Notre Dame coaches and players will tell you there’s no such thing as an easy game for them, and that every team they play is pumped up to beat them because they’re Notre Dame. That’s been the reasoning behind close wins or narrow losses to teams that, on paper, the Irish should’ve blown out for years.
But if Notre Dame fashions itself a legitimate contender for the College Football Playoff this year, it shouldn’t have any problem winning these two games on its schedule.
12. UMass (Sept. 26, South Bend, Ind.)
2014 record: 3-9
2014 F/+ rank: 120
Three-year record: 5-31
Three-year average F/+ rank: 121
Key players: WR Tajae Sharp (85 REC, 1,281 YDS, 7 TD), CB Randall Jette (4 INT, 14 PBU)
Brian Kelly likes to trumpet the fact Notre Dame has never played an FCS opponent, but the Irish probably would’ve been better off from a strength of schedule standpoint if they brought in North Dakota State, Illinois State or some other top-25 team from college football’s second tier than UMass. The Minutemen are in their fourth year being an FBS team and will leave the MAC after this season to become an independent, which wouldn’t seem to bode well for the program’s long-term success.
This is a game Notre Dame originally scheduled when former offensive coordinator Charley Molnar was UMass’ coach, but he was fired after going 2-22 after two seasons in Amherst. In Mark Whipple’s first year, the Minutemen went 3-9 and lost close games to Colorado, Vanderbilt, Bowling Green, Miami (Ohio) and Toledo, and beat Kent State, Eastern Michigan and Ball State. It was an admirable improvement for a dead-in-the-water program.
But Notre Dame has no business letting UMass hang with them at home, and this should wind up a much-needed “glorified bye” between tough games against Georgia Tech and Clemson.
11. Wake Forest (Nov. 14, South Bend, Ind.)
2014 record: 3-9
2014 F/+ rank: 101
Three-year record: 12-24
Three-year average F/+ rank: 95
Key players: RB Isaiah Robinson (94 CAR, 166 YDS, 3 TD), DT Josh Banks (7.5 TFLs, 4 sacks)
Dave Clawson’s first year saw the Deacs have an impressive awful ground game: As a team, Wake Forest rushed 383 times for 479 yards, an average of 1.25 yards per carry, with only four touchdowns. Even Mike Leach’s pass-happy Washington State side averaged more yards per carry (1.97) and had more touchdowns (five). It’s either a good or a bad thing Wake Forest has to replace its center and left guard, while two of its top three running backs return.
This is a program undergoing a massive rebuild that shouldn’t be competitive in 2015. The offense shouldn’t give Notre Dame’s defense any trouble, though Wake does have a rock-solid front seven that Malik Zaire & Co. shouldn’t overlook. Still, the Irish can’t afford a close game against a bottom-feeding ACC team and should expect a result closer to the 38-0 drubbing they put on Wake Forest in 2012.
You’ll notice in ranking the games on Notre Dame’s schedule that only two games are under the “easy” banner. Notre Dame should beat teams like Virginia, Temple and Navy, but those three games could make Irish fans sweat a little bit — Virginia and Temple are on the road, while Navy has played Notre Dame close the last two years.
Check back tomorrow for a ranking of the six games Notre Dame can’t afford to lose, but may not have the easiest time winning.