Notre Dame kicks off the 2021 season in less than two weeks and the Fighting Irish will look to make another run at the College Football Playoff. We ranked the schedule earlier this summer and now it's time to take a final look at the toughness of the schedule.
This is broken down easiest to toughest opponents. It's not a ranking of who the best teams are but who presents the toughest matchups based on many factors, including game location, how a team matches up and where a team falls on the schedule among many other factors.
Here's the ranking:
12. NAVY MIDSHIPMEN
Head Coach: Ken Niumatalolo
2020 Record: 3-7 overall / 3-4 conference
All-Time vs. Notre Dame: Notre Dame leads 79-13-1
Last Meeting: Notre Dame won 52-20 on Nov. 16, 2019
It's amazing how fast Navy has fallen, and it could have been worse had Malcom Perry not had a brilliant season in 2019. After going 20-7 in its first two seasons in the AAC (2015-16), Navy went 10-16 the next two seasons (2017-18) and went 3-7 last fall. Perry's brilliant resulted in Navy going 11-2 in 2019, but a 52-20 beat down at the hands of Notre Dame took some of the shine off that season. Navy must once again find a new quarterback and also must replace three starting linemen, a combination that has been kryptonite for the Midshipmen the last decade.
11. TOLEDO ROCKETS
Head Coach: Jason Candle
2020 Record: 4-2 overall / 4-2 conference
All-Time vs. Notre Dame: Have never played
Toledo was a solid 4-2 last season and its two losses were by a combined six points. The two years prior were a struggled or Toledo, which went just 13-12 in those campaigns. For Toledo the good news is they return 20 out of 22 starters, which is the most of any Notre Dame opponent. That includes standout running back Bryant Koback, who rushed for 2,626 yards 30 yards in his first three seasons, which includes a shortened 2020 campaign.
10. GEORGIA TECH YELLOW JACKETS
Head Coach: Geoff Collins
2020 Record: 3-7 overall / 3-6 conference
All-Time vs. Notre Dame: Notre Dame leads 29-6-1
Last Meeting: Notre Dame won 31-13 on Oct. 31, 2020
I feel like I'm undervaluing Georgia Tech here, because they have some really, really good talent in some spots. There are legitimate concerns along the lines and the Jacket defense is still really bad, giving up 36.8 points per game last season. Georgia Tech returns six starters on both sides of the ball but it lost much of its perimeter skill on offense and only one of four starters return from the defensive line. What Georgia Tech has going for it is up-and-coming athletes in the secondary and a dynamic QB-RB duo in Jeff Simms and Jahmyr Gibbs.
9. FLORIDA STATE SEMINOLES
Head Coach: Mike Norvell
2020 Record: 3-6 overall / 2-6 conference
All-Time vs. Notre Dame: Florida State leads 6-4
Last Meeting: Notre Dame won 42-26 on Oct. 10, 2020
I think by season's end the Seminoles could be much better, but game one with a lot of new faces and a lot of youth I don't expect Florida State to be as strong. If this matchup were later in the season they might rank higher. The arrival of quarterback McKenzie Milton - assuming he is back to full strength and wins the starting job - should give the offense and its nine returning starters a boost, but questions at the position have remained throughout fall camp according to reports. Florida State's poor offensive line will continue to tamp down its offensive effectiveness, and the abysmal defense returns just five starters. A number of transfers gives the defense new blood but the talent level still isn't what it used to be. Yes, this game is on the road, but I just don't see the Seminoles as being a threat if Notre Dame is the team I think it is.
8. STANFORD CARDINAL
Head Coach: David Shaw
2020 Record: 4-2 overall / 4-2 conference
All-Time vs. Notre Dame: Notre Dame leads 21-13
Last Meeting: Notre Dame won 45-24 on Nov. 30, 2019
I'm not quite sure what to make of Stanford heading into the 2021 season. Stanford looked to be getting back on track last season, winning the final four games of its shortened 2020 campaign. I like Stanford's pass catchers and running back Austin Jones has some speed, but their quarterback situation is in a bad spot after losing Davis Mills to the NFL. Reading camp reports and both Tanner McKee and Jack West seem to be struggling, and neither quarterback has seized hold of the job yet. Stanford does return eight starters on defense, but their secondary talent doesn't impressive me and the unit has given up 30.4 points per game the last two seasons. If the quarterback position is better than I expect the Cardinal could shoot up this list, but I'm not optimistic that will happen.
7. PURDUE BOILERMAKERS
Head Coach: Jeff Brohm
2020 Record: 2-4 overall / 2-4 conference
All-Time vs. Notre Dame: Notre Dame leads 58-26-2
Last Meeting: Notre Dame won 30-14 on Sep. 13, 2014
Purdue head coach Jeff Brohm enters a crucial season in his career with the Boilermakers. He looked to be on the verge of turning Purdue into a force in the Big Ten West after inheriting a disaster of a program and leading the Boilers to back-to-back bowl games. Since then Purdue has gone just 6-12. Purdue went just 2-4 last season, losing games by 3, 7, 7 and 10 points. Purdue has to start winning some of those games. Returning seven starters on both sides of the ball should help, and Purdue has two of the best players Notre Dame will face this season in wide receiver and David Bell and defensive end George Karlaftis. Purdue absolutely must get better on defense if it's going to turn things around. Part of my optimism with Purdue is that I think their QB situation is a lot healthier than that of Florida State or Stanford.
6. 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.
5. 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 while I think Virginia is actually the better team, the positioning of the Virginia Tech concerns me a bit more. Notre Dame plays the Hokies right after back-to-back games against Wisconsin and Cincinnati and right before playing USC and North Carolina. I'm concerned about Virginia Tech's quarterback situation, which I don't view as being as stable as Virginia's, and that is a big reason why I had the Cavaliers ranked higher in the previous ranking and think they are the better team. 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.
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. 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
I bumped the Trojans down a spot since the last ranking for a number of reasons. Yes, it's a rivalry game and USC has battled Notre Dame tough in its last two matchups, but the Trojans have some issues along both lines and their overall skill talent isn't what it was in the 2018 and 2019 games. Cincinnati also has a much better defense than USC, which gives them a chance to keep the points down a bit more than the Trojans. 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, but they just don't matchup well against Notre Dame.
2. 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 Wisconsin but I don't think they are the tougher matchup, mainly due to location. Notre Dame plays Cincinnati at home, a place they haven't lost since 2017, and the Badgers are away from home. 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.
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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