Speculating about past seasons is a fruitless exercise, but it can be used to underscore valid points moving forward.
This week, Irish coach Brian Kelly looked back to the beginning of 2016, noting the difference in team-wide demeanors between that group and the current roster.
“I knew [last year] that we needed to get off to a good start,” Kelly said. “We needed confidence, and that’s not the case with this group. They just need to go play.”
Kelly’s point is a valid one and one implicit with human nature. When things go bad, we start to expect more things to follow suit. After Notre Dame lost in double overtime to Texas, it endured two more one-possession losses in the next three games. Suddenly, the Irish were three bounces away from being 4-0 heading into a two-week stretch of North Carolina State and Stanford. The shortcomings built upon themselves from there.
Looking at this season, Notre Dame’s schedule opens in a much more favorable manner. The second week does feature a stout challenge in Georgia, but aside from that, the first six weeks should see the Irish as distinct favorites. Even against the Bulldogs, Notre Dame will be favored, though by only three or four points. Such an opening stretch could change the dynamics leading into the USC tilt Oct. 21.
“If this team opens up 6-0 like I think they will, they’ll be playing with a lot more confidence level as the season goes on,” ESPN analyst Phil Steele said earlier this summer. “They’ll go on the field expecting to win.”
If granting this overall premise, it should apply to any opponents, as well. Some unexpected teams could face the Irish already flying high, believing in each and every aspect of their games, ready to continue that roll. Some high-profile foes might meet Notre Dame already expecting mistakes.
Let’s take a look at the 12 opponents’ schedules to try to spot who could be trending upward or otherwise when they take on the Irish.
Temple: Notre Dame is the Owls’ opener, so there is obviously no previous indicator applicable here. Instead, let’s note Temple will have nine days to prepare for hosting Houston on Sept. 30 immediately after playing this year’s top-projected American Athletic team, South Florida.
Georgia: The Bulldogs open the season against Appalachian State (Sept. 2, 6:15 p.m. ET). The Mountaineers did take Tennessee to overtime to open last season, so they will not be intimidated by facing an SEC team, but Georgia should be just fine, even if Appalachian State offers a scare for a few quarters.
Boston College: Rarely should a win over Wake Forest (1 p.m. ET, Sept. 9) spark belief within a program, but the Eagles establishing themselves as superior to another ACC team would be a boost for Boston College after the last few seasons.
Michigan State: The Spartans have a bye week before facing Notre Dame after opening with Bowling Green and Western Michigan (Sept. 9, 3:30 p.m. ET). Michigan State should consider itself beyond worrying about state directional schools, but the last 12 months of each of those programs says otherwise. If the Spartans have a chance at reaching 3-0 against Notre Dame, they’ll be desperate to convert it and distance themselves from these last 12 months of on- and off-field difficulties.
Miami (OH): After finishing last season hype-earningly-strong, continuing that momentum could snowball quickly. The RedHawks should be 4-0 when they arrive at Notre Dame, and 10-1 in their last 11. That would make for a dangerous team, no matter what state the Miami is from. (Opening four games: at Marshall, v. Austin Peay, v. Cincinnati, at Central Michigan.)
North Carolina: The week before facing the Irish, the Tar Heels travel to Georgia Tech (Sept. 30). Yes, North Carolina should win that game, but that is not the point to make here. Facing a triple-option attack can hamper a team the following week. Nearly every defensive practice routine will be altered to gear up for the unorthodox look. Returning to usual timing and planning can take more time than anticipated. In Kelly’s seven years at Notre Dame, the Irish have followed their game against Navy (or against Army in 2016, when the two service academies were scheduled back-to-back) with four losses. Twice more, Notre Dame has won by a single score in a game it expected to roll through easily. If the Tar Heels have similar difficulties recovering from dealing with Georgia Tech, that would be to Irish benefit.
USC: Notre Dame may not face the Trojans until mid-October, but right now attention will be directed toward an early September game. USC hosts Stanford in week two. No matter how highly-touted USC is or how this year may be only a good year for the Cardinal, a loss then (Sept. 9, 8:30 p.m. ET) could shake USC’s title hopes before they genuinely begin. With Stanford, ruling out that possibility seems foolish.
North Carolina State: The Wolfpack has a bye week before facing Notre Dame, so it will be fresh, if nothing else. State could also be an increasingly-popular playoff pick by then. Already a dark horse for a big season, the Wolfpack could leave Florida State (Sept. 23) with a victory in late September, drawing notice and increasing the hype train’s speed. A win there, as well as against Louisville two weeks later (Thursday, Oct. 5, 8 p.m. ET), could bring a rested, 7-0 North Carolina State to Notre Dame.
Wake Forest: It is hard to pick a game to shift what will likely be a lackluster season. A win over Louisville (Oct. 28) the week before traveling to Notre Dame would at least instill some short-term confidence in the Deacons.
Miami: Much like North Carolina State, an early-season victory over Florida State (Sept. 16, 8 p.m. ET) would boost Miami’s entire season. Closer to the Notre Dame game, though, the Hurricanes host Virginia Tech (Nov. 4) the week immediately prior. A win over the Seminoles would jumpstart the entire season. A loss then but a victory over Tech would return the Hurricanes to the New Year’s conversation.
Navy: This may sound unlike the Midshipmen, but it seems possible Navy could actually get caught looking past Notre Dame, with a trip to Houston coming six days later, then a possible American Athletic Conference title game appearance followed by the annual tilt against Army.
Stanford: A trip to Australia to face Rice (Aug. 26, 10 p.m. ET) could kill any Stanford momentum before the season starts for most of the country. Suffice it to say that is improbable (the Cardinal are favored by more than 30), but do not forget to factor in body clocks and such. Then, as already mentioned, Stanford faces USC (Sept. 9, 8:30 p.m. ET), but the late-season tilt to watch would be a Friday night matchup with Washington (Nov. 10, 10:30 p.m. ET). A Cardinal win there could throw the Pac-12 race into chaos and return — if necessary — Stanford to the New Year’s conversation.
In a season of such small sample size as college football, each week should be considered its own entity, but human nature renders that a flawed approach, and it is actually even more off-base than that since the competitors at hand are 18- to 23-years-old.
Speaking of 21- and 22-year-olds, they should listen to Knute Rockne.
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