Just over nine weeks remain until the college football season begins.
Sportswriter Phil Steele ranks Notre Dame’s 2014 schedule as the fourth toughest in college football. We’ll spend the next nine weeks examining each of those opponents.
First up: The Rice Owls.
Date: 3:30 p.m. Aug. 30 at Notre Dame Stadium.
Series history: Notre Dame leads the series 4-0.
Last meeting: 1988: Notre Dame 54, Rice 11
2013 common opponents: N/A
2013 in a nutshell
A 10-win season and a 7-1 conference mark led Rice to its first-ever Conference USA championship. Rice’s surprising season was slightly overshadowed by a 44-7 spanking by Mississippi State in the Liberty Bowl.
Players/positions to watch
- Quarterback Driphus Jackson (Jr.): The Owls lose two-year starter Taylor McHargue (169-of-324, 2,345 yards, 17 TD, 8 INT) and will look to the incoming junior who played in eight games last season. Jackson, who was hurt for most of his sophomore campaign due to injuries, is a dual-threat quarterback who must refine his passing game. He was 5-of-16 for 50 yards and one interception in 2013 but was 39-of-69 for 670 yards, six touchdowns, and no interceptions as a freshman.
- Running back: All-Conference USA selectee Charles Ross wrapped up his college career No. 2 on the Owls all-time rushing list. Who can replace his 1,280 yards last year? Sophomores Darik Dillard and Jawon Davis, who combined for 800 yards last year, will pick up the rush duties behind a line that returns three starters.
- Wide receiver Jordan Taylor (Sr.): Taylor finished last season with 55 catches for 848 yards and eight touchdowns. He’s a big target — standing at 6-foot-5 — for the Owls, but is also a consistent target. He’s a red zone hawk and will present a match up problem with anyone defending him.
- The front seven: Head coach David Bailiff calls his linebackers “the depth of the defense,” and none stand out more than James Radcliffe in the nickel scheme. At just 220 pounds, Radcliffe is a bit undersized for his position, but he has 23 career starts under his belt. Keep an eye on the defensive ends. The Owls lost their top two pass rushers after 2013 and are lacking in experienced replacements.
Rice is by no stretch a cupcake, but their depleted pass rush shouldn’t give a younger Notre Dame offensive line too much of a challenge early on. The same can be said for the Owls’ untested offensive backfield.
Rice must replace 10 starters, and finding their footing against Notre Dame is a serious detriment. The Irish win this one and roll on to the big battle against Michigan.