, Notre Dame has had some close calls. They trailed at half in 2019, and in 2015, the Irish needed a last-second Hail Mary to snare a victory. UVA could certainly surprise some teams with an offense that could be dynamic, should Armstrong take a step forward.

The quarterback notched 18 passing touchdowns last season, but also tossed 11 interceptions. If he cuts down on the mistakes and improves on his 552 rushing yards, he becomes one of the top dual-threats in the ACC. The Irish defense had occasional issues with improvising quarterbacks, and Armstrong has elite potential. It’s a late-season road trip on the Notre Dame schedule that could pose problems for the Irish.

4. Vs. Cincinnati, 10/2/21

Why Notre Dame could win: Notre Dame doesn’t lose to a Group of 5 teams, even good ones. In the past decade, only a single loss to Navy blemishes that record. Only a few of those games were ranked, as this Cincinnati game is reminiscent of a 2015 battle with Temple. The Owls entered that game undefeated and ranked 21st in the country, and Notre Dame won a tight Halloween battle.

With defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman having come from Cincinnati, the Irish should have advantages on that side of the ball. Cincinnati averaged 23.5 points per game in two ranked contests in 2020, so it shouldn’t take a monumental offensive effort to come out on top. A solid game from quarterback Jack Coan, maybe a big play from a wide receiver, and a solid defensive performance should do the trick. 

Why Notre Dame could lose: Cincinnati has ranked ahead of Notre Dame in the preseason polls, and whether they’re still there after playing Indiana remains to be seen. However, the way the Bearcats were scored last season was frequently through the air. This goes away from Notre Dame’s ground-and-pound strategy, and it may force them to win the game through less comfortable means. If their unproven wide receiver corps struggles, then it becomes a gritty low-scoring battle that suits Cincinnati. The Irish need to put up points early, because they’ll win in a shootout. A defensive scrum, however, is another matter entirely. 

3. @ Virginia Tech, 10/9/21

Why Notre Dame could win: Notre Dame has won their last two against the Hokies, including a 22-point win in their lone trip to Blacksburg. Offensively, the Hokies don’t look imposing, as they lost a lot of their 2020 production. Notre Dame may be weaker versus the pass, which doesn’t line up with Virginia Tech’s strengths. Meanwhile, the Hokies were bad against the run, so Notre Dame’s electrifying backfield should be licking their chops at the opportunity for big numbers. 

Why Notre Dame could lose: This is a scary road trip. The Hokies return a ton of their defensive production, and they could be vastly improved. The offense was good last season, so if new contributors step up, then Virginia Tech becomes a significant threat. The timing of this game in the Notre Dame schedule is also key. Should the Irish escape Wisconsin and Cincinnati, they just need to get through Blacksburg to reach their bye week. Following the bye are the USC and UNC primetime games. The definition of a trap game is hazy, but this seems to fit the bill. Virginia Tech could surprise a few teams in 2021, and the Irish are no exception. 

2. @ Wisconsin, 9/25/21

Why Notre Dame could win: Wisconsin feels grossly overrated in the top-15 of the preseason polls. The Badgers were 4-3 last season – scoring 20 combined points in losses to Indiana and Northwestern. Graham Mertz is getting way too much hype as a quarterback that led his team to those point-totals, and a 42-point Mayo Bowl effort doesn’t make up for it. The running back room is inexperienced, so don’t expect the Badgers to be scoring a lot at Soldier Field. Notre Dame should be fired up for their first real test of this season, with Coan, a former Badger, under center. 

Why Notre Dame could lose: Graham Mertz and the Wisconsin offense were really bad in four of their seven games. But they scored 40+ in the other three contests. If the consistency improves, then suddenly what seems like a mediocre offense becomes dangerous. And while the running back room is inexperienced, Wisconsin has historically great offensive lines and running backs. The defense figures to be good as usual, and if Mertz has become more consistent, and the running back question marks turn into a strength, then Wisconsin feels like a true top-15 or even top-10 team that could easily knock off the Irish. 

1. Vs. USC, 10/23/21 

Why Notre Dame could win: There are a few reasons for this one – the Irish have dominated this series recently with four wins in their past five meetings. They haven’t lost to the Trojans in South Bend since 2011. USC’s defense also gave up 30+ in three games last season, getting victimized by various factors. Sloppy offense caused doom in the Pac-12 championship, while struggles against the run and pass occasionally plagued USC.

In the Pac-12 championship against Oregon, Kedon Slovis looked woefully unprepared for the big moment, and Notre Dame’s defense could pounce if he’s shaky in the early going. Not to mention, this is a rivalry game, with a potential 4-year home winning streak on the line – nobody in the Irish locker room could be any more motivated for any single game. 

Why Notre Dame could lose: USC’s flop in the Pac-12 championship has seemed to make people forget that they were 5-0 heading into it. The offense looked downright scary until their sloppiness led to their defeat versus the Ducks. If Slovis learned from that rough experience and enters his third season as a more seasoned veteran, then the Trojans will be tough to stop defensively. Flat out, USC may be the only more talented team than Notre Dame on the schedule, although that is certainly debatable.

And while the defense was inconsistent, the Trojans have the offense to beat Notre Dame in a shootout in South Bend. And as far as a home-field advantage? Again the timing of the Notre Dame schedule plays tricks on the Irish. This game is at the tail end of Notre Dame’s Fall Break, meaning many students may not be back on campus. This could lead to a quieter atmosphere, which makes life less difficult for Slovis and Co. This isn’t a trap game – it’s a flat-out tough game against a team that could run the table. 

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Notre Dame Schedule Prediction

The Irish have two undefeated regular seasons in three years. This tough but winnable slate has the potential to make it three unblemished records in four seasons. However, given the extensive losses from the starting lineup, 12-0 feels overly optimistic. However, many of the tougher games being at home does help the Irish. Boasting an unbeaten record since 2017 at Notre Dame Stadium, the Irish are comfortable in front of the home crowd. The prediction here has Notre Dame going 11-1.

While picking an individual game to trip up in is difficult, the biggest likelihoods are those top three games. USC is really talented, Wisconsin is no slouch at a neutral field, and Blacksburg is a tough place to play. Notre Dame should be very satisfied with an 11-1 season with so much transition. Such a record likely lands them a New Year’s Six games, with the opportunity to win a major bowl.