By: Kyle Gibson

Now that the 2015 college football season is firmly in the rear view and the ACC schedules released we can start taking a look at next season’s lineup for the Fighting Irish. At first glance Notre Dame’s 2016 schedule looks much more favorable than the tricky gauntlet of 2015 while still featuring quality match-ups. What stands out as the most dramatic change from last season is the ACC scheduling.

2016 Schedule with ’15 record
9/3     @ Texas (5-7)
9/10    Nevada (7-6)
9/17    Michigan State (12-2)
9/24    Duke (8-5)
10/1   @ Syracuse (4-8)
10/8   @ NC State (7-6)
10/15  Stanford (12-2)
10/22  -BYE-
10/29  Miami (8-5)
11/5    @ Navy (Jacksonville, FL) (11-2)
11/12   Army (San Antonio, TX) (2-10)
11/19   Virginia Tech (7-6)
11/26  @USC (8-6)

The first two seasons of ACC play featured show downs with the conference’s top dogs FSU and Clemson both on the road but the Irish now get a two year break before facing either. Instead this coming season’s slate of ACC opponents is highlighted by Duke, although we have no idea how any of these teams will be next season. You could say the Hurricanes but the Blue Devils have budded into a pretty respectable football program the past few years and been much more consistent than the Canes even if they’re still a sizable gap behind the heavyweights of the conference. While none of the ACC opponents look overly daunting as middle of the pack teams most still carry some solid potential and a history of pulling off upsets. NC State and Miami present challenges but both will be dealing with some significant personnel changes both on the field and in the coaching staff. Then there’s a meeting with a Virginia Tech team that has always brought in talent but is in a state of flux after the retirement of Frank Beamer. Rounding out the ACC grouping is Syracuse which should be one of Notre Dame’s easier games next season but won’t be considered a cupcake. Even though there’s a considerable drop off after facing Clemson as the toughest ACC foe it wouldn’t be accurate to consider these 5 teams an easier group. All but Syracuse played in a bowl game to end last season while four of the six ACC teams ND played last year failed to even reach bowl eligibility. So while the top match-up may not be as daunting, the whole group on average is a few pegs above what the Irish saw last season.

In addition to competition level there’s a change in the overall ACC scheduling from 2015. Last season the majority of Notre Dame’s ACC opponents got a week off before facing the Irish, including over 2 weeks of down time for Clemson. This season however, not one ACC team gets any extra time before their meeting with ND. In fact every team but NC State has a road game the week prior. The Irish get a bye week before welcoming the Hurricanes to South Bend and will play only Syracuse and NC State on the road, which will come in back-to-back weeks.

Moving away from the ACC are what will likely be considered Notre Dame’s five marquee match-ups. The season opener on the road against Texas, a reunion with Michigan State, revenge against Stanford, the rivalry with Navy, and the season closing show-down with USC. While Texas and USC both let down their fanbases in 2015 both are huge brands with the talent to make dramatic improvement this coming season. The other three are all coming off 11+ win seasons but they’re all losing the QBs that got them there. Navy will likely suffer a pretty significant drop after losing Keenan Reynolds but the Spartans and Cardinal are perennial powerhouse programs that should remain in the top 10 heading into next season just like they finished last year. Those two will be circled as Notre Dame’s toughest match-ups at this point in time but luckily the Irish get both at home.

Completing the schedule is a home game with Nevada in week 2 and the Shamrock Series game against Army down in San Antonio late in the season. The Irish will be heavily favored in both games. Looking at the entire schedule it’s not inconceivable for the Irish to be favored in every game next season. Stanford, Southern Cal, and MSU will be the tightest spreads but the Cardinal and Spartans should be at least slight underdogs as the visiting teams. The Trojans will be a wait and see scenario as they look to replace Cody Kessler at QB along with a lot talent departing for the NFL in Clay Helton’s first full year as the new Head Coach. Actually all of Notre Dame’s better opponents enter next season with some big mystery including at least six new QBs, a few new Head Coaches, and some coordinator changes.

Taking it all in, it’s a very friendly schedule to the Irish. There’s no daunting stretch of consecutive big games where there should be big concern about health or gas in the tank. The road games are well distributed with only 4 true road games since the Navy game will be played in Jacksonville, FL. Most all of the big games come in the comforts of Notre Dame Stadium. The bye week is well situated between home games against Stanford and Miami right at mid-season. Then there’s always the concern about the “Navy hangover” due to possible injuries and the change of pace that facing the triple option creates but Army is probably the easiest game on the schedule the week after the Middies. The lone trap game looks like the road game at NC State the week prior to Stanford. It’s been known as a tough place to play as evidenced by some of the struggles Clemson had there this past season but the Wolfpack has some major work to do on offense replacing a long time starter at QB, 3 offensive linemen, and their Offensive Coordinator. All in all it feels like the schedule is set up nicely for the Irish. Now they just have to go out there and take care of business.