Notre Dame is set to kick off the 2020 season in less than two weeks, which makes the fact the Irish didn’t finalize their season’s schedule until this past week so indicative of what has been the wildest offseason of my lifetime.
As we get closer and closer to game week, we can finally break down the entire Notre Dame schedule. Of course, the schedule is dominated by ACC opponents, and the 2020 season marks Notre Dame’s first as a member of the ACC for football.
In early August we ran a two-part series breaking down and ranking the ACC schedule. Quite a bit has changed since then, with Notre Dame adding South Florida to the schedule and some important players opting out of the season.
With the schedule and rosters likely now set as much as can be, let’s rank the 2020 Notre Dame opponents. This ranking isn’t just a list of which team is best; it’s a combination of the talent of the opposing roster, how the team matches up against Notre Dame and location/timing of the game.
11. SOUTH FLORIDA BULLS
2019 Record: 4-8
South Florida has fallen on very hard times in recent seasons. After going 21-4 in 2016-17, the Bulls went 11-14 over the last two seasons, including 4-8 last fall, which resulted in head coach Charlie Strong being fired. South Florida now begins the Jeff Scott era. Scott came over from Clemson, where as co-offensive coordinator he was part of a pair of national championships.
The Bulls return 13 starters and they aren’t completely devoid of talent, but Scott and the new staff will need to do a complete culture change within the program. Getting that done is going to take a lot longer than two games.
10. SYRACUSE ORANGE
2019 Record: 5-7
I’m not as high on Syracuse as the preseason magazines are, and Dino Babers and his staff are good enough to surprise me this season. My issue is more about the lack of talent on the roster, especially on defense. Syracuse went from 40.2 points per game on offense in 2018 to just 28.3 in 2019. While there is some talent at the skill positions, the line is shaky and Tommy DeVito was solid, but not spectacular last fall.
Defensively, the Orange gave up 30.7 points per game last fall. Even worse, they lost seven starters, including a pair of very talented ends. There is some talent in the secondary (Andre Cisco, Ifeatu Melifonwu), but the front seven returns just one starter. Outscoring Notre Dame is going to be incredibly difficult for Syracuse.
9. GEORGIA TECH YELLOW JACKETS
2019 Record: 3-9
Compared to Syracuse, Georgia Tech is the opposite for me in that I’m a bit higher on the Yellow Jackets than the magazines, especially when you start looking at 2021 and beyond. Head coach Geoff Collins enters year two of the post-option era, and the offense should improve the further it gets away from Paul Johnson’s offense, but that side of the ball should still be a struggle in 2020.
My optimism about Georgia Tech showing progress in year two of the Collins era revolves around the defense. Collins is an excellent defensive coach and there is some talent returning on that side of the ball, especially in the secondary. While the Jackets won’t be world beaters on defense this season, I do expect a relatively big jump over its 2019 performance.
8. WAKE FOREST DEMON DEACONS
2019 Record: 8-5
Wake Forest has dropped from five to eight in my latest ranking of the schedule, and the decision of star receiver Sage Surratt to opt out of the season is the reason why. In the eight games against FBS opponents that Wake Forest had Surratt last year the offense averaged 34.0 points per game. It averaged just 23.3 points in the four games after he got hurt, and it topped 34 points just once. That was with Jamie Newman at quarterback.
I expect the defense to be improved thanks to the presence of star end Carlos Basham Jr., and I think Sam Hartman is a good quarterback with quality weapons. Without Surratt, however, the offense won’t be nearly good enough to really threaten Notre Dame, especially when you consider the Deacons must replace three starting linemen from last season.
7. DUKE BLUE DEVILS
2019 Record: 5-7
There are positions on this team that are really good, but there are enough big question marks to make me think the Devils might have a hard time improving on their 5-7 record from last season. Head coach David Cutcliffe recently announcing he is going to call plays makes me want to boost Duke up more than I already did, but the offensive line and the lack of receiver weapons ultimately keeps me from doing that.
The arrival of Clemson transfer quarterback Chase Brice should improve that position a bit, but I don’t see him making a dramatic difference. If Duke is going to pull off any big upsets this season it will be due to the defense, which has one of the best fronts in the ACC. A case could be made that Duke’s ends (Chris Rumph III, Victor Dimukeje) will be the best duo Notre Dame faces this season, and the secondary is talented as well.
