We’ve covered four games Notre Dame should have no excuse not to win and four that could blossom into tricky trap games this fall. If all goes well, though, those eight games won’t decide Notre Dame’s College Football Playoff fate.
That’s where these last four games in our schedule ranking come into play. If Notre Dame goes 8-0 against those opponents it’ll be heavily favored against, it can realistically go 3-1 against these four teams and have a shot at the College Football Playoff.
Of course, winning all four of these games would all but assure the Irish a spot in college football’s Final Four on New Year’s Eve.
4. Texas (Sept. 4 in Austin, Texas)
The Longhorns are the biggest wild card on Notre Dame’s 2016 schedule. This wasn’t a good team last year — they ranked 68th in F/+ and went 5-7 — but there is so, so much talent at Charlie Strong’s disposal. Sophomore linebacker Malik Jefferson is a star in the making and both sides of the ball are littered with former blue-chip recruits. But this has been the narrative around Texas for the last four or five years — there’s talent, but when will that produce the kind of win totals those in Austin expect?
The biggest immediate question to be answered is who Texas’ starting quarterback will be on this season-opening Sunday night at Darrell K. Royal Stadium. All signs seem to be pointing to true freshman quarterback Shane Buechele — the son of former Texas Rangers, Chicago Cubs and Pittsburgh Pirates infielder Steve Buechele — and if it is him, he’ll be an unknown for both teams. Texas can’t predict how he’ll handle the pressure of a nationally-televised primetime game, and Notre Dame won’t have much film on him.
And there’s also the nebulous revenge factor that comes from Notre Dame’s 38-3 stomping of Texas in last year’s season opener. This seems like a game in which it wouldn’t be surprising to see Notre Dame to again win handily or for an ascending Longhorns side to give the Irish a tough evening.
3. Michigan State (Sept. 17 in South Bend)
The first of two primetime kickoffs at Notre Dame Stadium this fall comes against last year’s College Football Playoff No. 4 seed, but one that loses star players across the field. Quarterback Connor Cook, offensive linemen Jack Allen and Jack Conklin and defensive end Shilique Calhoun all have to be replaced, as well as plenty of other key contributors.
Michigan State’s quarterback will probably be Tyler O’Connor, though they’ll rely heavily on running back L.J Scott to power the offense. With an inexperienced quarterback and plenty of youth at wide receiver, Notre Dame may look to sell out to stop the run and make the Spartans’ passing game beat them.
While there’s some uncertainty that has to be worked through in East Lansing, it’d be foolish to expect anything less than a strong Mark Dantonio side to arrive in South Bend. The Spartans have won at least 11 games in five of the last six years and have finished in the AP top six in each of the last three years.
2. Stanford (Oct. 15 in South Bend)
The good news for Notre Dame, oddly, may be that quarterback Kevin Hogan doesn’t return while Heisman finalist running back Christian McCaffrey is back. Notre Dame set out to mute McCaffrey last year in California, and it worked — he only rushed for 94 yards on 27 carries and didn’t score a touchdown — but in that vacuum, Hogan threw as many touchdowns as incompletion (four) in a two-point Irish loss.
Hogan’s replacement, Keller Chryst, has already drawn comparisons to former Cardinal quarterback Andrew Luck. We’ll probably know by mid-October if that’s fair or not, but as long as McCaffrey is there and Stanford continues to develop strong offensive lines, this team should glide to another top-10 or top-20 season.
Much like Dantonio and Michigan State, it’s reasonable to expect David Shaw’s Stanford teams to be among the best Notre Dame will play every year. And each of the last four Notre Dame-Stanford games have been decided by a touchdown or less. Don’t expect anything different this fall.
1. USC (Nov. 26 in Los Angeles)
There isn’t much separating the difficulty levels of the Stanford and USC games, but because Notre Dame gets the talented, explosive Trojans on the road, it gets the top spot. JuJu Smith-Schuster and Adoree’ Jackson are back, as are a dynamic pair of running backs in Justin Davis and Ronald Jones. Max Browne will slide in for Cody Kessler at quarterback and finally has developed a good offensive line (Phil Steele ranks it as the best group nationally).
USC’s front seven does have some holes, but its defensive backs — led by cornerbacks Jackson and Iman Marshall — should buoy Clancy Pendergast's group.
Unlike Stanford and Michigan State, though, USC hasn’t been stable since the end of the Pete Carroll era. Will Clay Helton prove to be exactly what USC needed or an uninspired hire by one of college football’s elite programs? With this being the last game of the season, it wouldn’t be surprising for Notre Dame to roll into Los Angeles to face a middling Pac-12 side or one competing for a spot in the College Football Playoff. But if USC’s offense comes together and its defense can hold serve, this’ll be the most difficult game on Notre Dame’s schedule.