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Ranking the Toughest Games on Notre Dame Football's Schedule

Notre Dame Fighting Irish head coach Brian Kelly

Notre Dame Fighting Irish head coach Brian Kelly

Due to their independent status, Notre Dame always plays one of the most diverse schedules in the country. Not only is this year no different, it may be among the most interesting slate of games in recent ND history.

College Football's Brandon Wimbush

You want big-time powers at Notre Dame Stadium? Florida State andStanford fit that description. Major road tests? Visits to Lane Stadium and the Los Angeles Coliseum should do the trick. An SEC team? It's not Alabama, but Vanderbilt qualifies. Plus, there's the return of a hated rival to open things up on Sept. 1.

All in all, the Irish play teams from four of the Power 5 leagues and go out west to play Navy. It's not easy, but here's an attempt at ranking each Notre Dame game by degree of difficulty.

12. Sept. 8 vs. Ball State

The only sure-fire lock on this list is that the Cardinals are the weakest 2018 Notre Dame opponent. Ball State was terrible defensively last fall and should be manhandled by the ND offensive line.

Ball State: college football picks against the spread

11. Sept. 15 vs. Vanderbilt

Kyle Shurmur was one of the most productive quarterbacks in the SEC last season and he is back. But so is a suspect defense that gave up 199 rushing yards per game.

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10. Nov. 17 vs. Syracuse (in Bronx, N.Y.)

Syracuse also returns an effective quarterback in Eric Dungey and a defense that couldn't stop the run last fall. The fact that this game is at Yankee Stadium and not in South Bend makes it slightly trickier than the Vanderbilt contest.

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9. Oct. 13 vs. Pittsburgh

Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi may have found his quarterback late last season in Kenny Pickett. But the offensive line has questions -- especially following the early departure of tackle Brian O'Neill -- and the pass defense has been terrible over the past two seasons.

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8. Oct. 27 vs. Navy (in San Diego)

Once again, Navy gave the Irish fits before succumbing last November. This year's game will be held in San Diego, home to more than 24,000 Naval personnel. One advantage for the Irish is that they have a week off prior to the trip out west.

College football rankings: NAVY

7. Sept. 22 at Wake Forest

Wake Forest scored 41 points in the loss at Notre Dame in 2017. With quarterback John Wolford no longer slinging it around for the Demon Deacons, Wake will have to win games differently this season.

Wake Forest: college football picks against the spread

6. Nov. 3 at Northwestern

This will mark Notre Dame's first visit to Ryan Field since 1976. The success of the Northwestern season hinges on the return to health of quarterback Clayton Thorson. The Wildcats have won the last two meetings between the two schools.

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5. Oct. 6 at Virginia Tech

The Hokies suffered some significant personnel losses on defense. But defensive coordinator Bud Foster has pieced things together before. Lane Stadium will be rocking as Notre Dame comes to Blacksburg for the first time.

College Football Top 25 Rankings: Virginia Tech

4. Nov. 10 vs. Florida State

The Seminoles have a new head coach in Willie Taggart and get back quarterback Deondre Francois. By early November, it may be colder in South Bend than Florida State likes. On the other hand, Notre Dame has struggled in the final month of the regular season under Brian Kelly.

College Football Top 25 Rankings: FSU

3. Nov. 24 at USC

Replacing quarterback Sam Darnold is priority one for the Trojans. By the season's last regular season game, USC should have that position figured out and the answer could be JT Daniels, who intends to graduate early from high school and enroll at USC this summer.

College Football Top 25 Rankings: USC

2. Sept. 1 vs. Michigan

This is a big year for Jim Harbaugh. With Ole Miss transfer Shea Patterson set to take over at quarterback and a nasty defense that should only be better in 2018, expectations are high in Ann Arbor. This game has the makings of a bitter defensive struggle.

College Football Top 25 Rankings: Michigan

1. Sept. 29 vs. Stanford

Cardinal running back Bryce Love will make another run at the Heisman Trophy this fall and he has an experienced offensive line leading the way. David Shaw is 5-2 against Notre Dame and should have quarterback K.J. Costello healthy following hip surgery at the end of last season.

College Football Top 25 Rankings: Stanford

-- 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.