Previewing Notre Dame's schedule: The crucial games

Previewing Notre Dame's schedule: The crucial games
July 23, 2014, 1:00 pm
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We've covered the easy part of Notre Dame's schedule and the trap games, so now it's on to the games the Irish will have to win if they have any chance of reaching the College Football Playoff this year.

All projected stats and bowls are from Phil Steele's indispensable 2014 College Football Preview magazine.

4. Nov. 8 at Arizona State

Arizona State's projected points/game differential: +2
Arizona State's projected yards/game differential: +33
Arizona State's projected bowl game: Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl

Last year's win over Arizona State at AT&T Stadium was Notre Dame's best of 2013, but it won't be easy for the Irish to go into Tempe and make it back-to-back victories over the Sun Devils. Todd Graham returns quarterback Taylor Kelly, wide receiver Jaelen Strong and a solid offensive line that should combine to give Notre Dame's defense fits.

[FROM 2013: Notre Dame flips the script against Arizona State]

Where Arizona State is lacking is on defense, specifically in a secondary that lost 75 percent of its starters from a year ago. Star defensive tackle Will Sutton is gone, too, so there's a chance this game turns into another high-scoring shootout.

X-Factor: Arizona State may not wind up being a better team than Michigan, North Carolina or Louisville but given Notre Dame plays this game on the road in November it looks awfully tough. Coming off Navy's triple option to face an excellent offense like Arizona State's isn't easy, and then factor in the usual bumps and bruises that come with the month of November and this'll be a good test for Notre Dame's young defense.

3. Oct. 4 vs. Stanford

Stanford's projected points/game differential: +10
Stanford's projected yards/game differential: +69
Stanford's projected bowl game: Alamo Bowl

Stanford lost an awful lot from last year's team, including running back Tyler Gaffney, linebackers Trent Murphy and Shane Skov and most of its offensive line. But David Shaw has built a great program at Stanford, one that shouldn't be affected too negatively from those departures.

[FROM 2013: For Notre Dame, close loss to Stanford not a moral victory]

Quarterback Kevin Hogan and wide receiver/kick returner Ty Montgomery are back on offense, while linebacker A.J. Tarpley and safety Jordan Reynolds headline an inexperienced-yet-deep defense. If Stanford manages to beat USC and Washington in September it could come to South Bend as a top-10 opponent, giving Notre Dame an early opportunity for a signature victory.

X-Factor: There's a similarity here between 2014 and 2012 for Notre Dame. In 2012, the Irish had a season-defining three-game stretch: Home vs. Stanford, home vs. BYU, road vs. Oklahoma. The schedule sets up similarly for Notre Dame this year: Home vs. Stanford, home vs. North Carolina (the sneaky trap game), road vs. Florida State. Notre Dame eked out wins over Stanford and BYU in 2012 before beating Oklahoma to catapult themselves to an undefeated regular season. That's not to say the same thing will happen this year, but if the Irish beat Stanford and UNC they could very well head to Tallahassee at 6-0.

2. Nov. 29 at USC

USC's projected points/game differential: +11
USC's projected yards/game differential: +132
USC's projected bowl game: Holiday Bowl

We'll have a better idea of what kind of team USC has in Steve Sarkisian's first year at the helm when Notre Dame rolls into Los Angeles for the final game of the regular season. But right now, here's what USC appears to have: A great defense with explosive playmakers on offense. If quarterback Cody Kessler improves and an inexperienced but talented offensive line comes together, USC could wind up not only contending for a Pac-12 title but for a spot in the College Football Playoff.

[FROM 2013: Former walk-on Joe Schmidt has 'surreal' moment vs. USC]

The star power Sarkisian inherited is nuts: Running backs Buck Allen and Tre Madden, wide receiver Nelson Agholor, defensive tackle Leonard Williams, linebacker Hayes Pullard and safety Sua Cravens. The talent is there for USC to be a national power, thought that's been the case ever since Pete Carroll left for the NFL.

X-Factor: Can Sarkisian do a better job than Lane Kiffin? Granted, he didn't have the same level of talent at Washington, but Sarkisian only won more than seven games once in five years coaching the Huskies. But with so much talent at USC, there's almost no excuse for Sarkisian to not win double-digit games this year -- though, again, that's something he never did at Washington.

1. Oct. 18 at Florida State

Florida State's projected points/game differential: +29
Florida State's projected yards/game differential: +273
Florida State's projected bowl game: College Football Playoff Championship Game

It'll take a near-perfect showing from Notre Dame to beat Florida State in Tallahassee -- think Johnny Manziel and Texas A&M vs. Alabama in 2012. Reigning Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston headlines a stacked Seminoles side that enters 2014 as the odds-on favorite to win the inaugural College Football Playoff.

[MORE: Facing brutal schedule, Notre Dame wants more from its offense]

Florida State does have to deal with some high-profile departures on defense -- most notably, defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan and cornerback Lamarcus Joyner -- but there are still four or five players that could wind up being first-round picks in the NFL Draft. On paper, the Florida State game is Notre Dame's most difficult regular season game in the Brian Kelly era.

X-Factor: It's hard to find any issues with Florida State so long as they don't suffer a Texas Rangers-esque rash of injuries. Repeating a championship season is tough, but that Florida State draws Notre Dame -- as well as Clemson and Florida -- at home gives Jimbo Fisher's Seminoles a pretty good shot at winning a second straight title.