Yesterday, we covered the "easy" portion of Notre Dame's 2014 schedule -- which, actually, isn't incredibly easy. Today, we get into the games Notre Dame will have to win to have a chance at having a successful season.
Problem is, this group of four games is littered with the kind of dangerous trap games that could easily derail 2014 for the Irish. Note: All the projections are from Phil Steele's indispensable 2014 College Football Preview magazine.
8. Nov. 15 vs. Northwestern
Northwestern's projected points/game differential: +6
Northwestern's projected yards/game differential: +74
Northwestern's projected bowl game: Pinstripe Bowl
Last fall, Northwestern was a Nebraska Hail Mary and miraculous Michigan field goal away from being 7-5 and reaching a bowl for the sixth straight year. The Wildcats also lost close games to Ohio State, Minnesota and Iowa and suffered a rash of injuries -- most notably to running back Venric Mark -- that doomed them to a 5-7 season.
The good news is Northwestern returns most of its offense, save for quarterback/wide receiver/union champion Kain Colter. Plenty of experienced defensive players return as well, and coach Pat Fitzgerald has done a fantastic job since taking over the program in 2006. Northwestern should be a tough test in mid-November, and it speaks to the difficulty of Notre Dame's schedule that the Wildcats come in at No. 8 on this list.
X-Factor: November is a brutal month for Notre Dame, with Northwestern sandwiched between Navy/Arizona State and Louisville/USC. Those five games that could very well determine the level of success Notre Dame reaches this fall, and Northwestern could be the easiest team to overlook in that stretch. If Notre Dame does look past Fitzgerald's Wildcats, though, this is a team good enough to deliver a crippling defeat to the Irish.
7. Nov. 22 vs. Louisville
Louisville's projected points/game differential: +6
Louisville's projected yards/game differential: +93
Louisville's projected bowl game: Sun Bowl
Louisville has to replace coach Charlie Strong and quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, the two most important figures in the program's surge over the last few years. The new guys (well, sort of new guys) are: Bobby Petrino and Will Gardner.
While Petrino has had some massive PR gaffes, as a coach, he's had nothing but success at the college level. The talent is there on offense -- Dominique Brown and Michael Dyer are an excellent 1-2 punch at running back, a number of talented receivers return and two first-team all AAC players headline an experienced offensive line. There's been more turnover on defense and that side of the ball may have its issues, but this it the type of team designed to win high-scoring shootouts.
X-Factor: Louisville will have played 10 games by the time it rolls in to South Bend -- after a bye week, no less. That's a lot of time for this team to gel under Petrino's leadership, and Gardner will have previously played in the spotlight against Miami, Clemson and Florida State. There's a good chance the Cardinals' offense is firing on all cylinders in late November, so Notre Dame can't overlook them with a date at USC looming a week later.
6. Oct. 11 vs. North Carolina
North Carolina's projected points/game differential: +8
North Carolina's projected yards/game differential: +68
North Carolina's projected bowl game: Russell Athletic Bowl
North Carolina went just 7-6 in 2013 and their best win was probably against Pitt. And the Tarheels lose quarterback Bryn Renner, tight end Eric Ebron and two offensive linemen with 76 starts between them.
But North Carolina is being touted as a top-20 team this fall, with those departures not detracting from what should be a fantastic offense. Junior quarterback Marquise Williams threw for 15 touchdowns against six interceptions after Renner suffered a season-ending injury in 2013, while explosive threats return at running back and wide receiver.
The questions generally center around North Carolina's defense, which lost quite a bit on its defensive line and in its secondary.
X-Factor: This is the trappiest trap game Notre Dame has on its 2014 schedule. Sandwiched between a home game against Stanford and a trip to Florida State, the Tarheels and their explosive offense could be primed to steal a game if the Irish aren't careful. There's a halfway decent chance North Carolina comes to Notre Dame Stadium at 3-2, though, with a trip to Clemson and a home date against Virginia Tech preceding its trip to South Bend. But regardless of the record, this is a sneaky-good team that could pose some real problems for Notre Dame's defense -- especially if the Irish are coming off a win against Stanford and find themselves looking ahead to Florida State.
5. Sept. 6 vs. Michigan
Michigan's projected points/game differential: +9
Michigan's projected yards/game differential: +92
Michigan's projected bowl game: TaxSlayer.com Bowl
You wouldn't know it from the 41-30 win over Notre Dame in Ann Arbor, but Michigan was a mess in 2013. The interior of its offensive line was awful, Devin Gardner was inconsistent and stalwart linebacker Jake Ryan was hurt for about half of the season. The Wolverines' disappointing 7-6 season led to speculation that coach Brady Hoke is on the hot seat, too.
Once again, the question marks for Michigan appear to be on the offensive line. Tackles Taylor Lewan and Michael Schofield are gone, leaving a group of inexperienced/ineffective players up front. The defense looks solid, and Garnder (or Shane Morris) will have a decent arsenal of playmaking weapons at his disposal. But if Michigan's offensive line doesn't take a few steps forward from its 2013 quagmire, it may not matter.
X-Factor: For two reasons, this is about as unpredictable a game as Notre Dame has on its schedule. First, it's in Week 2, so neither team will have much of an identity yet. But more importantly, this is the last scheduled meeting between these two rivals, and neither side will want to lose the last meeting. There's going to be some crazy motivational factors and emotions flying around South Bend this evening, and for that reason this game could swing either way -- and not tell us much about either team long-term.