It’s June. So, naturally, here’s a ranking of Notre Dame’s 2023 schedule by each game’s storylines, watchability and difficulty (ordered by difficulty). Enjoy.
Tennessee State (Game 2, Sept. 2)
It’s the first home game of Notre Dame’s season and the first game the Irish have ever played against an FCS opponent. That marginally improves the storylines and contributes only slightly to the watchability of this game.
Not only is it a game against an FCS opponent, but a subpar one at that. The Tigers went 4-7 in 2022 as they averaged just over 18 points per game. Let’s be real: if this weren’t a game against an HBCU — and a game that was desperately justified by ND mouthpieces as an opportunity to give said HBCU some national exposure — then this game would be on Peacock. The fact that it is not on Peacock is the reason it isn’t the least watchable game, but it should still be the easiest test for the Irish in 2023 (even considering the jetlag of a return trip from Dublin, Ireland).
Navy (Game 1, Aug. 26)
Speaking of Dublin, that’s an OK storyline. As for the talking point of how this series returns the favor to Navy for saving Notre Dame during World War II, that’s a much older and sanctimonious storyline. And the fact that the Midshipmen have a new head coach? It doesn’t really register for me.
But even with the lack of engaging storylines, this game is the first of the 2023 season, which means it’s the first opportunity to see a Sam Hartman-led Irish offense against an opposing defense. That should be fun to watch, even if watching the triple option on the other side isn’t. And watching the Irish offense will be very fun if Notre Dame puts together two full halves of dominance (unlike last season’s tale-of-two-halves matchup). That should be the expectation against a Navy team that has gone 4-8, 4-8, and 3-7 in the last three years.
Stanford (Game 12, Nov. 25)
Maybe the storylines are a bit too high for this game, but last season’s loss to Stanford will probably go down as the most inexplicable (if not the outright worst) loss of Marcus Freeman’s head coaching career, at Notre Dame or otherwise. Having a losing streak (of one game) to the current Cardinal program is nauseating enough, and the regular season finale will afford both the chance to flip the script and solidify whatever postseason position the Irish have earned.
And it shouldn’t be a particularly difficult matchup for Notre Dame. Troy Taylor is attempting to rebuild Stanford from the ground up, and Freeman should have his team locked in after the embarrassment that occurred last season.
Central Michigan (Game 4, Sept. 16)
There’s a reason this game is on Peacock, and it’s because there are no storylines of which to speak. And because this game is on Peacock, it is the least watchable. Oh, how I — and I’m sure the Notre Dame fandom shares this sentiment — despise games on Peacock.
But even though the Chippewas are coming off a 4-8 season, this isn’t a gimme for the Irish. First of all, it’s an FBS opponent; second of all, Notre Dame gets Central sandwiched between a road tilt at NC State and a home showdown with Ohio State. To use The Solid Verbal’s parlance, that’s a let-down, look-ahead sandwich for Notre Dame if I’ve ever seen one.
Wake Forest (Game 11, Nov. 18)
When it became apparent that Sam Hartman would not return to Wake Forest for a sixth collegiate season, Demon Deacons head coach Dave Clawson initially voiced his support for whatever decision Hartman made. Fast forward just two weeks, and Clawson’s tenor changed as he opined name, image and likeness in the transfer portal era.
“… if this is the way it’s going to be, that’s fine, but let’s not pretend there’s rules. Just eliminate the rules and say this is all legal,” Clawson said. “…There are people right now that are actively, through third parties, trying to recruit [Hartman].”
Hartman, the ACC’s all-time leader in touchdown passes and second-place player in passing yards, ultimately chose to forego the NFL Draft and spend his final collegiate year at Notre Dame. The Irish draw the Demon Deacons on Hartman’s Senior Day in Notre Dame Stadium, making for a juicy reunion, even if Clawson’s ill will is directed more at the current state of college football than at Hartman himself.
This won’t be an easy game after a long lead-up during the season, and considering Wake’s patented slow-mesh system. Even so, the Irish are more talented and should handle the Demon Deacs in a home setting.
Pitt (Game 9, Oct. 28)
The big storylines in this one are Phil Jurkovec’s Instagram post, Kenny Minchey flipping from Pitt’s 2023 recruiting class, simply hating on Pat Narduzzi and, again, Phil Jurkovec’s Instagram post. Also noteworthy is the fact that former Irish linebacker Shayne Simon and running back C’Bo Flemister are still in college and on Pitt’s roster this season.
This could have been a trap game on the schedule, even though it’s at home, given its position before Clemson and the potential for a rusty performance coming off a bye week. But Jurkovec and Narduzzi should provide enough ammunition to be focused, even if there aren’t many remaining teammates of Jurkovec, Simon or Flemister on the current Notre Dame roster. Regardless, the Pitt superweapon always looms large as a potential stumbling block if the Irish let the game become a slog.
