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Observer sports staff ranks ND football schedule

With just days leading up to the daunting season opener in Columbus, 23 Observer sportswriters sat down to vote on how to rank the Irish schedule, from the easiest game to their most challenging clash. Here are the results:

12. UNLV (Average Rank: 11.59)

Out of 23 votes, 15 placed the Rebels 12th, with an additional seven ranking the Group of 5 opponent at No. 11. This should be a very easy home clash, and the votes indicated as such. 

11. Marshall (9.84)

After UNLV, things did get a little less clear. Marshall slots in at eleventh, but the Thundering Herd were ranked as high as sixth. A lot of this ranking could be dependent on the status of running back Rasheen Ali. The talented back is currently away from the team with an undisclosed issue but is a difference-maker if on the field. 

10. Navy (9.06)

Another volatile ranking came with the Midshipmen. Although they generally settled towards the lower end of things, several writers ranked the Naval Academy much higher. This can be a tribute to the triple option, a traditionally tricky offense to handle. But the Midshipmen ultimately are a far less talented roster, as is standard in this rivalry, leading to this No. 10 ranking. 

9. Cal (8.11)

The Golden Bears have a solid defense and a generally abysmal offense. If the Irish’s new-look offense comes out firing, then this matchup shouldn’t be an issue. However, that’s not a slam-dunk certainty. This matchup got ranked as high as third on our list. If Notre Dame is struggling offensively, this would become a defensive grindfest where small mistakes could determine the outcome. 

8. Syracuse (7.911)

The road trip to visit the Orange generally ranked in the middle of most rankings. One voter ranked it the easiest game on the slate, while a trio slotted it as high as No. 5. The timing of this game is difficult, with it coming a week after that UNLV game. What should be a cakewalk in the prior week could have the Irish sleepwalking in Syracuse, particularly if they’re looking ahead to Clemson the following week. If that’s the case, the Orange have a solid defense and a respectable offense to make this a chilly and miserable Halloween weekend for Notre Dame. Ultimately, however, the Irish should have plenty of talent to prevail. 

7. Stanford (7.675)

To rank it high because of the rivalry and primetime status of the game, or to rank it low because Stanford has been absolutely miserable in recent years. That was the dilemma facing our voters, which ultimately led to this middle-of-the-road ranking. Voters slotted the Cardinal as high as fourth and as low as eleventh, with votes placing the Irish’s lesser Californian rival at every spot in between. Coming off an intense road trip to Vegas, this could be a sleeper trap game, but Notre Dame has dominated this matchup in recent years. 

6. Boston College (6.963)

The Holy War and the Phil Jurkovec revenge tour are enough to vault the Eagles into the top half of the rankings. On talent alone, they likely wouldn’t make it. But Jurkovec has been somewhat outspoken about his displeasure regarding his time in South Bend, and he’s got some talent at the skill positions, headlined by Zay Flowers. A Senior Day stunner in Notre Dame Stadium is unlikely but not unthinkable. 

5. UNC (4.79)

The Tar Heels have to replace Sam Howell at quarterback, but Drake Maye looks like the real deal, at least as much as one can in preseason. The challenge for the Tar Heels may be that Notre Dame is their first Power-5 opponent of the year. Will their young quarterback be ready against a veteran Irish defense? However, it’s certainly a tricky road trip for the Irish, and the Tar Heels have the offense to force Notre Dame into a shootout. That’s not a recipe for success for the 2022 Notre Dame squad. This has been a close game in the previous two matchups, and it could be once more in Week 4. 

4. BYU (4.34)

The Catholics and the Mormons in Sin City. It’s a matchup made in heaven for headline writers, but it’s not a walk in the park for Notre Dame. The Cougars return 97% of their defensive production from 2021, as well as plenty of offensive production as well. Quarterback Jaren Hall is a gamechanger, and BYU always has some elite talent at wide receiver. A massive difference maker could be the environment. It’s a home game for Notre Dame, meaning they get the larger ticket share. But BYU travels well and is located closer. It wouldn’t be uncharacteristic for some of Notre Dame’s fanbase to sell off their tickets and make this less of a homey environment for the Irish. 

3. USC (3.816)

USC was relatively consistently ranked between third and sixth on the ballots. One ballot listed the Trojans at No. 2, while one dropped USC down to eighth. It’s a reflection of the turnover within the program, as there are certainly question marks about how the team looks under Lincoln Riley. With the renowned head coach at the helm, along with highly touted quarterback Caleb Williams coming over along with wide receiver and Biletkinoff winner Jordan Addison, the offense could be scary. But the defense has struggled recently, and the Trojans may still be relatively one-dimensional. Where this game ranks in terms of difficulty will become clearer throughout the season. But for now the raw offensive talent on USC’s roster, plus a road rivalry game, is enough to rank this contest third overall. 

2. Clemson (2.17)

The Tigers received 20 votes at 2nd place, a pair of third-place votes, and a single tally at fourth place. Almost unanimously, this is one of the toughest games on the schedule for the Irish. Will the Irish storm the field once more, or can Clemson pull off the road victory? Both teams have elite defenses, strong ground games and questions surrounding their aerial attack. It’s a titanic clash of extremely similar, and likely highly ranked, teams that will be an incredible home test for Marcus Freeman and Co. 

1. Ohio State

In a not-so-shocking development, all 23 ballots ranked this weekend’s upcoming clash with Ohio State as the most difficult game on the schedule. Can’t say much about this one that hasn’t already been said. But it’s going to be a brutal and bruising test for the Irish. As 17.5 point underdogs, the Irish haven’t won while being such underdogs since 2007, when they won as 21-point underdogs against UCLA. Can they shock the world on Saturday night in Columbus? The summer of anticipation is almost over. 

Aidan Thomas

Contact Aidan at athoma28@nd.edu

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