It’s a trope trotted out by Notre Dame players and coaches every year: No matter who we’re playing, we’re going to get their best shot, and because of that, there are no “easy” games.
Between narrow wins over Virginia in 2015, Purdue in 2013 and Pittsburgh in 2012, or baffling losses to Northwestern in 2014 and South Florida in 2011, Notre Dame has played enough close games against mediocre-to-bad teams in recent years to lend credence to that best-shot belief about opponents around South Bend. Whether it’s because teams indeed are fired up to play Notre Dame or the Irish sometimes overlook these lower-tier teams — the answer probably lies in the middle — penciling in a game as an “easy win” doesn’t always turn out to be the case when that particular Saturday rolls around.
With that being said, as we turn our summer focus to the 2016 season, we’re ranking the difficulty of Notre Dame’s opponents this week. They’re divided up into three blocks: The “easy” games, the trap games and the tough games. Today, we’re starting with four games that Notre Dame, on paper, should have no trouble winning.
12. Army (Nov. 12 in San Antonio)
Notre Dame’s Shamrock Series comes against an Army program that has only had one winning season since 1997. The Black Knights are in Year 3 under coach Jeff Monken and haven’t had much success, going 4-8 in 2014 and 2-10 in 2015. Army ranked 108th in F/+ last year, and despite running the triple option, its rushing S&P+ ranked 90th.
One of Notre Dame’s biggest defensive successes last year was successfully smothering option offenses in Georgia Tech and Navy, outside of the first half of that October game against the Mids. While plenty of college football fans should be rooting for this downtrodden Army program to realize the success Air Force and Navy have had in recent years, there aren’t many signs that’ll be the case in 2016.
11. Nevada (Sept. 10 in South Bend)
Former Notre Dame assistant Brian Polian has done a nice job in Reno, leading the Wolf Pack to back-to-back seven-win seasons, including a win in the Arizona Bowl last year. While Nevada ranked 97th in F+ last year, this is a team that returns its starting quarterback (Tyler Stewart), a 1,300-yard rusher (James Butler), its three leading receivers (Jerico Richardson, Hasaan Henderson, Wyatt Demps) and tight end (Jarred Gipson) and every single offensive lineman with starting experience.
Defensively, there are quite a few losses along the line and in the linebacking corps, but nearly the entire secondary is back. Notre Dame probably won’t have too much trouble scoring on the Wolf Pack, but facing an experienced offense coordinated by a Chip Kelly disciple (Tim Cramsey) makes this a bit of a challenge. Add on the fact that this game is slapped in between the season opener against Texas and that big Sept. 17 game against Michigan State, and it could very well present some difficulties for Notre Dame — even though, if the Irish are serious about a playoff push, they should probably be able to cruise past a Mountain West team.
10. Duke (Sept. 24 in South Bend)
David Cutcliffe’s success at Duke is a testament to waiting out a plan — the Blue Devils lost 33 games from 2008-2011, but have reached a bowl game in each of the last four years (last season’s Pinstripe Bowl victory was the school’s first bowl win since 1960). This a solid program, but for a few reasons, is one that Notre Dame should still cruise by.
To start, Duke loses its two most experienced offensive linemen (including All-ACC center Matt Skura) and half of its regulars along its defensive line from a team that, while it went 8-5, only ranked 74th in F/+ last season. Star safety Jeremy Cash is gone, too, from a pass defense that ranked 99th in S&P+ in 2015.
But sustaining back-to-back-to-back-to-back bowl seasons isn’t easy at a place without much football history like Duke. They’re a team that, if Notre Dame is resting on its laurels following a win over Michigan State, could sneak up and give the Irish a scare in South Bend.
9. Syracuse (Oct. 1 in East Rutherford, N.J.)
Dino Babers very well could do good things at Syracuse, but it’ll probably take the former Bowling Green coach some time to get the right guys into upstate New York to run his powerful spread offense.
There’s already some talent here on offense that could challenge VanGorder’s defense, though some significant turnover on the offensive line (which lost 115 starts from last year’s group) could be a welcome sight for guys like Isaac Rochell and Jarron Jones. On defense, Syracuse returns a ton of linebackers and defensive backs, though this is a defense that was below average (70th in S&P+) last year.
That this game is being played on a neutral field — MetLife Stadium, as 2014’s meeting was — bumps this game up ahead of home games against Duke and Nevada. Syracuse may struggle to be a bowl team — having to play Notre Dame, Clemson, Florida State and Louisville is an awfully rough deal for a first-year coach — but they'll give a few decent teams tough games this fall. We'll see if Notre Dame is one of them.