Notre Dame is just 33 days from kicking off the 2021 college football season, and fall camp starts in just five days. We continue our offseason coverage by launching into analysis of Notre Dame's upcoming opponents. We already broke down teams 7-12, but now it's time to rank the best teams on the schedule.
The ranking of the game is about which games will be most challenging for Notre Dame. It is NOT a pure ranking 1-12. Things like matchups, where the game is played, when the game is played and other factors can determine which games will be tougher, which matters more than simply putting out a ranking without any context.
6. VIRGINIA TECH HOKIES
Head Coach: Justin Fuente
2020 Record: 5-6 overall / 5-5 conference
All-Time vs. Notre Dame: Notre Dame leads 2-1
Last Meeting: Notre Dame won 21-20 on Nov. 2, 2019
Notre Dame plays two road games in the state of Virginia this season, and the first comes against the Hokies. I am back and forth on how to rank the two Virginia teams, but Virginia Tech had more damaging losses so I put them in this spot. I'm also concerned about Virginia Tech's quarterback situation, which I don't view as being as stable as Virginia's. This is a big year for Fuente and the Hokies, who have gone 19-18 the last three seasons. Virginia Tech has talented wideouts and a lot of returners coming back from what was a porous defense last season.
5. VIRGINIA CAVALIERS
Head Coach: Bronco Mendenhall
2020 Record: 5-6 overall / 5-5 conference
All-Time vs. Notre Dame: Notre Dame leads 3-0
Last Meeting: Notre Dame won 35-20 on Sep. 28, 2019
The 2020 season got off to a really, really rough start for the Cavaliers, who lost four straight games to fall to 1-4 at one point last season. A huge upset win over North Carolina got things back on track and the Cavaliers won four straight before dropping the final game against Virginia Tech. I expect quarterback Brennan Armstrong to make a jump this season and his run-throw ability (2,117 pass yards, 552 rush yards in 2020) makes him dangerous. Virginia returns four starting offensive linemen but its skill players must improve. Virginia also needs to get better on defense, but seven returning starters helps that objective.
4. NORTH CAROLINA TAR HEELS
Head Coach: Mack Brown
2020 Record: 8-4 overall / 7-3 conference
All-Time vs. Notre Dame: Notre Dame leads 19-2
Last Meeting: Notre Dame won 31-17 on Nov. 27, 2020
This might come as a surprise considering most analysts view North Carolina as the highest ranked opponent on Notre Dame's schedule. That could very well turn out to be true but the Tar Heels don't scare me as much as other teams. UNC is an ascending program for sure, but the loss of a pair of 1,000-yard rushers and its top two pass catchers will be a challenge. From a Notre Dame matchup standpoint the Irish should be able to put more pressure on QB Sam Howell if the run game isn't able to repeat its 2020 success, and the Irish offense should be able to move the ball and score more on the Heels this season than it did last fall.
3. CINCINNATI BEARCATS
Head Coach: Luke Fickell
2020 Record: 9-1 overall / 6-0 conference
All-Time vs. Notre Dame: Notre Dame leads 1-0
Last Meeting: Notre Dame won 58-0 on Oct. 20, 1900
A reminder that this breakdown is about which matchups are most difficult not about which teams are best. I fully expect Cincinnati to finish the 2021 season ranked higher than USC but I don't think they are the tougher matchup. Cincinnati returns six starters from both sides of the ball from its 9-1 squad, which includes the loss of three offensive linemen, which could be problematic. Cincinnati's back seven is one of the best on Notre Dame's schedule and end Myjai Sanders is one of the best edge rushers. There is a lot of talent on the Cincinnati roster and Luke Fickell is doing really good things there, but Cincinnati is just 2-7 against ranked opponents during his four seasons and I don't see that trend changing when the Bearcats travel to Notre Dame.
2. USC TROJANS
Head Coach: Clay Helton
2020 Record: 5-1 overall / 5-0 conference
All-Time vs. Notre Dame: Notre Dame leads 49-37-5
Last Meeting: Notre Dame won 30-27 on Oct. 12, 2019
USC might not finish as the second highest ranked team on Notre Dame's schedule but I'm a believer in throwing out the record books when rivals play. Well, rivals other than Ohio State and Michigan. When USC went 5-7 in 2018 they still battled Notre Dame tough for four quarters, as did the 7-6 USC squad back in 2012. USC went 8-5 in 2019 but lost to Notre Dame by just seven points. USC also enters the third and second seasons of their offensive and defensive coordinators, so we should see improvement on both sides of the ball from that standpoint. USC returns 13 starters, which includes four starting offensive linemen, quarterback Kedon Slovis and wideout Drake London. If USC can find some answers on the defensive line they will have a shot to compete for the Pac 12 title.
1. WISCONSIN BADGERS
Head Coach: Paul Chryst
2020 Record: 4-3 overall / 3-3 conference
All-Time vs. Notre Dame: Notre Dame leads 8-6-2
Last Meeting: Notre Dame won 31-7 on Sep. 26, 1964
Wisconsin is not the most talented team on Notre Dame's schedule and I don't think it will finish as the highest ranked team on Notre Dame's schedule, but I do believe this is Notre Dame's toughest matchup. There are a few reasons for that. One is the fact Wisconsin is the one team on the schedule that presents the most challenging matchup in the trenches. I'm especially concerned about its front seven, which throws a lot of unique pressures at defenses, something the Notre Dame offensive line has often struggled with in recent seasons. Wisconsin has one of the best front sevens that Notre Dame will face and its offense should take a jump this season thanks to the return of a talented offensive line, veteran pass catchers and the return of talented quarterback Graham Mertz, who got some good experience last season. The fact this game is being played away from home, where Notre Dame has won 23 straight games, makes this the toughest matchup.
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