Notre Dame will be shooting for its fifth straight 10-win season in 2021, and it will do so against an interesting slate of opponents. While the Irish don’t play one of the country’s true heavyweights, they will meet up with four programs that reside in Athlon’s top 20.
Plus, Notre Dame should find itself locked in battles week after week. The lowest-ranked team according to Athlon is Navy, which checks in at No. 88. The Irish also will travel to Florida, California, and Virginia twice along with making the short drive to Chicago to play one of the Big Ten’s best squads. On top of everything, six of Notre Dame’s foes — including their four toughest challengers — have an open date the week before playing the Irish.
Here is a ranking of Notre Dame’s 2021 games, from easiest to most difficult.
12. Sept. 11 vs. Toledo
While Toledo is a MAC program, the Rockets usually find themselves near the top of the league. However, after opting out of a bowl last season and missing out in 2019, Toledo has not been to the postseason since 2018. With 21 total starters returning, Jason Candle's Rockets should once again be a conference contender.
11. Nov. 6 vs. Navy
While the Midshipmen are ranked behind Toledo in Athlon's 130 and don’t return nearly as much production, their style makes the game more problematic for the Irish. The past two meetings between the traditional rivals have been lopsided Irish victories. Still, Navy has an option attack that the Irish haven’t seen in two years.
10. Nov. 20 vs. Georgia Tech
This is a big year for Geoff Collins in Atlanta. Switching from Paul Johnson’s option offense during the heart of a pandemic made for a difficult transition. But it’s now Year 3, and it’s time for an increased number of victories. Quarterback Jeff Sims and running back Jahmyr Gibbs are extremely talented, but questions along the offensive line and on defense could hold the Yellow Jackets back.
9. Sept. 18 vs. Purdue
Much like Collins at Georgia Tech, Purdue head coach Jeff Brohm needs to start winning some games. He is 19-25 during his four years in West Lafayette, and his only winning season was Year 1. The Boilermakers have potential stars on both sides of the ball in wide receiver David Bell and defensive end George Karlaftis.
8. Nov. 27 at Stanford
The Irish had dropped four straight games in Palo Alto before winning the 2019 season finale. While the Cardinal did bounce back from their 4-8 2019 season by going 4-2 in last year’s shortened campaign, the running game has taken a step back recently and a defense that was 93rd in FBS last fall still has questions.
7. Nov. 13 at Virginia
When healthy, Brennan Armstrong showed in 2020 that he is a dangerous quarterback. His dual-threat nature not only helped the passing game, it also gave a jolt of energy to a rushing attack that had been dormant for several years. Armstrong's talent combined with the hard-nosed culture constructed by head coach Bronco Mendenhall makes Virginia a tough team to play.
6. Sept. 5 at Florida State
At 21-26 over the past four seasons, the Seminoles have not been the Seminoles. And while no one expects Florida State to challenge Clemson in the ACC Atlantic, the Noles have talent, and there will be tons of excitement at Doak Campbell Stadium in Week 1, especially considering the recent passing of legendary head coach Bobby Bowden.
5. Oct. 9 at Virginia Tech
Speaking of crazy environments, Lane Stadium will be rocking when the Irish come to town. Another head coach that is in dire need of a big season is Hokies head man Justin Fuente. With September games against North Carolina and West Virginia, the battle with the Irish could be a springboard to a big season or a fight for survival for Fuente.
4. Oct. 23 vs. USC
Wait, is there another coach with an uncertain future on the schedule? Clay Helton is perpetually on the hot seat and will be until he wins a national title or is let go. The Trojans have an exceptional quarterback in Kedon Slovis and Todd Orlando is a solid defensive coordinator. But the Trojans' success will be determined by an offensive line that was a big reason why USC finished 120th in rushing offense last fall.
3. Oct. 2 vs. Cincinnati
The Bearcats will play Indiana two weeks prior, but this game in South Bend is the one that could elevate Cincinnati to College Football Playoff contention. Quarterback Desmond Ridder is one of the nation’s best, and the Bearcats' defense, even without coordinator Marcus Freeman (now at Notre Dame), should again be stifling.
2. Sept. 25 vs. Wisconsin (in Chicago)
While the game against Cincinnati will feature Freeman matching up with his old team, projected Irish starting quarterback Jack Coan will be taking on his former teammates when the Irish clash with the Badgers. Wisconsin went 4-3 in 2020, but returns eight starters on defense and expects a big jump from quarterback Graham Mertz in his second year as a starter.
1. Oct. 30 vs. North Carolina
The Tar Heels had a chance to knock off the Irish in Chapel Hill last year, but Notre Dame pulled away late for a 31-17 victory. This year’s matchup is in South Bend, but the Heels bring back quarterback Sam Howell and most of a defense that could take a big step forward in coordinator Jay Bateman’s third year.