Breaking down Notre Dame's schedule: Tar Heels, Badgers and Bearcats loom

Tyler James
ND Insider

Now that looks more like a Notre Dame football schedule. A return to normalcy in 2021 brings the annual rivalries back into play for the Irish after a one-year stay in the ACC due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Though Notre Dame has many questions to answer on its roster following an unsuccessful trip to the College Football Playoff last season, the Irish will likely be favored in most of their games this season. The success of the 2021 campaign should be decided in a five-game stretch that starts in late September against Wisconsin and ends in late October against North Carolina. 

But which games will be the most difficult? Let’s rank Notre Dame’s 2021 opponents from easiest to toughest. 

12. Navy 

The Midshipmen started the 2020 season with a putrid defense and ended it with an offense that couldn’t score. Navy logged seven or fewer points in each of the last three games. That’s the product of a triple-option offense without a reliable decision-maker at quarterback. Head coach Ken Niumatalolo may find a solution by the time Navy visits Notre Dame in November, but the Midshipmen shouldn’t be much of a challenge for the Irish. 

Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo won just three games in 2020.

2020 record: 3-7 

11. Georgia Tech 

The scouting report on the Yellow Jackets should be pretty similar to what it was when Notre Dame handled Georgia Tech last season, 31-13, on Halloween. Quarterback Jeff Sims and running back Jahmyr Gibbs are the focal points of a dynamic running game, but the passing game lacks luster. Georgia Tech might still be a year away from making ACC teams sweat with the talent head coach Geoff Collins is accumulating from the transfer portal and high schools. 

Georgia Tech quarterback Jeff Sims (10) returns for 2021.

2020 record: 3-7 

10. Toledo  

The Rockets return production from a solid season last year at just about every position on both sides of the ball. That experience should be enough to make Toledo a contender to play in the MAC Championship, but it’s probably not enough to make a difference in the program’s first trip to Notre Dame Stadium. The talent gap should be too wide to overcome. 

Toledo is expected to compete for the MAC championship in 2021.

2020 record: 4-2 

9. Purdue 

The Boilermakers have a pair of in-state stars on offense and defense in wide receiver David Bell and defensive end George Karlaftis, but the supporting cast around them leaves a lot to be desired. Because Bell can create big plays and Karlaftis can wreck backfields, Purdue could be pesky early in the season with the Irish potentially looking ahead to Wisconsin the following week. Bell and Karlaftis might be the best players at their respective positions that Notre Dame plays against all season. 

Wide receiver David Bell (3) is one of the main offensive threats for Purdue.

2020 record: 2-4 

8. Stanford 

The Cardinal bounced back to respectability last season by squeaking out wins in their final four games of the season. But Stanford is still a far cry from the program that became a Notre Dame nuisance for the better part of a decade from 2009-17. The downfall seems directly tied to a defense that’s struggled the past few seasons. The offense will be in search of its own answers with the departures of NFL picks Davis Mills and Simi Fehoko at quarterback and wide receiver, respectively.  The Irish broke their five-game losing streak at Stanford in 2019 and will have a chance to create their own Palo Alto winning streak to end the 2021 season. 

Stanford quarterback Davis Mills (15) is a key graduation loss for The Cardinal

2020 record: 4-2 

7. Virginia  

The Cavaliers found their groove in winning four of the final five games of last season. Doing so required quarterback Brennan Armstrong, who returns in 2021, to lead Virginia in passing yards and rushing yards. That has to change this season if the Cavaliers want to evolve beyond a .500 team. A defense that lacked consistency against the pass could once again cost the Cavaliers. A game-winning touchdown pass shouldn’t be required for Notre Dame to win this trip to Charlottesville. 

Virginia quarterback Brennan Armstrong returns for 2021

2020 record: 5-5 

6. Virginia Tech 

Maybe round two in Blacksburg will be more daunting for Notre Dame than the 45-23 Irish victory in 2018. If the Hokies can’t fix their rushing defense, which allowed 181.5 yards per game last season, the “Enter Sandman” introduction will ring hollow again. The Virginia Tech offense needs a jolt too with quarterback Braxton Burmeister hoping to find a rhythm with returning wide receivers Tayvion Robinson and Tre Turner and tight end James Mitchell. 

