NOTRE DAME — With 20 starters returning, a roster loaded with NFL prospects and strong leadership within every position group, Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly felt ecstatic about his team this time last year.
And for the most part, Kelly maximized the talents and strengths of his group, finishing with 10 wins and a trip to the Fiesta Bowl, while keeping his team in the postseason playoff discussion right up to the last week of the regular season.
The roster may have changed this year, but the expectations remain the same.
“We don’t have a conference championship,” Kelly said, “so everything that we look towards is to be one of those four teams selected in the playoffs.”
Attainable? Absolutely … but nothing will come easily.
Gone from last season are all five team captains, the four top receivers, the leading rusher, six of the eight top tacklers, not to mention the strongest voice and/or the most productive player within every position group other than quarterback.
So let’s take a shot at forecasting the Irish fortunes for a season filled with equal parts promise and uncertainty.
Sunday @ TEXAS
In two years under head coach Charlie Strong — a former Notre Dame assistant (1995-98) — the Longhorns are only 11-14. The seat under Strong is plenty hot this season and will become hotter after the Irish deliver an impressive road win. ND 31, TEXAS 20
Sept. 10 vs. NEVADA
Similar to Strong at Texas, Nevada head coach Brian Polian — another former Irish assistant (2005-09) — also faces career pressure after going just 18-20 in three seasons with the Wolfpack. Irish show no mercy. ND 38, NEVADA 17
Sept. 17 vs. MICHIGAN ST.
The Spartans lost 12 starters from a team that won the Big Ten title and appeared in the College Football Playoff last season. Expect the winner of this slugfest to flirt with a top-five ranking and land squarely in the very early playoff picture. ND 17, MSU 14
Sept. 24 vs. DUKE
Coming off four straight bowl games for the first time in program history, Blue Devils head coach David Cutcliffe has turned his team into a formidable and dangerous opponent. Duke provides a scare but superior talent wins out. ND 28, DUKE 20
Oct. 1 vs. SYRACUSE (at East Rutherford, N.J.)
First-year Orange coach Dino Babers will rely on a talented offense in his reclamation of a 4-8 ‘Cuse team from last season. Babers oversaw a Bowling Green offense in 2015 that averaged 42.2 points a game. ND 42, SYRACUSE 24
Oct. 8 @ NORTH CAROLINA ST.
Don’t expect a so-so Wolfpack team to offer much resistance, even at home. Of course, that’s what we said about Virginia last season. This game helped NCST set a record for season-ticket sales. ND 30, NCST 14
Oct. 15 vs. STANFORD
In one of the best rivalries in college football, Stanford has claimed five wins in the last seven meetings with Notre Dame. And with only a 4-9 record against ranked opponents since 2012, Kelly has and will continue to struggle in these season-making games. STANFORD 24, ND 21
Oct. 29 vs. MIAMI
The Irish get another toughie here after their bye when the resurgent Hurricanes and new head coach Mark Richt pay a visit. ‘Canes junior Brad Kaaya will be among the best QBs Notre Dame faces all season. The Irish find a way. ND 31, MIAMI 28
Nov. 5 vs. NAVY (at Jacksonville, Fla.)
A pesky opponent that in the last nine meetings has handed Notre Dame three losses and delivered two other games settled by less than a touchdown, Navy finished last season with a program record 11 wins and a final No. 18 AP ranking. ND 41, NAVY 24
Nov. 12 vs. ARMY (at San Antonio)
The softest opponent on the Irish schedule, expect Notre Dame to score early and often, and claim its 15th straight win over the Black Knights. The Irish have outscored Army 494-82 during the series winning streak. ND 42, ARMY 10
Nov. 19 vs. VIRGINIA TECH
The Hokies enter this season trying to establish a new identity after the retirement of head coach Frank Beamer after 29 seasons, while Notre Dame will enter this game focused and still in consideration for a playoff spot. ND 30, VIRGINIA TECH 13
Nov. 26 @ USC
Big stakes await the Irish in the regular-season finale against the talented Trojans. Ranked anywhere from No. 8 to 25 in the preseason polls, USC will find a way at home to clip Notre Dame in another classic matchup. USC 30, ND 28
A final regular season record of 10-2 will keep Notre Dame out of any playoff consideration, but it will be good enough to play in a Big Six bowl game for the second straight season. The next step is to win one of these elite bowl match-ups for the first time in seven tries and 22 years.