An Early Ranking of Notre Dame's 2012 Opponents

The 2011 season is officially over and we now turn our thoughts to the 2012 schedule facing the Notre Dame Fighting Irish.

We're just over 7 months away from starting this schedule---one that seems like it will be among the toughest in country.

Is there any hope for an improved record over the past two seasons with this fierce gauntlet facing Notre Dame?

Team-by-team rankings after the jump.

12. Navy Midshipmen

2011 Record: 5-7

Returning Starters: 13 (6 offense, 7 defense)

Stock Report: Even

11. Purdue Boilermakers


2011 Record: 7-6

Returning Starters: 15 (8 offense, 7 defense)

Stock Report: Even

10. Boston College Eagles


2011 Record: 4-8

Returning Starters: 20 (11 offense, 9 defense)

Stock Report: Slightly Up

9. Pittsburgh Panthers


2011 Record: 6-7

Returning Starters: 13 (8 offense, 5 defense)

Stock Report: Slightly Down

8. Wake Forest Demon Deacons


2011 Record: 6-7

Returning Starters: 13 (6 offense, 7 defense)

Stock Report: Even

7. Miami Hurricanes


2011 Record: 6-6

Returning Starters: 11 (4 offense, 7 defense)

Stock Report: Down

6. BYU Cougars


2011 Record: 10-3

Returning Starters: 16 (9 offense, 7 defense)

Stock Report: Slightly Up

5. Stanford Cardinal


2011 Record: 11-2

Returning Starters: 14 (6 offense, 8 defense)

Stock Report: Down

4. Michigan State Spartans


2011 Record: 11-3

Returning Starters: 13 (5 offense, 8 defense)

Stock Report: Down

3. Michigan Wolverines


2011 Record: 11-2

Returning Starters: 14 (6 offense, 8 defense)

Stock Report: Even

2. Oklahoma Sooners


2011 Record: 10-3

Returning Starters: 15 (8 offense, 7 defense)

Stock Report: Slightly Up

1. Southern California Trojans

2011 Record: 10-2

Returning Starters: 16 (9 offense, 7 defense)

Stock Report: Up

COMMENTARY

  • The Basement Teams are Average, But Not Your Average Basement Teams

Regardless of which teams you believe are the weakest on the schedule, the Irish are once again faced with playing decent competition at the bottom of the basement.

Navy, Purdue, Boston College, and Pitt all struggled in 2011 and look to be far from strong in 2012, but we're also talking about programs that can compete neck and neck with some of the best teams in the country.

Not that it needs to be repeated to many Notre Dame fans, but the Irish do not enjoy the advantage of playing one or two truly awful teams---teams so bad that the starters could be pulled at halftime.

Not every program plays a couple cream puffs, but refusing to do so for the Irish is a distinct competitive disadvantage that could be magnified in 2012 with possibly 6 ranked teams on the schedule and at least two truly elite programs at the top.

In fact, if you average out the winning percentage since 2009 for the bottom three teams in my rankings (Navy, Purdue, Boston College), it comes out to only 60th in the country---or exactly average.

In comparison, defending national champion Alabama will be able to play I-AA Western Carolina (a program that is 11-56 since 2006 by the way), plus two teams in Western Kentucky and Florida Atlantic whose winning percentage over the past three seasons averages out to just over 106th in the country.

The shocking difference between Notre Dame's weak opponents and Alabama's (as well as 95% of college football on a yearly basis) is something that leaves the Irish with little margin for error, and little rest over a grueling college football season.

  • Who's the 4th Best Team on the Schedule?

There's no doubt that this is a fairly top-heavy schedule. Say what you want about Michigan but they will likely join USC and Oklahoma in the preseason top 10 (the Wolverines are ranked 9th by Athlon, 18th by Nationalchamps.net, 11th by ESPN, and 9th by SBNation's Bill Connelly) to form a trio of powers that will be as difficult as any team in the country will face.

After that, there is likely a significant drop-off.

Is Michigan State the 4th best team?

The Spartans might be preseason top 20 (maybe even top 15), but they are losing QB Kirk Cousins, RB Edwin Baker, their top 4 receivers, and bringing back an offensive line that is far from dominant. Even with a very good defense, Michigan State might severely struggle on offense.