Notre Dame won at Blacksburg in 2018, and will look to do so again in 2021.

2020 record: 5-6 

5. Florida State 

The Seminoles probably deserve to be lower on this list, but they have the advantage of playing Notre Dame in the season opener for both teams. That levels the playing field a bit with the Irish breaking in a lot of new players. The Seminoles have similar issues with former UCF quarterback McKenzie Milton trying to complete his heroic comeback from a major knee injury and the defense losing its most talented players from an underperforming unit. Notre Dame should be the clearly better team, but season openers can be full of surprises. 

Florida State quarterback McKenzie Milton is coming off a major knee injury.

2020 record: 3-6 

4. USC 

Head coach Clay Helton found some stability in last year’s shortened season. The 2021 campaign will go a long way in determining if that momentum has staying power. Quarterback Kedon Slovis appears to be on track for an NFL career, which will continue to be aided by the talented wide receivers around him. If the offense can find more success in the running game, the Trojans may be tough to slow down. Pass rusher Drake Jackson should keep the USC defense disruptive if not consistent. 

USC linebacker Drake Jackson (99) is a defensive force for the Trojans.

2020 record: 5-1 

3. Cincinnati 

The Cincinnati coaching ties of Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly and defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman will carry the story lines in the week leading up to the game, but they shouldn’t overshadow the quality of this matchup. Freeman left some serious talent behind on Cincinnati's defense in cornerback Ahmad Gardner and defensive end Myjai Sanders. The return of quarterback Desmond Ridder should allow the Bearcats to have another shot at making a New Year’s Six bowl game. Back-to-back wins over Indiana and Notre Dame could turn a playoff run into a legitimate possibility. 

Cincinnati Bearcats cornerback Ahmad Gardner was a star for now Notre Dame defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman.

2020 record: 9-1 

2. Wisconsin 

A confounding 2020 season left more questions than answers to how good the Badgers truly are. Quarterback Graham Mertz’s uneven season hasn’t lowered the expectations for the former ballyhooed recruit. He holds the key to transforming Wisconsin’s offense beyond its run-dominant ethos. The defense will likely remain stingy with coordinator Jim Leonhard calling the shots. The matchup at Soldier Field will be determined by who can be the better version of the two program’s shared ideals. 

Wisconsin quarterback Graham Mertz (5) and the Badgers will face Notre Dame at Soldier Field in Chicago.

2020 record: 4-3 

1. North Carolina 

The Tar Heels were reminded by Notre Dame that they’re not quite the team they want to be yet in a 31-17 home loss last season. Quarterback Sam Howell will have a much different cast of skills players around him as he tries to enact revenge. The offense should still be in good shape because of Howell, but the defense may determine if North Carolina can take the next step. A win at Notre Dame would be the biggest of head coach Mack Brown’s UNC tenure. 

Notre Dame's defense held North Carolina quarterback Sam Howell (7) in check last season in Chapel Hill.

2020 record: 8-4 

2021 SCHEDULE   

► 9/5 AT FLORIDA STATE 

Tallahassee, Fla. | 7:30 p.m. | ABC 

► 9/11 VS. TOLEDO 

Notre Dame Stadium | 2:30 p.m. | NBC 

► 9/18 VS. PURDUE 

Notre Dame Stadium | 2:30 p.m. | NBC 

► 9/25 VS. WISCONSIN 

Chicago (Soldier Field) | 12:00 p.m. | FOX 

► 10/2 VS. CINCINNATI 

Notre Dame Stadium | 2:30 p.m. | NBC 

► 10/9 AT VIRGINIA TECH 

 Blacksburg, Va. | TBA | TBA 

► 10/23 VS. USC 

 Notre Dame Stadium | 7:30 p.m. | NBC 

► 10/30 VS. NORTH CAROLINA 

 Notre Dame Stadium | 7:30 p.m. | NBC 

► 11/6 VS. NAVY 

Notre Dame Stadium | 3:30 p.m. | NBC 

► 11/13 AT VIRGINIA 

Charlottesville, Va. | TBA | TBA 

► 11/20 VS. GEORGIA TECH 

Notre Dame Stadium | 2:30 p.m. | NBC 

► 10/27 AT STANFORD 

Palo Alto, Calif. | TBA | TBA