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Ranking the Toughest Games on Notre Dame's College Football Schedule in 2016

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Notre Dame plays a national schedule making travel an issue every year. But this year's slate is especially taxing. Two trips to Texas, dropping down to Dixie a couple of times, a jaunt to the Northeast, and a season-ending flight to Los Angeles is extremely daunting. The Irish also welcome Michigan State, fresh off their College Football Playoff appearance, back to the schedule.

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While there are obvious challenges, some aspects of the schedule set up very nicely for Brian Kelly and company. They get the two service academies on their schedule, and their option offenses, in consecutive weeks. Having an off week after what should be a physical game against Stanford is very helpful. And the ACC portion of the schedule does not include any of the conference’s four teams that are ranked in Athlon Sports' Top 25.

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Here is the how the 2016 Notre Dame schedule stacks up, ranked from easiest games to the most challenging matchups.

12. Nov. 12 vs. Army West Point (San Antonio)

The Black Knights of the Hudson return the core of a pretty solid defense and most of their skill position talent. But they have some holes to fill on the offensive line and the overall talent level isn’t close to matching Notre Dame’s. The Irish also get Navy the week before so they should be able to control Army’s ground attack.

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11. Sept. 10 vs. Nevada

Former ND assistant Brian Polian has guided the Wolf Pack to consecutive bowl appearances and returns nine starters on offense. But that unit wasn’t explosive in 2015 and a new offensive coordinator – with a new system – has been hired. Nevada has a very inexperienced defensive front seven, a situation that ND’s big offensive line should be able to exploit in week two.

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10. Oct. 1 vs. Syracuse (East Rutherford, N.J.)

Technically, Syracuse is hosting this contest. Right. Irish fans will pack MetLife Stadium creating a home game atmosphere. New Orange head coach Dino Babers will implement his high-octane offense with quarterback Eric Dungey pulling the strings. But it’s doubtful that a Cuse defense that struggled in 2015 will be much better this fall.

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9. Oct. 8 at NC State

The Raleigh crowd will be pumped up for Notre Dame’s first-ever visit to Carter-Finley Stadium and NC State is a program that has given many a highly ranked team fits in the past. But the combination of a youthful offensive line and a new quarterback could be problematic for the Pack.

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8. Nov. 5 vs. Navy (Jacksonville, Fla.)

Playing Navy is never easy. Fortunately, the Midshipmen’s do-it-all quarterback Keenan Reynolds has finally graduated, leaving senior Tago Smith as the commander of the offense. Smith will lead a unit that is short on experience across the board. Like last year, Navy should be pretty good on defense. But ND has averaged 47 points per game over the last five meetings with Navy and hung 41 on that pretty good defense last year.

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7. Sept. 24 vs. Duke

Head coach David Cutcliffe recently indicated that quarterback Thomas Sirk could be ready by the season opener after rupturing an Achilles tendon in February. Sirk had a big 2015, leading the team in rushing while also throwing for more than 2,600 yards. Duke loses some important pieces that will be difficult to replace, most notably star safety and ACC Defensive Player of the Year Jeremy Cash. The timing of this game, the week after what should be a hotly contested battle with Michigan State, is concerning.

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6. Sept. 4 at Texas

It will be a raucous environment in Austin for this Sunday night clash, especially since Texas will be looking to avenge last year’s season-opening loss. But the Longhorns have a quarterback question mark, so much so that true freshman Shane Buechele may start the opener. Sophomore linebacker Malik Jefferson has All-America talent and he will be counted on to deliver because the defensive line will be very young.

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5. Oct. 29 vs. Miami

The Hurricanes have not visited Notre Dame Stadium since 1990 and this will be a game that they circle on their schedule. Brad Kaaya is a sensational quarterback and he has a 1,000-yard rusher in Joseph Yearby that can provide some offensive balance. The defense is talented but also prone to breakdowns, something new head coach Mark Richt would like to rectify. The Irish are off the week prior, giving them two full weeks to prepare for the Canes.

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4. Nov. 19 vs. Virginia Tech

I don’t believe that the Hokies are as talented as Miami. New coach Justin Fuente is an offensive guru, but Virginia Tech has struggled on that side of the ball for some time and the new system may take a while to develop. Also, defensive coordinator Bud Foster must replace some key contributors like Dadi Nicolas, Luther Maddy and Deon Clarke. But the Irish get Virginia Tech following the two academies and their option offenses and the week before the trip to USC. That’s a tough spot.

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3. Sept. 17 vs. Michigan State

New quarterback D.J. O’Connor is a more effective runner – and less proficient passer – than the departed Connor Cook, meaning the Spartan offense may look a bit different in 2016. MSU will also have to endure key losses along the offensive line, most notably first-round NFL Draft pick Jack Conklin. But the defense should again be stout and head coach Mark D’Antonio will have his troops ready for their trip to ND.

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2. Oct. 15 vs. Stanford

Christian McCaffrey is back and that in and of itself will make this one of the most difficult games on the Irish schedule. Stanford loses Joshua Garnett and two other offensive linemen and the defense will have to deal with their own departures, including leading tackler Blake Martinez. But head coach David Shaw has rebuilt offensive lines and defenses before and he probably will again.

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1. Nov. 26 at USC

The most talented team on the ND schedule – as it is most every year – is USC. New quarterback Max Browne was a 5-star recruit and he will have the luxury of being able to throw to JuJu Smith-Schuster, one of the nation’s most productive wide receivers. There are questions along the defensive line but the back seven should be strong. The Trojans face a brutal schedule in 2016 and assuming they’re not beat down by this point, they should be Notre Dame’s toughest test.

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— Written by Jon Kinne, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a college football fanatic. Kinne has been writing about recruiting for the Irish Sports Daily for 10 years. Follow him on Twitter @JonRKinne.