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Notre Dame will play seven of the top 36 teams in college football, according to the preseason Amway Coaches Poll. This list doesn’t include Rice, last year’s winner of Conference USA, or Navy, which has 17 wins during the last two years, or Northwestern, which notched double-digit wins in 2012 before last year’s injury-caused snag.

Nor does the list include Syracuse, which meets the Irish in New Jersey and, if you recall, got the better of Notre Dame the last time out. Rounding out the schedule is Purdue, a heaping mess last fall – and a continued work in progress in 2014 – that nonetheless remained within a touchdown of the Irish.

Three opponents on Notre Dame’s plate have legitimate and realistic hopes of winning the national championship: Stanford, Florida State and USC. Judged by last year’s combined winning percentage – an inadequate marker, but partially useful – the Irish take on the nation’s fourth-toughest schedule; only Arkansas, Tennessee and Virginia have it harder.

For now, and perhaps for the foreseeable future, the Irish will take on this schedule without four key pieces: On Friday, the university announced that four players have been removed from the program while it conducts an investigation into academic fraud, denying each had been suspended but saying the group would be held out of football activities until the matter was resolved.

Each loss stings, some worse than others. Wide receiver DaVaris Daniels is the Irish’s leading returning pass-catcher. Cornerback KeiVarae Russell is the team’s stopper on the outside; he’s decidedly irreplaceable. After a sluggish start to his career, Ishaq Williams had been pegged as a starter at defensive end. Linebacker Kendall Moore was at worst a key reserve; at best, Moore had been eyeballed as a potential starter.

The start of the official investigation comes just days after one of the program’s academic success stories, relatively speaking: Everett Golson, the once and future starting quarterback, regained his perch atop the team’s two-deep after being ruled academically ineligible for his sophomore season.

This has become, in many ways, the story of Brian Kelly-coached Notre Dame. The Irish reach the championship game, ending a decade-plus of frustration, only to suffer one of the defining losses in program history. The stakes are raised; Golson is suspended. He returns; four key cogs depart.

Perhaps Friday’s development hurts worse than most. It dings Notre Dame’s image, if temporarily, and casts a shadow on Kelly’s oversight of his football program. It knocks the Irish’s hopes of a rebound, obviously: Trendy for months, this is now a team dipping precipitously during the final weeks of the offseason, perhaps to the point where each preseason poll, if redone, would ignore Notre Dame’s name entirely.

LAST YEAR’S PREDICTION:

My projection: ND goes 9-3, losing three games from the group of Michigan, Michigan State, Oklahoma, Arizona State, USC, BYU and Stanford. That should be enough to put the Irish right in the mix for an at-large BCS bid.

2013 RECAP:

In a nutshell: I’d call it the finest coaching job of Kelly’s turn at Notre Dame even with the clear understanding that unlike in 2012, the Irish failed to make a dent in the title conversation. But consider the wins, for goodness sake: Michigan State, Arizona State and USC, among others. Then consider the nine-win fashion against the backdrop of personnel moves, losses and attrition on both sides of the ball, and consider how the Irish cobbled together three victories of immense value – and those nine wins altogether – despite clear flaws, weaknesses and weak links. In terms of the job done along the sidelines, I’d call it a banner season. It was still a failed follow-up in the general sense of the term: Notre Dame became the latest team to suffer a post-championship malaise, even if the discontent and disorder began long before the season opener.