NC State (Game 3, Sept. 9)
The lack of recent matchups between the Irish and Wolfpack takes away from the storylines, but this should be the first real test of the 2023 season for Notre Dame. It’s also the first trip to Raleigh, N.C. since the Hurricane Matthew game of 2016, a 10-3 NC State victory. And, of course, it’s the first chance of the season for the Irish to extend their regular-season win streak over ACC competition (28 games and counting).
As far as watchability, the fact that this game kicks off at noon on ABC means dodging an announcer team of Chris Fowler and Kirk Herbstreit, for those who feel strongly about that pairing. (I personally think Herbstreit is usually pretty insightful, and I’m sure that’s the opinion that will generate the most flak in the comments of this post).
NC State is a perennially solid-if-not-stellar program. They lost quarterback Devin Leary to the transfer portal this offseason, but Dave Doeren should have his team ready to play, especially with a longer week to prepare for Notre Dame (because NC State faces UConn on a Thursday night in week 1).
Louisville (Game 7, Oct. 7)
Jeff Brohm makes a hero’s return to Louisville after Scott Satterfield’s mediocre four years with the Cardinals. That doesn’t have any massive bearing on the storylines or watchability of this game, but it’s worth noting that Brohm’s Purdue teams had a penchant for pulling off massive upsets over higher ranked teams.
The rub with this game (and the next one on this list) is that it comes between matchups against Ohio State and USC. Combine that scheduling situation with the unpredictability of the Cardinals in year 1 under Brohm, and Freeman’s Irish could easily fall victim to an upset on the road just one week before facing the archrival Trojans.
Duke (Game 6, Sept. 30)
Former Irish defensive coordinator Mike Elko enters his second season as head coach of the Blue Devils. Elko was only DC for one season and didn’t coach any players still on the Notre Dame roster, but there’s enough to talk about considering the way he jumped ship after one season for a bigger payday at Texas A&M.
But as with Louisville, the real meat of this game is in its position on the schedule. Notre Dame travels to Durham one week after a massive home showdown with Ohio State. If the Irish come out of that game licking their wounds, this could be a tough rebound. On the flip side, if the Irish shock the world against the Buckeyes, this is a hell of a trap game against a team that went 9-4 last season.
Of course, there’s also a possibility that Duke upsets Clemson in week 1 which should put Notre Dame (and the rest of college football) on notice well ahead of time. In any event, this is far from a cake walk.
Clemson (Game 10, Nov. 4)
The storylines are very Tigers-centric, but that’s what it’s likely to be when the game kicks off on Nov. 4 unless the Irish are still in the College Football Playoff picture. Of course, Clemson could already be out of that picture themselves if they stumble against Duke, Florida State or NC State earlier in the year. But assuming they remain in the Playoff hunt, this is a chance for Dabo Swinney to rectify his 2022 coordinator decisions — he notably poached offensive coordinator Garrett Riley from TCU this offseason — and prove his team is still one of the sport’s elite by avenging a manhandling from the Irish last season.
And when you get down to it, Clemson still has enough talent and a track record of winning to warrant the No. 3 difficulty spot on this list, especially when the game is in Death Valley. (I’ll also note that this is probably a Fowler-Herbstreit game since ABC has already been confirmed and a primetime slot is virtually guaranteed, so do with that information what you will).
USC (Game 8, Oct. 14)
Notre Dame’s archrival comes to town for a night game with the reigning Heisman trophy winner at the helm. If the Irish are going to have a shot at winning it will probably be in a shootout. You couldn’t script it any better (except maybe for the next game on this list).
Watchability is pretty subjective and context-driven. By this point in the season, three scenarios are possible: Notre Dame is already be out of the Playoff picture, still in it with just one loss or even riding high after shocking the world against Ohio State three weeks prior. Depending on which one is the case, this could be the most watchable game of the season, but I slot this game at No. 2 since there’s less certainty over how the lead up will play out.
And as for difficulty, the Herculean task that is containing Caleb Williams is counterbalanced by an Alex Grinch-coached defense that still has a lot to prove. Notre Dame choked against that defense last season, so USC won’t automatically roll over. Still, it feels safe to assume that the threat in this game is more one-sided than this season’s headliner matchup.
Ohio State (Game 5, Sept. 23)
What more need be said? Under the lights at Notre Dame Stadium, Marcus Freeman faces his alma mater with a chance to avenge last season’s loss and to flip the script on the national narrative about Notre Dame. On the other sideline, a loss to the Irish would turn the temperature up even more on Buckeyes coach Ryan Day. The storylines and watchability go hand-in-hand.
And Ohio State is talented and sound enough defensively to pose more of a threat than USC (at least based on June projections). Sure, the Buckeyes are breaking in a new starting quarterback and their run defense has folded for two consecutive seasons against Michigan. Regardless, whichever quarterback wins out will be throwing to several future NFL wide receivers and defensive coordinator Jim Knowles enters his second season in charge.
Still, for as daunting as the task may seem, Notre Dame gets this one at home and Sam Hartman is the starting signal caller; if there were a best time to pull off this upset, 2023 is it.