Brian Kelly's Irish aim for another 10-win season
Since the conclusion of the 2016 season, only three FBS programs have had double-digit wins each year. Two are obvious: Alabama and Clemson. The other is Notre Dame. While Oklahoma, Ohio State, and Georgia will point out that if not for the reduced number of games in 2020 they would be included on this list as well, the numbers are what they are. Still, this is very good company for a Notre Dame program that achieved the 10-win mark just four times in the previous 23 years.
The Irish lose a considerable amount of talent off last year's College Football Playoff squad, but there are also younger players that were high-end recruits waiting for a chance. With a schedule that is challenging though not overwhelming, a fifth straight 10-win campaign is certainly within reach. Here is what the Irish will have to navigate to achieve that goal.
Bye: Week 7
Week 1 – Sept. 5 at Florida State (Tallahassee, Fla.)
The Irish and the Seminoles open the season in a prime-time Sunday showdown at Doak Campbell Stadium. While the Irish are hoping to continue their impressive four-year run, Florida State is a disappointing 21-26 during that span. One storyline to keep an eye on with the Noles this fall is UCF transfer quarterback McKenzie Milton attempting to complete his comeback from the devastating leg injury he suffered in 2018.
Week 2 – Sept. 11 vs. Toledo (Notre Dame, Ind.)
The Rockets will be gunning for the MAC West title in 2021 after missing out on the crown last fall due to a narrow loss to Ball State in late November. Carter Bradley replaced an injured Eli Peters at quarterback at the end of the season and will most likely assume those duties again this coming season.
Week 3 – Sept. 18 vs. Purdue (Notre Dame, Ind.)
The Irish and the Boilermakers have played 86 times, but this will be the first meeting since 2014. During Notre Dame's 2012 run to the national championship game, Irish kicker Kyle Brindza booted a last-second field goal for a 20-17 victory in Purdue's last visit to Notre Dame Stadium.
Week 4 – Sept. 25 vs. Wisconsin (Chicago)
The two Midwest powers were supposed to butt heads at Lambeau Field last fall, but the game was scrapped as a result of COVID-19. So they'll try again, this time in Soldier Field in the Windy City. Potential Notre Dame starting quarterback Jack Coan was the Badgers' signal-caller in 2019 before an injury gave current starter Graham Mertz his opportunity in 2020 and led to Coan's transfer to Notre Dame.
Week 5 – Oct. 2 vs. Cincinnati (Notre Dame, Ind.)
While the Wisconsin game will have special meaning to Coan, new defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman will have similar emotions the following week. Freeman led Cincinnati's impressive defense last year and he remains good friends with Bearcats head coach Luke Fickell. After their Peach Bowl season, Cincinnati is again expected to be a national contender in 2021.
Week 6 – Oct. 9 at Virginia Tech (Blacksburg, Va.)
This will be the fourth meeting in six years between the Irish and the Hokies, so the two head coaches know each other well. But Virginia Tech will have a different look this year as star running back Khalil Herbert is gone and Braxton Burmeister takes over full-time at quarterback. Also, this will be the first time Notre Dame goes against a Hokies defense led by Justin Hamilton and not Bud Foster.
Week 8 – Oct. 23 vs. USC (Notre Dame, Ind.)
While Notre Dame's ACC schedule worked out very well last year, something was missing. That something returns in late October when the Trojans once again travel to northern Indiana to play the Irish. USC head coach Clay Helton's perpetual hot seat cremains warm and beating the Irish for the first time since 2016 would be a big feather in his cap.
Week 9 – Oct. 30 vs. North Carolina (Notre Dame, Ind.)
The Irish will have to follow up what should be a very emotional game against USC with another big contest when North Carolina comes to town. Notre Dame rolled over the Tar Heels in the second half of last year's game, but Carolina head coach Mack Brown has a talented roster led by quarterback Sam Howell and will benefit from an open date the week prior.
Week 10 – Nov. 6 vs. Navy (Notre Dame, Ind.)
November opens with the resumption of the series against Navy. This will be the 94th game in a series that Notre Dame leads 77-13-1. After losing 43 straight to the Irish, the Middies won three of four from 2007 through 2010. But Notre Dame has regained control in recent years, winning eight of nine and dominating the last two games.
Week 11 – Nov. 13 at Virginia (Charlottesville, Va.)
Notre Dame has made only one trip to Scott Stadium, but it was one that Irish fans won't soon forget. In 2015, DeShone Kizer replaced an injured Malik Zaire at quarterback and engineered a game-winning drive that was culminated by a 39-yard touchdown pass to Will Fuller.
Week 12 – Nov. 20 vs. Georgia Tech (Notre Dame, Ind.)
By the time Georgia Tech comes to Notre Dame, they will already have played Clemson, North Carolina, and Miami. The week after their tussle with the Irish, the Jackets get Georgia. In Geoff Collins's third year as head coach at Georgia Tech, his team should be vastly improved and they better be considering that schedule.
Week 13 – Nov. 27 at Stanford (Stanford, Calif.)
Stanford will be a fascinating team to follow in 2021. After 10 straight seasons with at least eight wins — including six with double-digit victories — the Cardinal struggled to 4-8 in 2019. Last year's abbreviated season was a bit of a bounce back at 4-2. But with a full regular schedule and heavy personnel losses on both sides of the ball, what will Stanford be in 2021?
— Written by Jon Kinne, who has been part of the Athlon Contributor Network for three years, covering the ACC and Notre Dame. Follow him on Twitter @JonRKinne.