2022 marks the start of a new chapter in Notre Dame football history. ‘The Freeman era’, as it has been loudly called, will begin with expectations perhaps higher than any new manager has faced in modern Irish football history. For Dick Corbett head coach Marcus Freeman to guide Notre Dame to success in his first season, he will face a gauntlet of adversaries, including renewed rivals and high-profile foes. Here are all the games the Irish will play in the 2022 regular season, ranked by importance:
1. Ohio State
First game of the season chronologically, first game of the season in importance. What is there to say about the Irishman’s season opener against the Buckeyes that hasn’t been said yet? This will be the first time Notre Dame fans will get to see the program’s next starting quarterback, whether it’s Tyler Buchner or Drew Pyne, take the reins. Ohio State will test Marcus Freeman’s defense with perhaps the most explosive array of offensive weapons in the entire country. The season-opening clash could provide a great litmus test of where the Irish will start under Freeman. It will be fascinating to see if Buchner and Pyne can lead the offense in their first-ever start, if a rebuilt Notre Dame secondary can limit a potential number one overall pick in CJ Stroud, and if Freeman can go blow-for-blow strategically with one of the best minds in college football in Ryan Day.
After a year-long hiatus from playing with the Tigers, Clemson will return to Notre Dame Stadium on November 5 as they look to bounce back from a 2021 campaign that fell below Dabo Swinney’s usual standard. The last time Clemson came to South Bend, the result was a blow-for-blow shootout that left the unbeaten top-ranked Tigers empty-handed and the Irish storming the field. The game, which kept Notre Dame playing playoff football even after Clemson got their revenge in the ACC championship, became one of the most memorable points of Brian Kelly’s tenure. This year, while the game is unlikely to be another No. 1 vs. No. 4 battle, the stakes should remain high. Even if the Irish or the Tigers drop a game earlier in the year, both should be squarely in the hunt for the playoffs. If both are undefeated, the game might even determine a higher ranking. Especially if Notre Dame loses to Ohio State, Clemson’s game could become a must win to keep any playoff dreams alive.
A rivalry match over Thanksgiving weekend always has meaning. But this year, the USC/Notre Dame game will likely mean a little more than usual, as both teams wrap up their first seasons under new head coaches. Lincoln Riley was USC’s blockbuster hire of the offseason, a statement of intent to the rest of the college football world that the Trojans are ready to return to the glory days. So far, he’s been drafted at playoff level and added a number of high-caliber pieces from the transfer portal (including a potential Heisman quarterback contender in Caleb Williams) to give a boost. immediate boost to his team. But whether Riley can recruit at the elite level or not, he must also train at such a level to bring the Trojans back to the promised land. It’s likely Notre Dame will be the top-ranked team on USC’s slate next year – and the game will be a great opportunity for both teams to score a decisive victory to close out the regular season and add another chapter. to a legendary rivalry.
BYU could be the biggest “dormant” game on Notre Dame’s schedule. The Cougars put together two straight ten-win seasons under Kalani Sitake, and did so in a very entertaining way. BYU’s offense is fast and aggressive, and when fully humming, it’s fully capable of lighting up the scoreboard. If Freeman and co. can control the Cougars’ offense, so the Irish should get a win. That would leave Las Vegas with a non-conference ranked win. But, if returning starting quarterback Jaren Hall and BYU can set the tempo of the game and force the Irish into a shootout, Notre Dame could find itself under scrutiny in early October.
5. North Carolina
North Carolina was expected to be one of the biggest games on Notre Dame’s 2021 schedule, boasting a top-ten preseason ranking as well as a world of hype around quarterback Sam Howell. However, the Tar Heels failed to live up to expectations, losing three of their first six conference games before limping into South Bend and losing what would be a relatively comfortable 44-34 Irish win. North Carolina currently has its own open quarterback competition in spring camp, but if the Tar Heels can find a successor to Howell, the talent on both sides of the ball remains high. Whether Mack Brown can coach the ‘Heels to that talent level will determine just how important the Irishman’s trip to Chapel Hill will be.
6. Boston College
The holy war between the Eagles and the Irish has become about as one-sided as a rivalry can get in recent years (at least in football), with Boston College’s last victory over the Irish in 2009. Well Although the Eagles have yet to assemble a conference winning record under Jeff Hafley during his two years at Chestnut Hill, Hafley has seen the team show signs of progress. Before quarterback Phil Jurkovec suffered a season-ending injury last season, Boston College was 4-2, a streak that included a credible win over Missouri and a near ticket from Clemson. And speaking of Jurkovec, the script is obvious as the former Notre Dame transfer will return to South Bend for the first time in his new colors.
The Navy/Notre Dame game still holds special significance due to the game’s obvious history, but it also represents a consistently underrated test for Irish teams. Navy’s three-way style is as inescapable as the game itself, and every year Notre Dame must revamp their defense to stop the Midshipmen’s unique ground attack. Navy’s heavyweight approach will wear down the Irish, and an Irish team expected to be a heavyweight battle against Clemson could be at more risk than usual.
To say that last year was not the year of the Cardinal would be an understatement. Stanford opened 3-2, including a crazy overtime upset by previously undefeated Oregon, but then completely crashed. The Cardinal would give up his next seven games, with the last four losses all by a margin of 20 points or more. It remains to be seen whether Stanford can make a step forward in 2022, but the importance of the rivalry automatically bumps this game up a few spots.
If these games were ranked by sheer difficulty and not importance, Cal would be ranked ahead of Stanford. At this point, Cal beat Stanford 41-11 in their head-to-head showdown last season. The Bears are by no means to be underestimated – they came close to upsetting a quality Oregon team on the road last season – and if Notre Dame is caught anticipating a potentially ranked game with North Carolina North after what should be a comfortable win over Marshall, the Irish could find themselves in trouble.
Probably the weakest power five team on Notre Dame’s schedule based on last season’s performance, the Orange claim neither Cal’s near .500 conference record nor Stanford’s major upset victory over their RESUME. Who has Syracuse is Sean Tucker, a hugely underrated running back who rushed for nearly 1,500 yards last season, finding the end zone 14 times in total and averaging over 6 yards per carry. Tucker is the kind of breakthrough talent Orange can turn to in big moments, and the Irish will almost certainly make keeping him contained their top priority when they head to the Carrier Dome.
Although Notre Dame’s most unknown school will likely play in 2022, transitive property believers will note that the Thundering Herd beat the Navy by more points than the Irish last season. Marshall has been a consistent Conference USA winner for years now, but hasn’t beaten a Power Five-level opponent since beating Cincinnati at Nippert Stadium in 2017. They’ll be looking to break that streak against a Notre Dame team. Lady worn out by their road trip in the state of Ohio this fall.
There are no ifs, ands or buts about it: UNLV was bad last year. The Rebels finished 2-10, with one of those wins over a plummeting Hawaii team. UNLV hasn’t posted a better record than 2-6 in Mountain West play since 2017, and is likely the lowest risk of an upset on Notre Dame’s schedule.
The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.