If Notre Dame emerges from October still in the College Football Playoff race, it'll have done so by beating arguably two of college football's best quarterbacks.
Sports on Earth's Matt Brown ranked Clemson's DeShaun Watson (Oct. 3) as college football's top quarterback and USC's Cody Kessler (Oct. 17) No. 2 (Brown also ranked Malik Zaire No. 24 and Everett Golson No. 25). Say what you will about those rankings -- Watson at No. 1 aggressive, given his relative lack of experience, though the rising sophomore is as talented as any quarterback in the country. But better than Ohio State's triumvirate of Braxton Miller, J.T. Barrett and/or Cardale Jones? Or TCU's Trevone Boykin and Mississippi State's Dak Prescott, both of whom led their upstart teams to the brink of a College Football Playoff berth last year?
Watson, a former five-star prospect, appeared in eight games for Clemson in 2014 and nearly engineered an upset of a Jameis Winston-less Florida State in Tallahassee. In those eight games as a true freshman, Watson threw 14 touchdowns and only two interceptions and completed 67.9 percent of his passes. He'll have 16 days to rest up and prepare for Notre Dame with a bye week following Clemson's Thursday, Sept. 17 matchup at Louisville.
Notre Dame knows Kessler well from 2013 and 2014. Two years ago, the USC quarterback threw for an ineffective 201 yards in a brutal offensive game for both teams (won by Notre Dame, 14-10). But Kessler dissected a dilapidated Irish defense last November in Los Angeles, completing 80 percent of his passes for 372 yards and six touchdowns in his magnum opus of a 3,286-yard season with a 39/5 TD/INT ratio.
Both Watson and Kessler certainly are deserving of their high rankings here, and they'll represent the first real tests for a Notre Dame secondary that should be stocked with front-end talent. Cole Luke and KeiVarae Russell should be one of college football's better cornerback duos, and Matthias Farley emerged as an excellent player in his nickel role in 2014. If safeties Max Redfield and Elijah Shumate can carry their strong spring practices into the fall, Brian VanGorder & Co. should have a secondary good enough to compete with the likes of Clemson and USC.
Those are the two pivotal, resume-building games on Notre Dame's schedule this fall. Show the College Football Playoff selection committee an ability to beat a top ACC team on the road and a strong Pac-12 team at home, and it should give the Irish enough lift to -- as long as they avoid a bad September and a November upset -- take them to Stanford with a legitimate chance at playing on New Year's Eve.