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Post: Ranking every Notre Dame football game in 2022 by importance

| Thursday, April 21, 2022

2022 marks the start of a new chapter in Notre Dame football history. The “Freeman Era,” as it’s been loudly and proudly dubbed, will begin with expectations perhaps higher than any new coach has previously faced in modern Irish football history. For Dick Corbett Head Coach Marcus Freeman to guide Notre Dame to success in his first season, he’ll face a gauntlet of opponents including renewed rivals and top-ranked foes. Here is every game the Irish will play in the 2022 regular season, ranked by importance:                            

1. Ohio State

First game of the season chronologically, first game of the season in importance. What’s there to say about the Irish’s season opener against the Buckeyes that hasn’t been said already? It will be the first time Notre Dame fans will be able to see the program’s next starting quarterback, be it Tyler Buchner or Drew Pyne, take the reins. Ohio State will test Marcus Freeman’s defense with perhaps the most explosive array of offensive weaponry in the entire country. The season opening clash could provide a great litmus test for where the Irish will be starting off under Freeman. It will be fascinating to see if Buchner and Pyne can lead the offense in their first ever start, if a rebuilt Notre Dame secondary can limit a potential number one overall pick in CJ Stroud, and if Freeman can go blow for blow strategically with one of college football’s top minds in Ryan Day.

2. Clemson

After a one-year hiatus from matching up with the Tigers, Clemson will return to Notre Dame Stadium on November 5th as they look to bounce back from a 2021 campaign that fell below Dabo Swinney’s usual standard. The last time Clemson came to South Bend, the result was a blow for blow shootout that left the previously-undefeated top ranked Tigers empty-handed and the Irish storming the field. The game, which ensured Notre Dame played playoff football even after Clemson got their revenge in the ACC championship, went down as one of the most memorable points of Brian Kelly’s tenure. This year, while the game is unlikely to be another No. 1 vs No. 4 battle, the stakes should remain high. Even if the Irish or Tigers drop a game earlier in the year, both should be squarely in the playoff hunt. If both are undefeated the game could even determine a top ranking. Especially if Notre Dame loses against Ohio State, the Clemson game could shake out as a must-win to keep any playoff dreams alive.

3. USC

A rivalry game over Thanksgiving weekend always holds significance. But this year, the USC/Notre Dame matchup likely will mean a little more than usual, as both teams will be closing out their first seasons under new head coaches. Lincoln Riley was USC’s blockbuster hire of the offseason, a statement of intent to the rest of the college football world that the Trojans are ready to climb back towards the glory days. So far, he’s recruited at a playoff level, and has added a number of high-caliber pieces from the transfer portal (including a potential Heisman candidate at quarterback in Caleb Williams) to give his team an immediate boost. But whether Riley can recruit at elite level or not, he still needs to coach at such a level as well to get the Trojans back to the promised land. It’s likely Notre Dame will be the highest ranked team on USC’s schedule next year- and the matchup will provide a prime opportunity for both teams to notch a statement victory to close out the regular season and add another chapter to a storied rivalry.

4. BYU

BYU might be the biggest “sleeper” game on Notre Dame’s schedule. The Cougars have put together two straight ten win seasons under Kalani Sitake, and have done so in highly entertaining fashion. BYU’s offense is up tempo and aggressive, and when fully humming is fully capable of lighting up the scoreboard. If Freeman and co. can keep the Cougars’ attack in check, then the Irish should grind out a victory. This would leave Las Vegas with a ranked out-of-conference win. But, if returning starting quarterback Jaren Hall and BYU can set the tempo for the game and force the Irish into a shootout, Notre Dame could find themselves on upset watch early in October. 

5. North Carolina

North Carolina was expected to be one of the bigger games on Notre Dame’s 2021 schedule, touting a top ten preseason ranking as well as a world of hype around quarterback Sam Howell. However, the Tar Heels didn’t live up to expectations, losing three of their first six conference games before limping into South Bend and dropping what would be a relatively comfortable 44-34 Irish victory. North Carolina currently has an open quarterback competition of their own ongoing in spring camp, but if the Tar Heels can find a successor to Howell then the talent on both sides of the ball remains high. Whether Mack Brown can coach the ‘Heels to the level of that talent will determine just how important the Irish’s trip to Chapel Hill will be.

6. Boston College

The Holy War between the Eagles and Irish has become about as one sided as a rivalry can become in recent years (at least in football), with Boston College’s last win over the Irish coming in 2009. And though the Eagles are yet to put together a winning record in conference play under Jeff Hafley in his two years in Chestnut Hill, Hafley has had the team showing signs of progress. Before quarterback Phil Jurkovec suffered a season-ending injury last season, Boston College had a 4-2 record, a stretch that included a credible win over Missouri and a near-upset of Clemson. And speaking of Jurkovec, the storyline there is obvious, as the former Notre Dame transfer will return to South Bend for the first time in his new colors.

7. Navy

The Navy/Notre Dame game always holds a special tier of importance due to the obvious history of the matchup, but it also represents a persistently underrated test for Irish teams. Navy’s triple option style is as much of a staple as the game itself, and every year Notre Dame needs to retool their defense to stop the Midshipmen’s unique ground attack. Navy’s run-heavy approach will wear the Irish down, and an Irish team coming off what should be a heavyweight battle against Clemson could be at a higher risk of upset than usual.

8. Stanford

To say last year wasn’t the Cardinal’s year would be an understatement. Stanford opened 3-2, including a wild overtime upset of previously undefeated Oregon, but then completely crashed. The Cardinal would drop their next seven games, with the final four defeats all coming by a margin of 20 points or more. It remains to be seen whether Stanford will be able to take a step forward in 2022, but the significance of the rivalry automatically moves this game up a few spots.

9. Cal

If these games were being ranked by pure difficulty and not significance, Cal would be ranked ahead of Stanford. To that point, Cal pounded Stanford 41-11 in their head to head rivalry showdown last season. The Bears are not to be underestimated by any means — they nearly pulled off an upset over a quality Oregon team on the road last season — and if Notre Dame is caught looking ahead to a potentially ranked matchup with North Carolina after what should be a comfortable win over Marshall, the Irish could find themselves in trouble.

10. Syracuse

Likely the weakest power five team on Notre Dame’s schedule based off last season’s performance, the Orange boast neither the near-.500 conference record of Cal or the major upset win of Stanford on their resume. Who Syracuse does have is Sean Tucker, a highly underrated running back who rushed for nearly 1500 yards last season, finding the endzone 14 times in total and averaging over 6 yards a carry. Tucker is the kind of game-breaking talent that the Orange will be able to turn to in big moments, and the Irish will almost certainly make keeping him contained their top priority when they travel to the Carrier Dome.

11. Marshall

While likely the most unknown school Notre Dame will play in 2022, believers of the transitive property will note the Thundering Herd did beat Navy by more points than the Irish last season. Marshall have been a consistent winner in Conference USA for years now, but haven’t beat a Power Five level opponent since they took down Cincinnati at Nippert Stadium in 2017. They’ll look to snap that streak against a Notre Dame team worn down by their road trip to Ohio State this fall.

12. UNLV

There’s no ifs, ands, or buts about it: UNLV was bad last year. The Rebels finished 2-10, with one of those wins coming against a Hawaii team in free-fall. UNLV hasn’t notched a better record than 2-6 in Mountain West play since 2017, and likely represent the lowest risk of an upset on Notre Dame’s schedule.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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