Now that the 2014 regular season is over (for the Irish anyway) we're left to sit and wait for Notre Dame's bowl bid. While we twiddle our thumbs I wanted to take a look at next year's schedule and see where the future Irish opponents stand following their campaigns and project who the toughest competition will be next year.
Is this ridiculously early? Of course it is but I'm doing it anyway.
After the weekend's destruction at the hands of the Men of Troy the Irish have been quickly humbled in this rivalry. The scary part is that USC's roster is only going to get healthier as they move further away from sanctions and scholarship reductions.
What's more, only tight end Randall Telfer, linebacker J.R. Tavai, and linebacker Hayes Pullard are out of eligibility. The Trojans may see receiver Nelson Agholor or defensive end Leonard Williams leave early but they'll still be bringing back upwards of 16 or 17 starters at minimum with a couple former starters who missed 2014 with injuries coming back to add depth, as well.
The Irish will get USC at home but the game will also come at the end of a tough 3-game stretch that has the team traveling to Death Valley and then hosting Navy before the Trojans come to town.
I'm tentatively putting the Tigers in the second spot but it is not awfully secure at the moment. They will have a sophomore quarterback Deshaun Watson healthy and tearing apart the ACC but at the same time nationally renowned offensive coordinator Chad Morris is taking the SMU head coaching job. Additionally, DC Brent Venables has several suitors knocking on his door plus Clemson will be losing several high impact defenders.
Of course, there's also the chance that Dabo Swinney leaves for another job but that is probably less likely now.
Be that as it may if Clemson can solidify its coaching staff they'll have a very dangerous offense led by perhaps the best young quarterback in the game with a lot of weapons to work with in 2015. Also picking up a road win won't be that easy either.
3. Georgia Tech
Holy cow, look at what Paul Johnson was able to do this year. The Yellow Jackets' ACC Championship game against Florida State this weekend will be interesting, won't it? If they are able to topple the Seminoles there may be a chance that Notre Dame is a home dog in week 3 when Georgia Tech comes to town.
They do lose their top 4 running backs even if quarterback Justin Thomas returns. A few defenders are moving on but a lot of starters will return on the other side of the ball.
This feels like an enormous swing game for the Irish next year. The back end of the schedule is laughably inviting and a win over Georgia Tech early in the season is probably something that needs to happen for Brian Kelly to rebuild following the backslide of 2014.
This is going to be a very tough season opener. We've already been talking a lot about the pressure of 2015 and the schedule is not something the team is going to be able to ease into during the fall.
Offensively the Horns aren't threatening heading into the bowl season. They had a bunch of issues on the offensive line due to injuries and suspensions plus they'll lose their top two wideouts and running back Malcolm Brown. They'll also have to replace around half their starters on defense too.
Combine the recruiting talent, Charlie Strong's coaching acumen, and quarterback Tyrone Swoopes' athletic ability and there's still a very dangerous opponent that'll likely be pretty strong on defense, at the very least. This and the Georgia Tech game stand out to me as crucial must-win games and they are both within the first three weeks of the season.
You have to give Stanford credit for sucking it up and beating UCLA last weekend. That was pretty awesome. They also took a sizable step backwards in 2014. Will they bounce back with a better record next year?
The offense should improve with a young line adding more seasoning and basically of the skill position guys coming back except receiver Ty Montgomery. Sticking with Kevin Hogan for a 5th-year, while frustrating, is probably a good idea unless Ryan Burns or Keller Chryst dominate in the off-season.
The defense is going to have to re-load which presents many questions. Defensive end Henry Anderson, nose tackle David Perry, defensive end Blake Leuders, linebacker A.J. Tarpley, linebacker James Vaughters, and safety Jordan Richards all leave after 2014. If highly touted corner Alex Carter leaves for the NFL then Stanford would have to break in 7 new starters.
This will be the regular season finale so almost twice as much can change between now and then compared to the opener against Texas. Keep in mind Notre Dame has not won in Palo Alto in a while.
Notre Dame has to face two triple option teams in 2014 and to make matters worse this game against Navy is sandwiched in between the Clemson and USC games. This might feel high for the Middies but right now I think it's appropriate.
By my count Navy will be replacing 9 starters combined on both sides of the ball, including a trio of offensive linemen. That's a decent amount of new blood for a military academy although quarterback Keenan Reynolds will be back for his senior season.
After going 6-7 in 2012 and then 7-6 in 2013 the Panthers will be posting one of those two records again after bowl season in 2014. Paul Chryst was generally well respected upon entering the Steel City but has been stuck in .500 hell for 3 seasons in a row.
Another year for quarterback Chad Voytik to get under his belt will help the program. As will the return of one of the country's most underrated running backs in James Conner. Plus, let's not forget wideout Tyler Boyd who is also one of the most underrated players at his position.
I don't know if the pieces are there for a major increase in wins next year but some improvement is likely.
8. Boston College
You have to give Steve Addazio credit for improving Boston College since arriving in Chestnut Hill. He is 14-11 after taking over a 2-10 program. This series took a 2-year break but to me it feels more like a 5-year break. Is there even much of a rivalry anymore? By next season it'll be 7 year since Boston College beat Notre Dame--it seems so long ago.
This game is also being played at Fenway Park which also offers a unique atmosphere. I suppose it will favor Notre Dame in many ways. I'm very curious to see how such a run-heavy offense that BC employed this year moves on without quarterback Tyler Murphy (1,074 yards, 10 touchdowns) because he was a huge part of their productivity.
The Original Doing Good Things™ head coach Mike London lives to see the 2015 season. Most were expecting him to be fired but he'll be back for another year. London has brought an uptick in recruiting to Charlottesville but the current 2015 crop is ranked 41st and features only 1 player with 4-star status.
The Cavaliers will be losing a bunch of skill players on offense and a handful of seniors on defense. I'll be honest I don't know a whole lot about Virginia. I look forward to assembling an off-season preview for them. It's the first road game of the season and depending on the result against Texas there could be more pressure to win than we think.
For the second time in three years we'll be lining up against Temple. This time we'll be headed to Lincoln Financial in Philadelphia to return the favor on a and home-and-home deal.
The Owls were kind of frisky this year with wins over Vanderbilt, UConn, and East Carolina. Their losses to Navy, Houston, UCF, Memphis, Penn State, and Cincinnati aren't terrible by any means. Most importantly for Temple they'll be returning their top 25 tacklers from 2014. Yes, 25.
11. Wake Forest
Wake Forest was greeted by first year head coach Dave Clawson with their fewest wins since 2010. He definitely instituted a youth movement starting a freshman quarterback while having the team's two leading rushers and top pass catcher as freshmen, as well.
The Demon Deacons will be coming back to South Bend for Senior Day again. That didn't go too well in 2012. They should be improved but still a couple years away from being a competitive ACC team.
The Minutemen got the Charley Molnar stink off of them (2-22 from 2012-13) and probably exceeded expectations under new head coach Mark Whipple. They played Colorado and Vanderbilt tight and had 6 losses by a combined 19 points. Plus, they did win 3 games in the MAC which is one more than Chuck Martin at Miami got in 2014.
The expectation is that UMass will be the worst team Notre Dame will have played in a number of years. That may be the case. They'll be replacing a graduate transfer at quarterback who threw the ball a ton and they didn't develop a run game at all. That's a major concern for 2015.