We return this week to ranking 2022 opponents for the Notre Dame Fighting Irish by hype factor. A quick recap of the bottom six:
12. Syracuse Orange
11. UNLV Rebels
10. Navy Midshipmen
9. Marshall Thundering Herd
We’ve covered the cupcakes and the “meh” frequent opponents, and are now at the point where the teams start getting more interesting. Let’s dive in:
We’ve seen a lot of the Heels over the past few years, and the relative ease with which the Irish dispatched some wildly over-hyped UNC teams in 2020 and 2021 definitely takes some of the shine off this one. Those years of disappointment have humbled the Heels, who will likely enter the season unranked after losing a ton of talent - including Sam Howell, whose athleticism covered a multitude of sins by Carolina’s offensive line.
That said, it wouldn’t be impossible for North Carolina to have a surprisingly good year. This year will be a proving ground for Mack Brown’s much-heralded recruiting classes, including new five-star arrivals on both sides of the line. With three straight cupcake games prior to hosting the Irish, North Carolina will be well tuned-up for this one and could have made its way into the Top 25 by kickoff. So while it’s not the most exciting opponent on the surface, don’t be surprised if there ends up being some hype here.
Cal has had a rough go over the last decade-plus, but this matchup means a lot to me because I grew up in the East Bay surrounded by Berkeley alums and fans. Because they and Notre Dame never played each other. there wasn’t a lot of conflict between us, and we bonded over our mutual hatreds of Stanford and USC. The Golden Bears were putting out some really fun teams back then, with the likes of Aaron Rodgers, Marshawn Lynch and DeSean Jackson laying waste to Pac-10 defenses. I also bore witness to the absolute peak of 21st-century Cal football, namely the five or so hours on October 13, 2007 when they were the presumed #1 team in the country before falling to the Oregon State Beavers in a fashion that was...less than dignified. In a year where Notre Dame’s entire season was a trainwreck, it was great to have some people to commiserate with.
I will always have a fondness in my heart for the Bears and am glad to see them finally make it out to South Bend for a game. Will they be any good? Unlikely - Cal lost a ton of talent after last season and is entering the sixth year of a coaching staff led by Justin Wilcox that has yet to prove much on the field. Still, this is a big-name program that Notre Dame almost never sees, and it’s one with personal significance to me. That’s enough for it to sneak in ahead of the likely tougher, but less novel UNC tilt.
4. BYU Cougars
Location, location, location. BYU fans might not like it and the Shamrock Series may still be a bad idea overall, but in this particular case moving the game to Las Vegas undeniably does a lot to elevate this date with the temporarily independent Cougs. I am ambivalent about BYU overall; I respect their game attitude and competitive streak, but their weird on-the-bubble standing within college football gives playing them a little bit of the Navy effect, where there is less to gain from playing them because even beating a good Cougars team doesn’t get you a lot of recognition.
That that perception still exists is a shame, because BYU has been really, really solid for the last couple years and could be a dark horse CFP contender in 2022. With a solid returning QB in Jaren Hall surrounded by a deep, experienced offensive line and solid skill players, led a cohesive and competent coaching staff, the Cougs will definitely pose a threat to the Irish. Lots of points? Wacky uniforms? A good game? In Vegas? This one’s going to be fun, folks.
2021 was a tough year for the Tigers. DJ Uiagalelei struggled to develop and long-standing weaknesses on the offensive line revealed themselves in the absence of the 2020 team’s transcendent playmakers. The offseason then saw Dabo Swinney lose his right and left hands in Tony Elliott and Brent Venables, creating uncertainty on both sides of the ball. If Clemson can’t reload and progress in key areas, they could very well come into this game with a loss or two already. This game could thus be an opportunity for the Irish to deliver a killshot to a program that so recently occupied the absolute pinnacle of the sport, and pushed aside more than one contending Irish team in getting there.
Pulling that off, however, is easier said than done. For all they’ve lost and the work that needs doing, the Tigers return an absolutely nasty front seven with Trenton Simpson, Xavier Thomas, Tyler Davis and Bryan Bresee all returning. That crew alone will carry Clemson to a lot of wins this year, and with enough offensive progress we could well get a repeat of 2020 with the Tigers heading up to South Bend undefeated on the first weekend of November. And as someone who remembers the date 11/7/2020 with great fondness, I look forward to that prospect.
2. Ohio State Buckeyes
A lot of fans would put this game ahead of the next one, and I totally understand that. The Irish open up with an absolutely titanic road matchup against the potential no. 1 team in the country, with Marcus Freeman making his regular-season debut against his alma mater. Everything about this game is A+ - the opponent, the storylines the timing, the venue. It’s an incredible test for this Irish team, which will learn a lot about itself regardless of the result.
On top of the obvious headline pros of this game, the Notre Dame - Ohio State relationship is one that has always fascinated me. They are two absolute giants of the sport that have lived strangely parallel lives. They are right next to each other, they have several rivals in common, they compete for recruits, their fan bases regularly interact - and all the while they have only played each other six times. That makes it special when they run into each other. The Buckeyes are also a team the Irish have had several cracks at in the modern era and come up short each time. It’s hard to think of a bigger non-rivalry win the Irish could get. Week one can’t come soon enough.
1. USC Trojans
With all due respect to the Buckeyes, hate wins here. USC might be great this year - or they might not. There are cases to be made either way: on the one hand, Lincoln Riley and Caleb Williams bring an instant injection of life into a dormant Trojans program. On the other: the offensive line situation looks dire, which could severely handicap the Trojans’ playmaking potential. It’s entirely possible for USC to come into this game 11-0; or 6-5.
And here’s the thing: either way, I’m totally psyched for it. A season-ending matchup with a highly-ranked Trojans program in LA for the first time in over a decade? That’s fantastic. An opportunity to pour salt in the wound of USC and its fans after Lincoln Riley has a terrible first year? Also fantastic. No matter where USC is heading into this game, the hate will be back in this rivalry, and I’ll be loving every minute of it.