Yesterday, we looked at the games Notre Dame should have no business not only winning, but winning easily. Unfortunately for the collective blood pressure of Irish fans, there are only two games on that list.
That means there are six games that fall under the “trap” category — games Notre Dame should win on paper, though following through on it may not be an easy endeavor. If Notre Dame wants to contend for a College Football Playoff spot, though, it can’t afford to have a loss to these six teams on its resume.
10. Texas (Sept. 5, South Bend, Ind.)
2014 record: 6-7
2014 F/+ rank: 53
Three-year record: 23-16
Three-year average F/+ rank: 36
Key players: QB Tyrone Swoopes (224/384, 2,409 YDS, 13/11 TD/INT; 82 CAR, 467 YDS, 4 TDs), DT Hassan Ridgeway (37 TKL, 9.5 TFL, 6 sacks)
Texas is a sleeping giant and very well could give Notre Dame problems when the teams meet in Austin to open the 2016 season. But Charlie Strong is still in the process of a massive overhaul of his powerhouse program, and it’d be somewhat surprising if the Longhorns came out of the gate strong in a primetime road game.
On offense, Texas has to replace its leading rusher (Malcolm Brown), its two top receivers (John Harris and Jaxon Shipley) and its most experienced offensive line man (Dominic Espinosa). Gone from the defense are four front-seven stalwarts (Malcom Brown, Cedric Reed, Steve Edmond and Jordan Hicks) as well as two talented members of the secondary (Quandre Diggs, Mykkele Thompson).
What bodes well for Notre Dame is Texas’ run defense should take the biggest hit from those losses, which could allow Malk Zaire to get in a groove early and cruise in his first full game as a starter. Texas can’t survive on name recognition alone — eventually, it’ll have to make some strides as a program. But in Week 1 of Year 2 under Strong? Take the tradition and everything else away, and this is a game Notre Dame should win.
9. Virginia (Sept. 12, Charlottesville, Va.)
2014 record: 5-7
2014 F/+ rank: 39
Three-year record: 11-25
Three-year average F/+ rank: 67
Key players: DE Mike Moore (27 TKL, 8 TFLs, 3 sacks), CB Maurice Canady (3 INT, 12 PBU)
Mike London’s side was only a few plays away from ending a three-year bowl drought last year, losing one-possession games to UCLA, BYU, Duke, North Carolina and Virginia Tech. But the Hoos did beat a good Louisville team at home in September, so it wouldn’t be unprecedented if they played Notre Dame tough this fall.
Virginia has an excellent defense that’ll provide a stiff challenge for Zaire in his first true road game as a starter. But London’s offense needs improvement, and Virginia gets the 9th spot in these rankings given a work-in-progress ground/air attak may get off to a slow start. The Cavaliers open the season at UCLA Sept. 5, too, so Notre Dame shouldn’t have any surprises on film facing a team that can’t hold anything back in Week 1.
8. Temple (Oct. 31, Philadelphia, Pa.)
2014 record: 6-6
2014 F/+ rank: 67
Three-year record: 12-23
Three-year average F/+ rank: 89
Key players: QB P.J. Walker (203/381, 2,137 YDS, 13/15 TD/INT; 78 CAR, 451 YDS, 3 TD), LB Tyler Matakevich (102.5 TKL, 10.5 TFL, 1.5 sacks)
Matt Rhule’s Owls shouldn’t be underestimated, and a road game on Halloween isn’t the easiest proposition. The nearly-November timing of this game is why it gets ranked ahead Virginia.
Temple’s arrow is pointing up and it returns almost all the players on a defense that limited opponents to 17.5 points per game and 4.75 yards per play last year. Just look at what the Owls did to Gunner Kiel and Cincinnati: Kiel only managed 174 yards and a lone touchdown while the Bearcats’ rushing attack averaged 2.5 yards per carry.
Temple lost that game, 14-6, but Cincinnati averaged 34 points per game while Kiel averaged 250 yards per game and threw 31 touchdowns in 2014. The biggest question for Temple this fall will be if they can score enough points, but their defense is absolutely good enough to compete for an AAC title.
Still, the optics of a close win over or loss to a non-Power Five opponent wouldn't be good. Notre Dame will come off a bye week to play Temple and could get burned if it overlooks this game.
7. Boston College (Nov. 21, Boston, Ma.)
2014 record: 7-6
2014 F/+ rank: 36
Three-year record: 16-22
Three-year average F/+ rank: 63
Key players: RB Jon Hillman (211 CAR, 860 YDS, 13 TD), DE Kevin Kavalec (35.5 TKL, 10.5 TFL, 3.5 sacks)
In 2014, Boston College impressively beat USC, hung with Florida State and Clemson and narrowly lost to Penn State in the Pinstripe Bowl. That team had Florida transfer QB Tyler Murphy (1,332 rushing yards, 11 TDs) and an experience offensive line. Steve Addazio’s 2015 group doesn’t have that.
Boston College has to replace its starting center, left guard, right tackle and left tackle as well as its quarterback/leading rusher and leading receiver (Josh Bordner, 346 yards on 27 catches). The Eagles’ front seven is largely intact but a shaky secondary lost a few regulars.
Given this is a November night game, and it’ll be played in Boston College’s backyard at Fenway Park, there’s always the possibility something odd happening. But with so many key players to replace on offense, Addazio’s Eagles shouldn't be as strong as they were last year.
6. Navy (Oct. 10, South Bend, Ind.)
2014 record: 8-5
2014 F/+ rank: 44
Three-year record: 25-14
Three-year average F/+ rank: 65
Key players: QB Keenan Reynolds (231 CAR, 1,311 YDS, 23 TD), FB Chris Swaim (103 CAR, 693 YDS, 4 TD)
After getting blown out by 40 points in his first crack at Notre Dame, Keenan Reynolds has terrorized Irish defenders and put back-to-back scares into Brian Kelly’s side. It took Jaylon Smith’s fourth-down stop for Notre Dame to avoid a home loss to Navy in 2013, and the Irish needed Everett Golson’s fourth quarter touchdown run to secure a 10-point win in 2014.
In Reynolds’ three seasons as a regular starter, Navy is 11 games over .500 and made three straight bowl games. While bruising fullback Noah Copeland isn’t back, Reynolds is still here and could cement a pretty strong legacy in Annapolis with a win over Notre Dame. As usual, this one won’t be easy for the Irish.
5. Pitt (Nov. 7, Pittsburgh, Pa.)
2014 record: 6-7
2014 F/+ rank: 43
Three-year record: 19-20
Three-year average F/+ rank: 48
Key players: RB James Conner (298 CAR, 1,765 YDS, 26 TD), DT Rori Blair (14 TKL, 5.5 TFLs, 5 sacks)
There isn’t much separation between the difficulty level of these six games. So why is Pitt at No. 5? It’s a November night game, Pitt has played Notre Dame tough the last three times they’ve played — including a Panters win at Heinz Field in 2013 — and first-year coach and former Michigan State defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi very well could have his defense rolling by the time these two teams meet.
Running back James Conner is one of the best in the country, and wide receiver Tyler Boyd — who was arrested in June for DUI — is a go-to target for quarterback Chad Voytik. There are good offensive pieces in place, and with Narduzzi being a defensive guy it’s reasonable to expect the Panthers to be a tough challenge for Zaire & Co.