What about Stanford?

The Cardinal will obviously sorely miss Andrew Luck, while their offensive line loses two All-American type stars, and the receiving corps is dangerously thin and unproven. Stanford has nice pieces at tight end, running back, and the bulk of a good defense coming back, but will their offense be good enough to compete at a high level in 2012?

BYU could make a case, but despite another 10-win season (their 5th over the last 6 years) their resume leaves a ton to be desired with only one win over a winning team (8-5 Tulsa) in 2011. Then again, the Cougars are bringing back a lot of players, have a very underrated defense, and usually play teams very close.

  • The Three Tiers

USC, Oklahoma, with Michigan just outside the Trojans and Sooners sphere of influence, make up the top tier of teams on the this schedule.

As previously discussed, Michigan State, Stanford, and BYU make up the second-tier with all three having a decent argument for the 4th best team on the Irish schedule. It shouldn't surprise anyone if all three of these teams start the 2012 season ranked.

The final six teams should probably be all lumped into one large third-tier---as all of them will likely hover around .500 and struggle to win anything more than 7 games.

Getting back to the "these are quality basement teams" theme, it's hard to imagine any of these programs being truly awful and losing double-digit games (heck, BC looked beyond terrible during 2011 and they still won 4 games), yet I'd bet all of them struggle to gain bowl eligibility.

  • Possible Underachiever/Overachiever?

Depending on where Michigan is placed in preseason polls and how much hype they get for being a legit national title contender, I would probably put the Wolverines as an underachiever next year. Still, they'll likely lose to Alabama to start the season and end up no worse than 9-3 or 8-4 in 2012---given where my expectations are for them, I don't think they'll underachieve worse than that.

Michigan State and Stanford have to be the two teams with underachieving alarm bells going off like crazy right now. Both should return very good (MSU) to good (Stanford) defenses, but there's a distinct possibility their offenses take a major tumble with arguably each program's best quarterbacks in school history graduating.

If both of these programs are being offered up as top 20 teams in the BCS discussion next year, I think I would aggressively sell that stock.

I can't believe I'm saying this because Frank Spaziani inspires little confidence, but Boston College is a team to look out for that could overachieve in 2012.

Even with Luke Kuechly leaving early for the NFL, the Eagles return literally everyone on both sides of the ball, and went through 2011 giving valuable experience to underclassmen who will now be aided by the return of numerous injured veterans.

Spaz is still coaching so don't expect an ACC title, but you have to think that Boston College is going to make some quality improvements next year. If there was a team that is going to be picked to be crappy in 2012, yet will go on to win 7 or 8 games, the Eagles just might be it.

  • The Effects of an Early-Season Soft Schedule

As tough as this schedule may seem, the Irish have an advantage of opening up the season without facing a truly tough or overly athletic team. Neither Navy or Purdue are poised to improve dramatically and both teams lost to Notre Dame by a combined 70 points last year.

This should afford the Fighting Irish an opportunity to break in a new quarterback, move the ball competently, and pick up some confidence before heading to East Lansing in week three.

Michigan State might have the best defense Notre Dame faces all season, but their offense might be among the least effective---so a 3-0 start is definitely a real possibility in 2012.

If that quick start happens, it would be only the third 3-0 start since 1993 and who knows where that momentum could take this team.

It would be nice if the bye week was after the MSU game, but as it is, a 4-0 start might be a bit much too ask. Notre Dame hasn't fared well in recent years against Michigan and the Wolverines certainly could be favored heading to South Bend even with an opening season loss to Alabama.

It seemed liked a good idea to place the bye week after Michigan and before the neutral field tilt against Miami, but the Hurricanes could be in serious trouble next year with major question marks on offense, 5 starters leaving early for the NFL, and sanctions potentially looming.

The Stanford-BYU-Oklahoma midseason stretch will be physical and a big test for the offense. Not many expect a win at Norman, but holding down home field against the Cardinal and Cougars could be crucial wins amidst a tough schedule---and possibly the difference between a good and bad season.

The Pittsburgh-Boston College-Wake Forest games starting in November have to be wins, for any losses down the stretch here might cripple the season before the Irish visit the Coliseum and take on the Trojans of Southern California.

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