6. BOSTON COLLEGE EAGLES
2019 Record: 6-7
I bumped the Eagles up in part because of Surratt not playing for Wake Forest, but also increased optimism about Boston College’s team this season. Reports out of Chestnut Hill are that quarterback Phil Jurkovec has taken hold of the starting position, and he’s getting more and more comfortable in the offense. Jurkovec and improvement on defense are the keys to their season (no pressure).
The Eagles have weapons on offense and they have one of the best lines in the league, but their quarterback play and offensive system held them back in the Steve Addazio era. Jurkovec will have his first-year starter struggles, but he’s the most talented quarterback they’ve had in several years and he’s a dynamic playmaker. If he plays anywhere close to his potential the Eagles will have an offense that can score.
5. FLORIDA STATE SEMINOLES
2019 Record: 6-7
Florida State is a difficult team to evaluate and place in this ranking. If we are just talking about pure talent on the roster a case could be made the Seminoles could be as high as second or third on this list. A first year coaching staff, a poor offensive line and a tumultuous offseason (beyond what everyone else faced) are what give me pause.
Florida State is either going to buy into head coach Mike Norvell’s philosophy and turn their talent into production, or they are going to remain fractured, which will result in the Seminoles once again falling far short of having their win-loss record match their talent level. If the latter happens the Seminoles could drop down two or three spots on this list, but if there is buy in and good health they could be very dangerous.
4. PITTSBURGH PANTHERS
2019 Record: 8-5
The Panthers remain at No. 4 despite the decision of star defensive tackle Jaylen Twyman to opt out of the season. Despite that loss the Panthers should still have an outstanding defensive line due to the presence of standout end Patrick Jones II and the return to good health of 2018 standout Rashad Weaver. Pittsburgh also has one of the better secondaries the Irish will face this season.
Whether Pitt is once again a solid 8-win kind of team, or if they can challenge for a trip to the ACC title game is the development of the offense. The Panthers move into year two of the Mark Whipple era, and the return of a quality offensive line and veteran quarterback Kenny Pickett are strong foundations to build around. Skill players emerging and Pickett learning to make more plays down the field are keys to the Panthers taking the next step.
3. NORTH CAROLINA TAR HEELS
2019 Record: 7-6
North Carolina was a trendy pick to win the Coastal Division this fall, but I’m not quite ready to fully jump on the Tar Heel bandwagon, at least not for 2020. Head coach Mack Brown is a Hall of Fame type of coach and he put together an outstanding staff, but I think the Tar Heels could still be a year away from really taking that big leap.
If I’m wrong it will be mainly due to an explosive offense that returns one of the nation’s best young quarterbacks (Sam Howell) and a dynamic group of skill players (Dyami Brown, Dazz Newsome, Michael Carter). North Carolina should be extremely dangerous on offense this season, and if the defense improves the Tar Heels could challenge for an ACC title game berth.
2. LOUISVILLE CARDINALS
2019 Record: 8-5
If I had to pick a team that most concerns me after Clemson it would be Louisville. Their 2-10 season in 2018 was a mirage, and once they hired a real college defensive coordinator and brought in a head coach that could relate to players there was no doubt the Cardinals would make a big jump, and they did that by going 8-5 last season. I expect them to get even better in 2020.
Louisville returns arguably the best running back-wide receiver combination in the conference, and quarterback Micale Cunningham should be more dynamic this season now that he’s healthy. Louisville has a dangerous offense that should be able to challenge the Irish, and I expect the porous defense to continue improving under coordinator Bryan Brown.
1. CLEMSON TIGERS
2019 Record: 14-1
This is a no-brainer. Clemson lost a lot of talent from last year’s team, but when you recruit the way they do it makes it much easier to plug and play. On top of that, Clemson has the nation’s best quarterback (Trevor Lawrence) and arguably the best running back (Travis Etienne) in the country. The Tigers should still be a national title contender in 2020.
Clemson lost quite a bit from its defense, which wasn’t as good in 2019 as it had been in previous seasons. The Tigers are still very talented on that side of the ball, and what they lack in star power up front they make up for with depth. Clemson should be able to throw waves of talented big men at opposing offensive lines this season, which could help protect a secondary that could take a step back.
WRAPPING THINGS UP
Overall, Notre Dame’s 11 opponents combined for a 74-67 record. Clemson went 14-1 last year, and the rest of the 10 opponents went 60-66. There will be some challenging games, but overall it’s a very workable and manageable schedule. Only five of Notre Dame’s 11 opponents had a winning record last season, and only Clemson won more than eight games.
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