The Easiest: Navy
Before readers attempt to tar and feather me – or worse – I’m going with the Midshipman for a couple of reasons. But wait, what about the vaunted option attack and Ken Niumatalolo’s offense? Remember the years Notre Dame has struggled with it?
Consider this: In the last five meetings with Navy, Notre Dame’s average margin of victory has been 22.6 points. This includes a decisive 41-24 victory last year against a Navy team that featured Heisman Trophy candidate Keenan Reynolds. The 2016 Midshipmen also face extensive losses on both sides of the ball. In fact, the Naval Academy returns just eight starters which is the fewest of any team on Notre Dame’s schedule.
On offense alone, Navy returns just two starters. They must replace the quarterback (Reynolds) and fullback, both of which are staples in the option attack that Navy employs. Of the seven players that carried the ball last year versus Notre Dame, only two return to Annapolis.
If there is a bright spot for Navy, it is that they return six starters on defense. However, it is a defense that has consistently struggled to stop the Irish in recent years. This is no disrespect at all to Navy, as it is a given the Middies will play hard and to the final whistle. That being said, given the inexperienced Navy offense and the talent “gap” that is always present in this game, it has the feel of a two to three touchdown spread.
The Scariest: Texas
Wait you mean the team Notre Dame beat 38-3 last year? The team coached by Charlie Strong, who is on the hot seat? Yes, that’s the one.
One of my biggest concerns is that Strong is that he is a good football coach. You don’t have the success he had at Louisville without being a good coach. Despite the struggles that Texas had last season, they still knocked off Baylor and Oklahoma. This is also a Texas team that lost three other games by a combined seven points. A few more breaks last year, and Texas is perhaps coming off an 8-4 season.
The other major concern is the timing. You have a Sunday night nationally televised game on the road in a tough environment. Opening games are always tricky, and most often are not won but rather lost by mistakes and sloppy play (see South Florida, 2011).
In addition, you have a team that returns 14 starters (7 offense, 7 defense) and is looking to erase the humiliation of last year’s blowout loss on national television. Texas returns their top two running backs, D’Onta Foreman and Chris Warren, who averaged 7.2 and 6.6 yards per carry, respectively. They will certainly test the middle of an Irish defense that was hit hard by graduation and early departures to the NFL. A big upset here could jumpstart Texas, which follows with UTEP and Cal minus Jared Goff. A win over Notre Dame likely sends Texas to their bye week at 3-0. Las Vegas has Texas pegged for 6.5 wins. However, I seen some outlets forecasting as many as 9. As spring turns to summer my concern over the Longhorns is growing. This has all the makings of a disaster. If I was Brian Kelly, I would be on upset alert today!
Most Likely To Look Like Clemson: USC
What about Stanford or Sparty?
This was a really tough call; the biggest difference is that USC is the only road tilt of these games. It also comes during a difficult section in the schedule. I always hate the trip to California around Thanksgiving. At this point in the year, you have run a really long gauntlet and your team is fatigued. Now you have to go on the road and play a good team, and particularly this year where you are likely are coming off a physical and emotional senior day vs. Virginia Tech.
The Trojans have been ranked as high as 11 in ESPN’s pre-season rankings and return 16 starters to Troy. More importantly, the Trojans return their top 4 pass catching targets and their top 2 tailbacks.
The most obvious question will be the quarterback position where they have to replace team leader and three year starter Cody Kessler. The quarterback will not matter nearly as much in this game due to stage of the season when the two teams meet.
Another major question for USC will be the coaching staff changes by Coach Clay Helton. How quickly his staff gels and builds chemistry will go a long way in defining USC’s season.
It is always hard to pick a most likely loss. USC has been a wild card recently. In some years they have been ranked highly in the pre-season and finished outside the poll (2012 and 2015) and in other years (2011) they began the season ranked 25th, but finished the season in the Top 10. The recent roller coaster element of their program makes this road tilt a major concern. While there may be stronger candidates to deal the Irish a loss, the location and timing in the schedule place USC as the most likely loss.