Jones' return toughens Irish's 2012 slate

We're going to try something different here. Let's revisit a mailbag question (and my answer) from earlier this season and try to answer it now.

From Dec. 5:

Ryan from McSherrystown, Pa., writes: Hi Matt,Love your work. Just finished reading your last chat on ESPN and just wanted to see what you think about my optimism for ND next year. This is mostly about the schedule. You point out these games as being the tough ones. USC, OU, STANFORD, MSTATE, MICH, MIA..right? Here is my case. The top 3 QB's in next years NFL draft will come from 3 of those schools. Barkley, Jones, Luck will all be gone and all those schools will be playing with new or young QB's. We are due to beat Mich and Cousins is gone at MSTATE..I don't see MIA as being that tough and they weren't very good this year. Mich is the only one of those teams who brings back their QB and we had them beat at MICH this year. Thoughts...Thanks

Matt Fortuna: Thanks, Ryan. You bring up an interesting point with the quarterbacks, but I still don't see Notre Dame entering 2012 as a better team than most of the ones you mentioned. I think we'll learn a lot about Stanford when it no longer has Andrew Luck, so the Cardinal remain up in the air. Being due to beat Michigan means nothing when the Irish have lost three close ones to the Wolverines the last three years. Michigan will only get better in Brady Hoke's second year and with one more year of Denard Robinson. Michigan State, even without Kirk Cousins, is a program that is on the rise. None of this is to say the Irish can't win any of those games, but they do face an awful lot of opponents who are at least capable of beating them — even more than this year, and this was a more experienced team that lost to South Florida.

Today, on Jan. 6, here is what we know:

Landry Jones is coming back.

Matt Barkley is coming back.

Denard Robinson, barring anything unforeseen, is coming back.

Andrew Luck ... OK, he most likely isn't. (Boston College's Luke Kuechly probably isn't, either, though he has taken quite a while to announce a decision. ... Michigan State's Jerel Worthy is NFL-bound.)

All of which is a roundabout way of saying Notre Dame's 2012 schedule will indeed be every bit as tough as advertised, and then some. The Irish face the Sooners and the Trojans on the road. Jones is Oklahoma's all-time leading passer, would have likely been a first-round pick had he opted to enter the draft and will key another Sooners team expected to contend for the national title. Barkley may just be the 2012 Heisman front-runner for the preseason national title front-runner.

If Notre Dame manages to make it to a BCS bowl game in Brian Kelly's third season, the Irish surely will have earned it.