Brian Kelly announced last week that Jack Coan would open the 2021 season as the quarterback for the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, a decision that wasn’t guaranteed but widely believed to be the ultimate outcome. Coan’s foot injury during preseason camp in 2020 means that the Irish’s new signal-caller hasn’t taken a live in-game snap since Jan. 1, 2020, when Coan’s Wisconsin Badgers lost the Rose Bowl by a single point to Oregon. His ability to recover from the injury will be a critical factor in how well he can lead an experienced Notre Dame team, with all but three projected starters to open the season checking in as upperclassmen.
So how will Notre Dame's 2021 season play out? Athlon Sports asked a couple of editors and one of its college football contributors to take a look at their crystal ball and break down the Irish's schedule.
Notre Dame Football Game-by-Game Predictions for 2021
Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
Another run at the CFB Playoff isn’t out of the question for the Fighting Irish, but this feels like a team that’s closer to 10-2 or 9-3. New quarterback Jack Coan is steady and should provide a bridge to touted freshman Tyler Buchner. The unquestioned strength of the offense should be the one-two punch of Chris Tyree and Kyren Williams at running back, and there are enough pieces to ensure a major drop in production up front. However, in addition to getting Coan settled, Notre Dame has to identify and develop more difference-makers on the outside. New coordinator Marcus Freeman is one of the top assistant hires of the offseason and should keep this defense among the best in college football. Without more big plays or overall development in the passing game, the margin of error is small with this team. It may not be Virginia Tech or North Carolina as predicted above, but I think this team loses twice somewhere along the way and finishes 10-2.
Mark Ross (@AthlonMarkR)
Notre Dame will be very good again, but not quite the regular-season juggernaut it was in 2020. There will be a lot of new faces in the starting lineup, including quarterback Jack Coan. Talent won't be an issue but the schedule is different (not all ACC teams) and I just feel that the Irish's inexperience will catch up to them once or twice. As much as Coan would love to beat his former team in Wisconsin, I think the Badgers get the better of their matchup in Chicago and North Carolina will be fired up for its Oct. 30 trip to South Bend after last season's loss in Chapel Hill. Still, there's nothing wrong with another 10-win season, which is indicative of where Brian Kelly has set the bar under his watch.
Juan Jose Rodriguez (@JuanJoseRG02)
In head coach Brian Kelly’s first six seasons at the helm, Notre Dame only had one stretch of three games in a row at home, which came 10 years ago in October 2011. The Fighting Irish scored 59 and 56 points in wins over Air Force and Navy, respectively, but just 17 in a loss to USC sandwiched in between those matchups with the service academies.
Notre Dame has had one stretch of three consecutive home games in each of the last five seasons, however, with a 1-2 record in such a span in 2016 but perfect 3-0 records in 2017, '18 and '19 capped off by a 4-0 record in 2020. The Fighting Irish will host another set of three consecutive home games this season, with October games against USC, North Carolina and Navy bookended by trips to Virginia Tech and Virginia. Look for Notre Dame’s success in long stretches at home to continue in 2021, though North Carolina and top QB prospect Sam Howell ought to pose a reasonable challenge.
Notre Dame will face a big test against what will likely be a top-15 Wisconsin team when the Fighting Irish and Badgers meet in Soldier Field in Chicago to close September. But Kelly’s group will benefit from having the majority of its other likely competitive matchups — namely those against Cincinnati and North Carolina — within the walls of Notre Dame Stadium. Traveling to Tallahassee to start the season on the road against Florida State will undoubtedly set the tone, while trips to Charlottesville and Stanford in the final three weeks will play significant roles in determining the Irish's postseason fate.