Notre Dame’s schedule is always a great source of intrigue, as the independent Fighting Irish play a national slate from coast to coast. That makes measuring the program’s schedule strength something of a chore every year, as it isn’t as simple as it would be when assessing an entire conference’s value year-to-year.
While there are the always familiar names like USC, Navy and Stanford, the SEC makes an appearance on the Irish’s regular-season schedule this year for the first time since 2005. Notre Dame also has seven true home games for the first time since 2010, as the program is skipping its off-site Shamrock Series game to maximize the impact of a renovated Notre Dame Stadium. (Yes, it now features a Jumbotron.)
This, perhaps more than others, is a tough slate to measure, especially with the Irish coming off of a 4-8 season. There are no cupcakes, but it is also unclear just how good many of the Irish's ACC opponents will be this year, given the personnel turnover. And how Michigan State recovers from last year is anyone’s guess.
Here is how the entire Notre Dame schedule stacks up, ranked from easiest game to most difficult.
12. Sept. 30 vs. Miami (Ohio)
We said there are no cupcakes, and we mean that here: Last year Miami, coached by former Irish offensive coordinator Chuck Martin, became the first FBS team ever to recover from an 0-6 start and make a bowl at 6-6, before losing a heartbreaker to Mississippi State. Gus Ragland is back at quarterback, and the RedHawks are not a team to be taken lightly.
11. Sept. 2 vs. Temple
Temple is the reigning American Athletic Conference champion, and the Owls are coming off back-to-back 10-win seasons. They gave a 10-win Irish squad all it could handle in 2015 before losing late, too. But new head coach Geoff Collins has some key holes to fill on this roster.
10. Sept. 16 at Boston College
Like Temple, BC darn near beat a strong Irish team in 2015, losing by three at Fenway Park. The Eagles always play tough defense and, frankly, always play Notre Dame tough. Such is the nature of a rivalry game — albeit one Notre Dame should handle fairly easily.
9. Nov. 4 vs. Wake Forest
The Demon Deacons won a bowl last year and return most of their key pieces on the field. Off the field, this is an intriguing matchup: Notre Dame hired Mike Elko and Clark Lea from Wake as defensive coordinator and linebackers coach, respectively. Irish QB coach Tommy Rees’ father, Bill, is Wake’s player personnel director, too.
8. Oct. 28 vs. NC State
The Wolfpack got the best of the Irish last year in what we suppose we could call a football game. Hopefully the elements are much better this time around than they were in Raleigh last year. NC State returns plenty of talent, although we refuse to label the Pack a “dark horse” after being burned by them so many times in the past.
7. Nov. 18 vs. Navy
This is one of the most special rivalries in the country, and lately it has given us some very compelling games, too. Navy controlled last year’s contest and won by one. Even in defeat, the Midshipmen are always a tough out. There is a good chance this game ends up higher by season’s end.
6. Oct. 7 at North Carolina
This one is tough to predict given that the Tar Heels lose a ton of talent off last year’s team. They lost a memorable 50-43 battle in South Bend three years ago, but they hope the home-field advantage helps give them an edge this year.
5. Sept. 23 at Michigan State
How does Sparty recover from a 3-9 season? Good question, but MSU did handle Notre Dame last year for one of those three wins. Of course, we’re waiting to see how the Irish respond from a subpar season themselves. The uncertainty, and the rivalry factor, places this game so high
4. Nov. 11 at Miami
Miami is a bit of a wild card given that the Hurricanes will have a new starting quarterback. Still, this is a road game late in the season, meaning that the new QB will, in theory, be in a better position than he would be at the beginning of the season. Mark Richt did a great job in Year 1 with the Canes, too … but he also lost to a 4-8 Notre Dame team.
3. Sept. 9 vs. Georgia
Given the early-season hype around this one, the game will in some ways be immediately looked at as a referendum on either team’s season. Each Irish loss will only enhance speculation about the program’s future. Each UGA loss will be looked at as a letdown by a fan base that has every reason to be excited about Kirby Smart’s second year, given the talent returning.
2. Oct. 21 vs. USC
OK, so USC will likely be the highest-ranked preseason team on this list. And Sam Darnold is the real deal. While we won't underestimate the Trojans’ potential, it is important to note that this is a home game (USC is 0-for-its-last-2 in South Bend) and it comes off an Irish bye. So this game isn’t as tough as it could’ve been, given the nature of the opponent.
1. Nov. 25 at Stanford
It’s a road game. It’s a season-ender. It’s at a place Notre Dame hasn’t won at since 2007. It’s after the Navy game, too — a turnaround that historically has given Notre Dame some trouble. That’s to say nothing of the potential circumstances around this game for either team. Notre Dame’s College Football Playoff hopes died in Palo Alto in 2015. Its previous head coach’s tenure ended in Palo Alto in 2009. Given all the uncertainty around Notre Dame this year, the finale gets the top spot here over several other worthy contenders.
— Written by Matt Fortuna, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and spent six seasons covering college football for ESPN.com. Fortuna’s work has been honored by the Football Writers Association of America (FWAA) and U.S. Basketball Writers Association (USBWA) seven times. Follow him on Twitter @Matt_Fortuna and like his Facebook page.