A game-by-game look at Notre Dame's road ahead in season's second half

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — In real estate terms, what Notre Dame head football coach Brian Kelly has been able to do in the first half of the 2017 season would be best described as a flip.

As opposed to the 4-8 flop of last season.

All the offseason remodeling and renovation, though, gets a more consistent challenge in the second half of the season, with five of the six remaining Irish opponents sitting in the top 25, along with two the Irish have already played — No. 4 Georgia and No. 21 Michigan State.

Kelly’s collective record against the six upcoming foes while at ND, incidentally, is 17-11. Here’s a breakdown of the final six regular-season opponents, starting with a home matchup with USC on Oct. 21:

USC (5-1)

Curb Appeal: Ranked No. 13 in the AP poll and off to its best start in five years. … The Trojans have won 13 successive home games, but this Notre Dame matchup is in South Bend. … At No. 30 nationally in total offense, USC is by far the best in that category the Irish have seen to date. The Trojans also excel in third-down efficiency (28th), pass-efficiency defense (25th), sacks (15th), red-zone defense (12th) and turnovers gained (5th).

The Wow Factor: USC has scored 37 percent of its points this season in the fourth quarter and holds a cumulative 79-48 edge in that period.

Buyer Beware: The Trojans are 3-4 vs. Brian Kelly. … USC struggles with turnovers lost (117th) and penalty yards (103rd), kickoff coverage (119th), punt coverage (85th) and are average in rush defense (55th) and total defense (59th). … Ten Trojans have missed at least one game this season due to injury, including PK Michael Brown and OG Viane Talamaivao, who are both out for the year

The Fine Print: Compounding USC’s injury woes, the Trojans don’t have a bye week in 2017. They’ll face a physical Utah team in a key Pac-12 South matchup Saturday, a week before heading to Notre Dame.

• In The Books: Western Michigan (W 49-31), Stanford (W 42-24), Texas (W 27-24, 2 OT), at Cal (W 30-20), at Washington State (L 30-27), Oregon State (W 38-10).

• The Road Ahead: Oct. 14 Utah; Oct. 21 at Notre Dame; Oct. 28 at Arizona State, Nov. 4 Arizona; Nov. 11 at Colorado, Nov. 18 UCLA.

N.C. STATE (5-1)

Curb Appeal: Ranked No. 20 in the AP poll and in the top 20 for the first time since 2003. … N.C. State is 3-0 in the ACC for the first time ever and has strung together five straight wins for the first time since 2002, a season in which it met Notre Dame in the Gator Bowl and thumped the higher-ranked Irish of coach Tyrone Willingham, 28-6. … The Wolfpack is in the top 30 nationally in most offensive categories. Defensively, it’s by far the best run defense (8th) the Irish will face the balance of the season (Georgia and Michigan State in the first half were 5th and 12th, respectively).

The Wow Factor: Quarterback Ryan Finley, in his second season in Raleigh after transferring from Boise State, has 225 pass attempts this season without an interception. With a 71-percent completion rate, Finley is one of only two QBs in the FBS who are above the 70-perecent mark with 200 or more attempts. The other is Washington State’s Luke Falk.

Buyer Beware: N.C. State can get after the QB in the passing game (19th in sacks), but the Wolfpack have been weak against the pass (85th in pass-efficiency defense) and is the worst third-down defense the Irish have seen this season (102nd). … N.C. State struggles in the field-position game — 97th in kickoff coverage, 98th in punt coverage and 81st in net punting.

The Fine Print: Oct. 28 marks the second time the Irish will face a football standout from the Chubb family. ND took on running back Nick Chubb and Georgia on Sept. 9. His cousin, Bradley, is an All-America candidate at defensive end for the Wolfpack. Despite growing up 50 miles apart in the state of Georgia, the cousins didn’t meet until the winter of 2013. … N.C. State has a bye the week before playing the Irish but has a key ACC date with Clemson the week immediately after.

• In The Books: South Carolina^ (L 35-28), Marshall (W 37-20), Furman (49-16), at Florida State (W 27-21), Syracuse (W 33-25), Louisville (W 39-25).

^Game played at Charlotte, N.C.

• The Road Ahead: Oct. 14 at Pitt; Oct. 28 at Notre Dame; Nov. 4 Clemson; Nov. 11 at Boston College; Nov. 18 at Wake Forest; Nov. 25 North Carolina.

WAKE FOREST (4-2)

Curb Appeal: Wake is the only unranked opponent on the Irish schedule, but the Demon Deacons were a tough out for both Florida State and on the road at Clemson. Wake is much improved on offense, but is only elite in one offensive category — turnovers lost (3rd nationally). … Defensively it’s the best pass defense (14th) and scoring defense (14th) the Irish will face over the balance of the season and ranked 3rd in tackles for loss. They had 17 tackles for loss in the FSU loss, one short of the school record.

The Wow Factor: The Demon Deacons were 12-24 in the 36 games that ousted radio color commentator Tommy Elrod may have been providing opponents inside information in the Wakey Leaks scandal and 5-2 in the seven games since the probe into his activities concluded.

Buyer Beware: Wake Forest kicker Mike Weaver missed a 50-yard field goal against Clemson by roughly 50 feet, wide left, after missing a 34-yarder (but not by as much) in the first quarter. Prior to that, he was 10-for-10 on the season. … The Demon Deacons are 22-133-1 all-time against ranked opponents. … Offensively, Wake’s weakness is third-down efficiency (92nd nationally). Defensively, the Deacons are so-so against the run (54th) and struggle defensively in the red zone (85th).

The Fine Print: The Demon Deacons have a bye this weekend, before tough tests at Georgia Tech and home against Louisville leading into the matchup at ND.

