There was a lot of talk last season about how much conference titles mattered when it came to the College Football Playoff. The idea of an independent team being in the conversation didn't get a whole lot of attention, largely due to Notre Dame not being in the conversation down the stretch. That could very well change this season.
From the looks of how things shook out in 2014, Notre Dame will need to finish its regular season unbeaten to claim a spot in the College Football Playoff. The degree of difficulty will vary dramatically from game to game — and not always based on the talent of the opponent. Timing and location are sure to play a part each week as well.
Here now are Notre Dame's 12 regular season games, ranked according to degree of difficulty from easiest to most difficult.
12. Sept. 26 vs. UMass
This would be a spot for a trap game, but the Minutemen are simply not talented enough to give the Irish much trouble, even if Brian Kelly's bunch was looking past them to the Clemson game.
11. Nov. 14 vs. Wake Forest
The toughest stretch of the schedule will be behind Notre Dame by this point. The Irish will know exactly where they stand. While Wake Forest cannot be completely overlooked, the Demon Deacons shouldn't be anything more than a speed bump along the way.
10. Nov. 21 vs. Boston College (at Fenway Park)
This game might have been a little higher in the rankings in previous years due to history alone. Weird things happen when these two teams meet up and don't forget the game is being played at Fenway Park. Unfortunately for Boston College, the Eagles just don't have to the horses to hang around in this one.
9. Nov. 7 at Pittsburgh
From a talent standpoint, the Panthers will be the inferior team. Do not, however, underestimate first-year coach Pat Narduzzi's ability to get his team up for the biggest game on its schedule in front of what should be a fairly packed house.
8. Sept. 12 at Virginia
The Irish will be coming off an emotional home opener against Texas and looking ahead to a gritty battle with Georgia Tech. Scott Stadium can get loud, and it'll never be louder than when the Irish come to town. Notre Dame will need to stay focused to avoid a hiccup in this one.
7. Oct. 10 vs. Navy
Another trap game scenario, this one takes place right between what will likely be Notre Dame's two toughest games of the season. Navy is never an easy team to prepare for, but scheduling doesn't do the Irish any extra favors in this case.
6. Nov. 28 at Stanford
There could be a lot riding on this game at this point. Notre Dame doesn't get a conference title game to put on a show for the Playoff committee, so style points could be almost as important as a win in this one. History tells us that there aren't many teams who earn style points in games at Stanford.
5. Oct. 31 at Temple
This will be far and away the biggest game on the schedule for Temple — a team many expect to be one of the better teams in the "Group of Five." This will be a "win by any means necessary" scenario for Notre Dame in a hostile environment on Halloween.
4. Sept. 5 vs. Texas
This one is going to draw a ton of eyes based on the names of the two programs alone. Nobody has any film to go off of in the first week, so nobody truly knows what to expect. Texas should be better than it was a season ago, and as always, the Longhorns will have athletes all over the field who can cause problems on both sides of the ball.
3. Sept. 19 vs. Georgia Tech
The Yellow Jackets return the core of an extremely talented team from a season ago. They run an offense that travels well and like Navy's own unique attack is difficult to prepare for.
2. Oct. 3 at Clemson
Forget the fact the Clemson is expected by many to seriously contend for the ACC crown, Death Valley is one of the most intimidating places to play. Add Notre Dame into the mix and the place is going to be a madhouse, as this one could have serious Playoff implications riding on it.
1. Oct. 17 vs. USC
USC could have one of the top two or three rosters in the nation from a talent standpoint. The Trojans will have the best quarterback Notre Dame will face all season in Cody Kessler. He'll have the Heisman in his sights, while Steve Sarkisian and the Men of Troy will have the Playoff in theirs. If the Irish are undefeated at this point and can pull off a win at home, the Notre Dame faithful might not want to make any New Year's Eve plans they can't back out of.