Beginning next week I'll be diving into off-season previews of Notre Dame's 2016 football opponents. I'll be doing something different this year, too. Instead of one preview covering a team each week I will take each program and split them up into offense, defense, and overall team previews running on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday's.
Before I get to that fun work I wanted to first discuss the 2016 schedule as a whole and talk about some very macro-level thoughts on the programs lining up against Notre Dame this fall. It's a preview to the previews. A primer for the previews.
Using last year's final F/+ rankings here's how the upcoming 2016 schedule lays out (2015 records in parentheses):
Stanford- 6th (12-2)
Michigan State- 9th (12-2)
USC- 17th (8-6)
Navy- 21st (11-2)
NC State- 49th (7-6)
Virginia Tech- 59th (7-6)
Miami- 62nd (8-5)
Texas- 68th (5-7)
Duke- 74th (8-5)
Syracuse- 85th (4-8)
Nevada- 97th (7-6)
Army- 108th (2-10)
At first glance we have a really nice schedule with 4 teams inside the Top 21 and 3 programs that won 11 or more games. But of course, the Irish aren't playing the last year's version of all these teams. Some will improve and some will most definitely take a step back.
Here's a possible controversial thought: Notre Dame may not play a team that finishes inside the Top 25 in the F/+ rankings for 2016. Perhaps more so with the AP Top 25 rankings where two games over .500 won't get you ranked.
Does that seem ridiculous? Each of those top 4 teams face major rebuilding efforts on at least one side of the ball. Stanford loses their all-time winningest quarterback and about 9 or 10 of their best dozen players. Michigan State also loses their all-time winningest quarterback, and needs to rebuild a huge portion of their offense plus the defensive line. USC is replacing a 3-year starter at quarterback and nearly their entire front seven. Navy loses NCAA career rushing touchdown record holder quarterback Keenan Reynolds and quite literally their entire offense, too.
Here's how I would rank the 2016 schedule, at this very moment, focusing mostly on what these teams are bringing back in terms of personnel, how they fit into the Irish schedule, and less so trying to predict how these opponents will fare against their schedules--although I still have a few of those comments.
I had a really, really hard time picking the toughest game but settled unconvincingly on the Trojans. They are a team where it's difficult to ignore their schedule. They open with Alabama for goodness sake and still have to deal with road games at Stanford, Utah, Arizona, Washington, and UCLA in addition to home dates with ASU, Oregon, and Notre Dame. That's 9 games!! With "breathers" against Utah State, Colorado, and Cal. Yikes.
If they can get decent quarterback play out of the gate they might be okay. They're gutted up front on defense but their defense has a laughingly absurd 17 healthy (Kenny Bigelow just tore his ACL not that long ago so I won't count him) players on that side of the ball with Composite scores of .949 or higher. For comparison, Notre Dame has two such players on defense. Recruiting isn't everything but that's a huge discrepancy.
If the Irish got the Trojans mid-year I'd probably push them down this list. By the end of the season I'm expecting they'll be very, very good. But who knows, they might be 7-4 at best by Thanksgiving with Clay Helton soon to be fired.
Stanford is a shaky 2nd toughest opponent. I know, I know there's always predictions of them finally falling apart but they are one semi-serious injury to McCaffrey from being in some major trouble on offense. Their defense wasn't good last year and loses most of its best players with a modest 11 blue-chip prospects coming back on the roster--most of whom are young or haven't made an impact.
Plus, the Cardinal have the toughest first half of the schedule in the country with Kansas State, USC, UCLA, Washington, Washington State, and Notre Dame. They might have 3 losses before coming to South Bend.
Miami in the third slot is bold, I know. I've given them a spring bump based on what I perceive to be a big coaching upgrade under Mark Richt, as stable of a situation on offense than anyone on our schedule, and a friendly early schedule to ease into a new regime. Moreover, this game comes after Stanford but lucky for the Irish they will have a bye week to get prepared.
I wouldn't quibble if you gave Michigan State consideration for the top spot. Still, I'm not sure they can replace Connor Cook, a handful of veteran receivers, a few heart-and-soul offensive linemen and just keep rolling to 10+ wins this fall. The development and program building by Dantonio is admirable but they aren't Alabama and the last time they replaced a long-time starting quarterback the Spartans lost 6 games.
The back 8 of the schedule is interesting. It wouldn't surprise me if all of these teams finished inside the Top 80 of the F/+ rankings. If it turns out that there is no tip-top elite teams at the other end of the schedule this could make a very grind-it-out type of year with precious few easy games. That might not be great for a playoff resume but at the same time it opens the door to a "WTF" loss to a team somewhere in the middle of my list.
Army should be improved. They were the youngest team I've ever surveyed for off-season previews. It's as if first-year head coach Jeff Monken said, "Right, this program has been in the dumps I'm playing all of my freshmen and turning the page this year." I also think this Army game has stubbornly annoying written all over it. The Irish will be coming off a trip to Jacksonville against Navy and then turning right around and flying to San Antonio for another triple option team and Shamrock Series distractions. That screams mental let down and a first half asleep at the wheel.
Nevada could very well be the worst team, especially with a ravaged front seven on defense that could allow Notre Dame to run for ~900 yards. But they do have a very experienced offense and the benefit of being sandwiched in between Texas and Michigan State.
Most are probably surprised to see Duke rated this low. We'll hear endlessly this off-season how, for example, the Blue Devils have won the same amount of games as the Irish over the last three years and that David Cutcliffe has done a masterful job building the Blue Devils up in Durham. All true, but they are still 1-18 against ranked teams under Cutcliffe, were not rated all that high by F/+ last year anyway, and quarterback Thomas Sirk may miss the season after tearing his Achilles back in February.
I'm not sure what to think about NC State one way or the other. Dave Doern seems to be stuck in neutral and even with 15 starters back it's hard to imagine them moving the needle in a positive direction without quarterback Jacoby Brissette.
Both Syracuse and Virginia Tech are teams that may not be on people's radar right now. However, each program has a good amount of starters returning and will be transitioning from defense-first head coaches to new leaders with more focus on explosive offense. That could raise the ceiling for either program in 2016.
Befitting this entire piece I feel uncomfortable having Texas as the 5th toughest game but don't see them improving enough to put them higher or the team's behind them in good enough position to drop the Horns down, either. This is a program coming off 7 losses and wasn't inside the Top 50 last year. Still, it's going to be hot in Austin for that opener and the Horns will have revenge on their minds. They aren't exactly loaded with talent like the middle Mack Brown years yet Texas has a lot more to work with than team's 6 through 12 on my list.
Our previews will begin on Monday starting with the Longhorns' offense.