• In The Books: Presbyterian (W 51-7), at Boston College (W 34-10), Utah State (W 46-10), at Appalachian State (W 20-19), Florida State (L 26-19) at Clemson (L 28-14).

• The Road Ahead: Oct. 21 at Georgia Tech; Oct. 28 Louisville; Nov. 4 at Notre Dame: Nov. 11 at Syracuse, Nov. 18: N.C. State; Nov. 25: Duke.

MIAMI (FLA.) (4-0)

Curb Appeal: Ranked 11th in the AP poll, its highest poll position since landing at No. 10 on Oct. 2, 2016 … Miami heads into Saturday’s home game with Georgia Tech riding a nine-game winning streak, not having lost since it last faced Notre Dame, falling 30-27, Oct. 29 at Notre Dame Stadium. The Hurricanes are the most balanced offense the Irish will see this season (39th rushing offense, 36th passing offense).

The Wow Factor: Miami is the top sacking team on Notre Dame’s schedule and rank fourth nationally. … The Hurricanes and Irish are tied for the fewest rushing TDs allowed this season in the FBS, at one each.

Buyer Beware: The Hurricanes lost one of the top rushers in the nation, junior Mark Walton, to a season-ending ankle injury in the fourth quarter of Miami’s 24-20 win at Florida State last Saturday. … The Hurricanes have surprisingly struggled with their run defense (62nd), third-down defense (94th) and red-zone defense (115th).

The Fine Print: Since joining the ACC in 2004, Miami has yet to win an ACC title or even play in the ACC Championship Game as the Coastal Division champ. By the time the Hurricanes face the Irish, they may have the 2017 Coastal title all but wrapped up.

• In The Books: Bethune-Cookman (W 41-13), at Arkansas State (canceled), Toledo (W 52-30), at Duke (W 31-6), at Florida State (W 24-20).

• The Road Ahead: Oct. 14 Georgia Tech; Oct. 21 Syracuse; Oct. 28 at North Carolina; Nov. 4 Virginia Tech; Nov. 11 Notre Dame; Nov. 18 Virginia; Nov. 24 at Pitt.

NAVY (5-0)

Curb Appeal: Ranked No. 25 in the AP poll, Navy, Saturday at Memphis, is gunning for its first 6-0 start since 1979. … The Mids have made an appearance in the AP top 25 in three consecutive seasons for the first time since 1958-60. … Navy is the nation’s No. 1 rushing team, and does pass the ball well on those rare occasions it chooses to do so (9th nationally in passing-efficiency). QB Zach Abey has a hand in both sparkling stats and is the nation’s No. 2 rusher. … The Mids are 17-2 in AAC regular-season play since joining the conference.

The Wow Factor: Under coach Ken Niumatalolo, Navy is 68-4 (.944) in games in which it enters the fourth quarter with the lead and 28-2 (.933) in the past five years when it wins the turnover battle.

Buyer Beware: Defense is Navy’s area of concern. At 75th in total defense, that’s the highest mark Navy has in any defensive category. Its 117th ranking in pass-efficiency defense is its worst statistical showing.

The Fine Print: The Mids don’t have an opponent with a losing record on their remaining schedule.

• In The Books: At Florida Atlantic (W 42-19), Tulane (W 23-21), Cincinnati (W 42-32), at Tulsa (W 31-21), Air Force (W 48-45).

• The Road Ahead: Oct. 14 at Memphis; Oct. 21 UCF; Nov. 2 at Temple; Nov. 11 SMU; Nov. 18 at Notre Dame; No. 24 at Houston; Dec. 9 Army^

^Game played at Philadelphia

STANFORD (4-2)

Curb Appeal: After stumbling to a 1-2 start, Stanford is back in the top 25 this week, at No. 24. … The Cardinal is the best overall team the Irish face all season in special teams. … The offensive line has improved tremendously after a rocky start, not allowing a sack in its past three games. It’s a team that does a lot of the subtle things right, like red-zone offense (7th nationally) and turnover margin (13th).

The Wow Factor: A week after facing the man who’s currently the nation’s No. 2 rusher, in Navy QB Zach Abey, and the No. 1 rushing team in yards per game (Navy), the Irish get the nation’s No. 1 rusher in Bryce Love and the only team averaging more yards per carry nationally than the Irish. ND actually got a taste of Love last year. He ran for 121 yards on 23 carries, filling in for injured Christian McCaffrey in a 17-10 Cardinal victory over ND.

Buyer Beware: After ranking in the top 10 nationally in rushing defense each of coach David Shaw’s first four seasons as Stanford’s head coach, the Cardinal slid to 30th in 2015, 38th in 2016 and are 90th heading into Saturday’s matchup with the nation’s No. 19 rushing team, Oregon. Stanford isn’t much better in pass-efficiency defense (83rd), and rank 101st in total defense. … Offensively, inconsistency at quarterback has mitigated slightly their powerful running game.

The Fine Print: Stanford has already logged 17,564 travel miles — thanks largely to a season opener staged in Sydney, Australia. One has to wonder if that affected them in the two games immediately after (both losses) and what long-term effect it might have by season’s end, when the Irish come to town.

• In The Books: Rice^ (W 62-7), at USC (L 42-24), at San Diego State (L 20-17), UCLA (W 58-34), Arizona State (W 34-24), at Utah (W 23-20).

^Game played at Sydney, Australia

• The Road Ahead: Oct. 14 Oregon; Oct. 26 at Oregon State; Nov. 4 at Washington State; Nov. 10 Washington; Nov. 18 Cal; Nov. 25 Notre Dame.

USC quarterback Sam Darnold (14) and the Trojans are the first of five ranked teams the Irish face in the season's second half, starting Oct. 21 at Notre Dame Stadium. (AP Photo/ALEX GALLARDO)