Previewing Notre Dame's schedule: The 'easy' games

Previewing Notre Dame's schedule: The 'easy' games
July 21, 2014, 10:30 am
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It's an annual message from Irish coaches and players: We aren't going to overlook an opponent, since everyone is going to be motivated to beat Notre Dame.

There's still something special for opponents about beating Notre Dame — since they're Notre Dame — and players have seen the results when the effort level hasn't been where it should've in the last few years. There were near-losses to Purdue and Pitt in 2012, then another near-loss to Purdue and a loss to Pitt in 2013. Those were games Notre Dame not only should've won, but should've won by comfortable margins.

[MORE: Early projections have Notre Dame bowling in Florida]

With that recent history in mind, it's tough to say Notre Dame has any truly "easy" games on its 2014 schedule. But in breaking down this fall's slate, there are four games in which the Irish should, on paper, cruise to victory.

These are ranking in descending order from easiest to most difficult, so check back Tuesday and Wednesday for the games ranked 5-8 and 1-4. Note: The projected stats/bowls are via Phil Steele's indispensable 2014 College Football Preview magazine.

12. Sept. 13 vs. Purdue (Lucas Oil Stadium)

Purdue's projected points/game differential: -11
Purdue's projected yards/game differential: -96
Purdue's projected bowl game: None

Football Outsiders' F/+ rankings placed the 1-11 Boilermakers as the 12th-worst team at the FBS level in 2013, showing just how massive an undertaking Darrell Hazell's rebuilding project is in West Lafayette.

Purdue does return quarterback Danny Etling and running back Akeem Hunt, the latter of whom baffled Notre Dame's defense out of the backfield last fall for nine catches, 72 yards and a touchdown. Still, there are plenty of question marks on a defense that wasn't very good last year, and as long as Notre Dame shows up Everett Golson & Co. should have no problem scything through the Boilermakers in Indianapolis.

[FROM 2013: After narrow win over Purdue, Notre Dame still searching for answers]

X-Factor: Notre Dame needed Tommy Rees to salvage a three-point win over Purdue in 2012 and looked awful against the Boilermakers in the first half of 2013's game. Granted, we're only three years removed from Notre Dame's 38-10 blowout of Purdue in West Lafayette, but for whatever reason Purdue has played Notre Dame well in the last few years. That this is the last scheduled meeting -- on a neutral field, no less -- between the two teams until 2020 may add to the motivation factor for the Boilermakers.

11. Aug. 30 vs. Rice

Rice's projected points/game differential: -6
Rice's projected yards/game differential: -51
Rice's projected bowl game: New Orleans Bowl

That this game ranks as the second-easiest game for Notre Dame speaks more to the difficulty of Notre Dame's schedule and less about the quality of David Bailiff's program at Rice. The Owls won Conference USA in 2013 and went 10-4, and while they were blown out by Texas A&M and Mississippi State showed plenty of promise along the way.

Rice will have a new quarterback -- likely Driphus Jackson -- this fall, though, meaning his first career start will come in front of 81,000 fans on national TV at Notre Dame. That's not exactly an easy environment in which to debut, and could be a good opportunity for Brian VanGorder's defense to force a few turnovers to push Notre Dame to a comfortable victory.

[MORE: Five Notre Dame freshmen who could make an impact this year]

X-Factor: Notre Dame's seniors and graduate students will remember 2011's season-opening debacle against South Florida, in which the Irish turned the ball over five times in a stunning 23-20 loss. Weird stuff can happen against an amped-up team in a season opener, so the Irish should be a bit wary of a team that won more games than they did in 2013.

10. Sept. 27 vs. Syracuse (at MetLife Stadium)

Syracuse's projected points/game differential: +3
Syracuse's projected yards/game differential: +3
Syracuse's projected bowl game: Pinstripe Bowl

Syracuse returns a ton of players from its 7-6 bowl team in 2013, including quarterback Terrel Hunt, 80 percent of its offensive line and a number of key players on defense. Granted, last year's Orange didn't have many good wins -- Minnesota in the Texas Bowl probably was the best -- but experience is important for a middling ACC team like Syracuse.

The Orange play an aggressive style of defense, so there could be some opportunities for big-chunk plays here. If Notre Dame can avoid turning the ball over and its defense shuts down Syracuse's run game, they should walk away with a victory.

[MORE: Less schedule flexibility with ACC agreement may not be a bad thing for ND]

X-Factor: Notre Dame will come off its first bye week for this game, which could be a positive in keeping players from looking ahead to Oct. 4's showdown with Stanford in South Bend. Two weeks to prepare for Syracuse should be plenty, and even if there is some overlooking of the Orange it shouldn't come back to bite the Irish like in years past.

9. Nov. 1 vs. Navy (FedEx Field)

Navy's projected points/game differential: +4
Navy's projected yards/game differential: +52
Navy's projected bowl game: Poinsettia Bowl

It took a last minute fourth down stop by Jaylon Smith for Notre Dame to squeak past Keenan Reynolds and the Mids a year ago, though Notre Dame beat Navy by a combined score of 106-24 in 2011 and 2012. Scoring isn't Notre Dame's problem against Navy -- it's stopping Ken Niumatololo's maddening triple option offense, which Reynolds ran to perfection last fall in South Bend.

Navy's five top rushers from 2013 return, including Reynolds, as well as four cut-blocking offensive linemen with at least 10 career starts. Notre Dame's defense, as always against an option attack, is going to have to stay disciplined to stop the ruthlessly efficient Mids.

[FROM 2013: Notre Dame escapes with win over 'flawless' Navy]

X-Factor: What a difference a year makes. In 2013, Notre Dame faced Navy a week after Air Force, another triple option offense that banged up a few key players and perhaps softened up the Irish defense a bit for Navy. This fall, Notre Dame will face Navy coming off a bye week, not only giving the Irish a chance to lick their wounds from the Oct. 18 Florida State game but also affording VanGorder an extra week to prepare his defense for the one triple option offense they'll face in 2014.

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