Every season starts the same. The schedule is just a series of dates and opponents with locations and start times listed in columns.
There are no wins, no losses, no statistics, or quotes. Every single team “controls its own destiny” as every new season gets set to begin.
A glance at Notre Dame’s schedule for the upcoming 2016 season shows a slate that is comparable to the 2015 slate that produced a 10-2 regular season record — one that saw the Fighting Irish remain in contention for one of four College Football Playoff spots until late November.
The four toughest opponents Notre Dame faced last year prior to its Fiesta Bowl appearance were Clemson, USC, Stanford, and Temple. The Irish went 2-2 in those games, with three of the four games away from home and the two losses (Stanford and Clemson) coming on the road and by a total of four points.
Two of those teams, USC and Stanford, are on the schedule every year and always figure to be among Notre Dame’s toughest combatants. The five-game per year allotment of ACC foes brings a rotating cast of characters each year.
ESPN.com’s 2016 Football Power Index has Notre Dame’s 2016 schedule ranked at No. 19. The only Fighting Irish opponent with a tougher predicted schedule this year is USC (No. 9). Stanford’s ranks No. 21.
There are four games that will make or break Notre Dame’s chances of making the College Football Playoff in the third year of the format: Michigan State, Stanford, Miami, and USC. The good news for the Irish is Miami is the only one of those four teams that has a returning quarterback.
After opening the season against Texas and Nevada, the Irish host Michigan State on Sept. 17. The last meeting between the two bitter rivals was an Irish home win in 2013. The Spartans finished that season with a 13-1 record.
That game was also Connor Cook’s first season as MSU’s starting quarterback and it came in the fourth game of the season. Cook is now gone and head coach Mark Dantonio, whose teams have gone 67-15 since 2011, is now breaking in a new quarterback and has lost three straight to Brian Kelly and the Irish.
Notre Dame has also won three straight vs. the Spartans at home.
Advantage: Fighting Irish.
An Oct. 15 match-up with Stanford will be Notre Dame’s next big test. The once non-existent rivalry between the two academic-rich schools became heated during Jim Harbaugh’s tenure and has remained testy during David Shaw’s five years at the helm. Like Michigan State, Stanford will have a new quarterback this season after the graduation of Kevin Hogan. Stanford’s powerful offensive line and steady running game should help likely starter Keller Chryst.
Recent history favors the Irish in the series though. The past four meetings have been decided by an average of 4.7 points, with the home team winning each time.
Advantage: Fighting Irish
Miami and Notre Dame had one of the nastiest college football rivalries around in the late ’80s when Jimmy Johnson and Lou Holtz, respectively, were head coaches. The series went into deep freeze after the 1990 season though and the teams didn’t play again until the 2010 Sun Bowl. Their only regular season meeting in the past 26 years was four years ago (a 41-3 Irish win) at Soldier Field.
The Hurricanes have a new head coach, Mark Richt, and a quarterback, Brad Kaaya, who has averaged 3,216 passing yards and 21 touchdowns in his first two years as a starter. Kaaya has plenty of help around him too and will test the Irish secondary.
The Irish need to hope for cold weather when the Canes visit on Oct. 29. Miami did not handle an extremely cold Sun Bowl game in ND’s 33-17 win.
Weather aside – Advantage: Hurricanes.
The last big test comes Thanksgiving weekend in Los Angeles. The ND-USC winner could easily find itself with a CFP spot.
The Trojans also have a new head coach, Clay Helton, and will have a new quarterback, likely former five-star recruit Max Browne, to replace three-year starter Cody Kessler. Browne will have a ton of offensive weapons around him though and he’ll have 11 games under his belt by the time the Irish come to town Nov. 26.
The Fighting Irish dropped eight consecutive meetings to Southern Cal under Tyrone Willingham and Charlie Weis from 2002-2009, but they have won four of the last six times under Kelly. That includes wins in two of three games at the L.A. Coliseum. Advantage: Fighting Irish
Prediction: Notre Dame overcame injury after injury last year en-route to its 10-2 regular season mark. Whether it’s DeShone Kizer or Malik Zaire at quarterback, Notre Dame should have a positional edge there is nearly every game this year.
Look for another big year and this time a spot in the CFP when all is said and done.