Irish face tough road to BCS bowl

It seems as if we say this every August, but is there a team in college football this season with a more intimidating, impossible schedule than Notre Dame?

As an independent, the Irish face a tougher-than-average docket every fall, but this year’s agenda starts out challenging and only gets worse. When it’s all played out, the difference between finishing 9-3 and 3-9 might be marginal for a team that will probably need 10 wins to return to a BCS bowl for the first time since a Sugar Bowl loss to LSU following the 2006 season.

Notre Dame, in some ways, does this to itself. By not being affiliated with a conference, the Irish have no guaranteed path to a lucrative BCS bowl — outside of finishing in the top eight in the final BCS standings — and no bottom-of-the-barrel conference wimps to steamroll on their quest for football’s biggest prize.

They could schedule a few cupcakes to pad their record as most teams do, but then their strength of schedule would take a hit. And when strength of schedule could be the difference between the Orange Bowl and the Military Bowl, that’s not really a gamble you want to take.

So the Irish once again will play a schedule that features no FCS (formerly I-AA) competition, something that can only be said for nine of the country’s 68 BCS conference teams this season and can’t be said about some of the other “most difficult” schedules in football — including Florida, Ole Miss, Iowa State, Washington and Oregon State, to name a few.

In fact, Notre Dame has never played a lower-tier foe, a statement that applies only to USC and UCLA.

Instead, this fall, Notre Dame will play 12 FBS opponents that combined to win 97 games last year. Nine of those teams played in a bowl game — it would have been 10 if Miami hadn’t self-imposed a bowl ban – and six of them reached double digits in wins.

The Irish, which enter the season ranked No. 23 in the coaches poll, will play five teams ranked ahead of them, including three in the top 10, and will need to beat at least three of the five — and run the table on the seven unranked teams — to avoid another December bowl.

And, to be sure, those unranked teams are no pushovers.

Perhaps the “easiest” game on Notre Dame’s schedule this year comes on Nov. 10, when the Irish visit Boston College. When a perennial ACC bowl team is your least challenging opponent, you know you’ve got a few doozies on the schedule.

The Eagles are coming off an underwhelming 4-8 season, but they finished strong with a 16-14 loss to the Irish sandwiched between wins over North Carolina State and Miami. Before 2011, BC had appeared in 12 straight bowl games, and this year they return 17 starters on one of the most experienced teams in the Atlantic Coast Conference.

Notre Dame also plays another ACC “bottom-feeder” in Wake Forest – a team that last season beat Florida State, nearly beat Notre Dame (and would have had they not squandered two second-half chances to score inside the Irish 10) and lost to ACC champion Clemson on a field goal as time expired. Some cupcake they are.

Looking for another sure win? Try the Irish’s season-opening trip across the Atlantic — Dublin, Ireland — for a meeting with the Naval Academy. The Midshipmen went 5-7 last year and missed out on a bowl, but over the previous eight years Navy won 70 games.

After that, the closest things to a no-doubter for the Irish are games against a bowl-winning Big Ten team in Purdue; Pittsburgh, which has a legitimate shot at winning the Big East this year, or a home contest against Miami (of Florida, of course; not Ohio). When the Hurricanes are potentially the seventh-toughest team you’ll play, you know you’re in for a long season.

If the Irish can get out of these six winnable games at 4-2, they’ll have to consider themselves lucky. Then, things really start to get challenging.

Notre Dame will visit No. 13 Michigan State, then host No. 8 Michigan on Sept. 15 and 22, respectively. After that, they get that “breather” against The U, followed by home contests against No. 18 Stanford and BYU, a fellow independent that went 10-3 last year and has won at least 10 games in five of the past six seasons.

Think they’re out of the woods yet? Not quite. On Oct. 27, a visit to Norman to face No. 4 Oklahoma awaits. The Sooners have won at least 10 games in 10 of the past 12 years and haven’t finished with fewer than eight wins since 1999, which was the last time they played the Irish.

Then on Nov. 24, Notre Dame will close the regular season with its annual dance with USC. The Trojans enter this year ranked No. 3 in the country, have beaten Notre Dame in nine of the past 10 seasons by an average of almost three touchdowns per game and are many folks’ sexy pick to end the SEC’s run of consecutive BCS championships at six.

So the road is unquestionably tough, and to make matters worse, Notre Dame hasn’t exactly been the best at conquering it of late, either. Notre Dame’s combined record over the last five years against their 12 opponents this season is 19-22.

Add to that the fact that the Irish still don’t have a quarterback and their best receiver from last year is now playing for the Arizona Cardinals, and head coach Brian Kelly could be looking at another long — if not final — season in South Bend.

You can follow Sam Gardner on Twitter or email him at samgardnerfox@gmail.com.