With a team stacked with returning players and improving depth, Notre Dame will enter the 2015 season with legitimate hopes of reaching the College Football Playoff. There's no room for error -- not when Baylor and TCU were left out of the four-team bracket after playing 12, not 13, games last year -- and to play on New Year's Eve in either Miami or Dallas, the Irish may have to win all four of the difficult games on their schedule this fall.
4. Georgia Tech (Sept. 19, South Bend, Ind.)
2014 record: 11-3
2014 F/+ rank: 8
Three-year record: 25-16
Three-year average F/+ rank: 26
Key players: QB Justin Thomas (18 TD/6 INT, 18 CAR, 1,143 YDS, 8 TDs), LB P.J. Davis (100.5 TKLs, 8.5 TFLs, 4 sacks)
Brian VanGorder’s defense has only faced a triple option offense once, and Navy racked up 336 rushing yards against a defense that lost Joe Schmidt to a season-ending ankle injury. Georgia Tech had a far more lethal option attack than Navy did last year — Paul Johnson’s Yellow Jackets finished the year with a 49-34 win over Mississippi State in the Orange Bowl — but loses an All-American offensive lineman and just about every skill position player from last year’s team.
Quarterback Justin Thomas is back, though, and the hope in Atlanta is the five backs who combined for 456 carries and 2,743 yards are replaceable. That’s often the theory with an option offense, but combined with losing the team’s two top receivers, there’s going to be a ton of turnover in this group. Can Johnson’s system allow a soft landing for all the new faces, or could Georgia Tech’s offense struggle against the first real defensive test it’ll have this fall?
On the flip side: Can Notre Dame’s defense manage to slow an option offense after facing Texas and Virginia in Weeks 1 and 2?
Georgia Tech only loses a few key contributors on an above-average-at-best defense from last year, though this is an undersized group that Notre Dame’s bruising offensive line should have success against. This is a game that is the first real hurdle for Brian Kelly & Co. to clear — beating Georgia Tech would be a bona fide good win, though it’s an awfully dangerous game for the middle of September.
3. Stanford (Nov. 28, Palo Alto, Calif.)
2014 record: 8-5
2014 F/+ rank: 18
Three-year record: 31-10
Three-year average F/+ rank: 10
Key players: QB Kevin Hogan (232/352, 2,792 YDS, 19/8 TD/INT), LB Blake Martinez (101 TKL, 7 TFL, 4.5 sacks, 3 INT)
After four straight seasons with at least 11 wins, a trio of three-point losses to USC, Notre Dame and Utah helped relegate the Cardinal to a somewhat disappointing 8-5 season. But, as usual, David Shaw’s group had a strong defense (6th in defensive S&P+), which can be reasonably expected to be the case again this fall.
Stanford loses big-time playmaker Ty Montgomery and leading rusher Remound Wright from last year’s team and needs guys like receiver Devon Cajuste and running back Christian McCaffery to step up in their place. Kevin Hogan has proven to be a good-not-great quarterback— he combined to complete 30 of 54 passes for 316 yards with one touchdown and four interceptions against Notre Dame in 2013 and 2014 but has fared better against other opponents — who probably needs a good ground game to be efficient.
Notre Dame hasn’t won at Stanford Stadium since 2007 — two years before Stanford started its current run of success under Jim Harbaugh — even though the Cardinal rarely enjoy an intimidating home field advantage for this post-Thanksgiving game. If things go well for the Irish, a playoff appearance or New Year’s Six bowl bid will be riding on this game, and it’ll be an awfully difficult one to win.
2014 record: 9-4
2014 F/+ rank: 16
Three-year rank: 26-14
Three-year average F/+ rank: 18
Key players: QB Cody Kessler (315/452, 3,826 YDS, 39/5 TD/INT), LB Su’a Cravens (49 TKL, 17 TFL, 5 sacks, 3 INT)
USC embarrassed Notre Dame in Los Angeles, 49-14, last year with quarterback Cody Kessler surgically completing 32 of 40 passes for 372 yards and six touchdowns. Perhaps there will be some motivation to avenge one of the worst losses of the Kelly era, but having a healthy Irish defense will go a long way toward making this game competitive again.
Kessler is back and is one of better quarterbacks at the college level, though he’ll have to find a new favorite target to replace Nelson Agholor. The good news for USC: They aren’t lacking in super-talented options, like former Irish recruiting target JuJu Smith and three-way player Adoree’ Jackson.
The Trojans defense has to replace star defensive tackle Leonard Williams — the No. 6 pick in the 2015 NFL Draft — but returns safety-turned-linebacker Su’a Cravens, who racked up 17 tackles for a loss last year. Still, the questions here are on this side of the ball, and for the first time since 2009, we may see a high-scoring Notre Dame-USC game.
1. Clemson (Oct. 3, Clemson, S.C.)
2014 record: 10-3
2014 F/+ rank: 14
Three-year rank: 32-7
Three-year average F/+ rank: 19
Key players: QB DeShaun Watson (93/137, 1,466 YDS, 14/2 TD/INT), DE Shaq Lawson (24.5 TKL, 11.5 TFL, 3.5 sacks)
Notre Dame can stamp itself as an early entrant into the College Football Playoff discussion with a win in Death Valley. Barring a September loss, those will be the stakes for Notre Dame heading into what’s sure to be an amped-up, primetime atmosphere.
Recent history — albeit, in a small sample size — could give Notre Dame some hope for this game. Kelly’s teams have executed their gameplans to near-perfection in their last two massive October road games — a 2012 win over Oklahoma and 2014’s gutting loss to Florida State — while Clemson was throttled in a top-five matchup against the ‘Noles two years ago and lost to Georgia, Florida State and Georgia Tech in 2014. And Dabo Swinney’s Tigers lost the 2012 Orange Bowl, 70-33, to West Virginia (though two years later, they did beat Ohio State in the Orange Bowl).
Quarterback DeShaun Watson is the X-factor here. He’s arguably the best quarterback in the country and could drive Clemson into the four-team playoff in his next two or three years, provided he’s not as injury-prone as his freshman season suggests. With leading receivers Mike Williams (57 catches, 1,030 yards) and Artavis Scott (76 catches, 965 yards) back plus a ton of young, talented pass-catchers, Watson won’t lack for targets.
Clemson does have to replace four starters on its offensive line, and its running game wasn’t very good last year. Twelve-sack defensive end Vic Beasley is gone, too, as well as the team’s leading tacklers from its defensive line, linebacking and secondary units. So there are some question marks here.
But the discussion with Clemson starts and ends with Watson. If he’s rolling on Oct. 3, Notre Dame won’t have any margin for error in its biggest game of the season.