Yesterday, we looked at four games Notre Dame should have no problem (on paper) winning this coming fall. Today, we're examining four games in which Notre Dame likely will be favored, but can't overlook for a few various reasons.
As a refresher, here's the first third of our ranking of Notre Dame's opponents:
12. Army (San Antonio)
11. Nevada (South Bend)
10. Duke (South Bend)
9. Syracuse (East Rutherford, N.J.)
Now, on to four opponents that could present trap-like challenges:
8. Navy (Nov. 5 in Jacksonville, Fla.)
Keenan Reynolds is gone following Navy’s best season in the highly successful Ken Niumatalolo era, in which the Mids lost only to New Year’s Six participants Notre Dame and Houston. Tago Smith, who replaced an injured Reynolds in that 41-24 Irish win in South Bend last year, is back to quarterback a triple option offense that also loses fullbacks Chris Swain and Quentin Ezell and slot back DeBrandon Sanders.
But the offenses losses don’t stop there — Navy lost its five most experienced offensive linemen, and its returning group only has eight starts between it. This year will be another test of the strength of the program, which has reached a bowl game in seven of Niumatalolo’s eight years in Annapolis.
That being said, by the time November comes around, Navy should have plenty of things figured out in its efforts to replace all the offensive talent it lost from last year (there are plenty of defensive departures, too, but mostly in the linebacking corps). And Navy’s played Notre Dame close in two of the last three years — and even last year, the Irish needed a second-half surge to pull away. Navy should be a win, but it may not be an easy one.
7. North Carolina State (Oct. 8 in Raleigh, N.C.)
Dave Doeren’s Wolfpack return quite a bit from a solid (45th in S&P+) defense, including quite a bit along the defensive line outside of leading sack-getter Mike Rose. End Bradley Chubb and nose guard B.J. Hill are will lead the charge up front to pressure Notre Dame’s run and pass games, and every starting/key linebacker is back from last season.
This’ll be a sneaky defensive challenge for the Irish offense, but the departure of quarterback Jacoby Brissett left a huge crater in the Wolfpack offense. Still, the combination of a good defense and rowdy crowd (especially if it’s picked up for a primetime kickoff) should make this a tricky road game for the Irish.
6. Miami (Oct. 29 in South Bend)
Quarterback Brad Kaaya (3,238 yards, 16 TDs, 5 INTs), running back Joseph Yearby (1,002 yards, 6 TDs) and the entire offensive line are back from last year, giving Mark Richt what should be a strong offense on which to rely in his first year at Miami. That’s also particularly concerning for a Notre Dame defense that has yet to show much in the way of consistent success over the last few seasons.
As usual, Miami is stocked with top-end talent, but Richt will need a few years to re-stock the depth behind it in the wake of the Al Golden era. By late October, the ‘Canes depth will almost certainly be tested — in fact, it already has been, with sophomore receiver Lawrence Cager suffering a season-ending knee injury last week — and that should play in Notre Dame’s favor. That this game is coming off a bye week for the Irish is a nice plus, too.
5. Virginia Tech (Nov. 19 in South Bend)
This is the trappiest trap game there is on Notre Dame’s 2016 schedule. For starters, Notre Dame has its season-ending date at USC a week after welcoming Justin Fuente’s Hokies to South Bend, a game that could have massive College Football Playoff implications if things break right for both the Irish and Trojans.
But similarly important is that Notre Dame will be coming off back-to-back games against triple option offenses in Navy and Army the two weeks prior. The last time Notre Dame played back-to-back games against triple option offenses (Air Force and Navy in 2013), it suffered a rash of front seven injuries and lost a clunker at Pitt.
“We couldn't avoid it,” coach Brian Kelly said in 2014 of scheduling those back-to-back option games. “We tried. A lot of these things are tradeoffs, and you're trading off one to get the other. As we spent more time looking at it it was the lesser of two evils, if you will. I felt like I was okay going in that direction over another scenario that I wasn't -- there was no way that we were going to go another direction that had to do with playing an opponent earlier. I didn't feel we'd be in the position then.”
At Fuente’s disposal will be a 1,000-yard rusher in Travon McMillian, a star receiver in Isaiah Ford, 80 percent of last year’s offensive line and longtime defensive coordinator Bud Foster. There are a lot of pieces to like — quarterback may be an issue, though — that could put Notre Dame in a bad way if they’re licking their triple option wounds or looking ahead to that trip to Los Angeles.