Pregame six pack: War with the Wolverines

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There’s no doubt about it. This is a defining Saturday for Notre Dame football. A victory over No. 18 Michigan should propel the No. 11 Fighting Irish into the top 10, thrust right into the middle of BCS bedlam as they enjoy a bye week and take a deep breath before starting another harrowing portion of the schedule.

But more importantly, it’ll be another significant data point that Brian Kelly‘s restoration plan is working. Following a process he and athletic director Jack Swarbrick laid out, Kelly has the chance to run the Irish record to 4-0 for the first time in a decade, propelled by a dominant defensive front, a physical football team, and a young offense built around a group of young skill players.

But to do that, they need to beat Michigan. A school that’s taken wonderful pleasure in gutting the Irish even when things were hardly going the Wolverines’ way. Under Rich Rodriguez, Michigan sunk the Irish twice. Add in the dagger Denard Robinson put in Irish fans’ hearts during the improbable 2011 comeback, and even if the Irish aren’t saying it, vengeance is on the mind.

With a primetime audience on NBC and the hype meter already spiked after dominating Michigan State last Saturday night, this is the game that either propels the Irish onward or pokes a pin into one of the more exciting Septembers in recent memory.

As No. 11 Notre Dame prepares to battle No. 18 Michigan on Saturday evening at 7:30 p.m. ET here on NBC, here are six fun facts, tidbits, leftovers, or miscellaneous musings to get you prepped.

***

The tale of the tape might end up telling the story.

On paper, you can almost get a feel for how this game could turn out. Of course, when these two teams play it’s hardly worth the exercise, but we’ll go through it anyway. Offense vs. Offense, the Wolverines match-up favorably with the Irish under Everett Golson‘s direction. A quick glance at a few major offensive categories shows a slight edge going to Michigan.

OFFENSIVE STATS

Scoring Average:
U-M: 36
ND: 30

Total Yards:
U-M: 425.3
ND: 388.7

Rushing Offense:
U-M: 192.3
ND: 155.7

Passing Offense:
U-M: 233
ND: 233

Red Zone TD Efficiency:
U-M: 89%
ND: 80%

Turnover Margin
U-M: -3
ND: +5

Where the story really starts to be told is with the defensive stats. Put quite simply, Michigan’s numbers are pretty ugly.

Scoring Average:
U-M: 26
ND: 10

Total Yards:
U-M: 369
ND: 288.7

Rushing Offense:
U-M: 211.3
ND: 96.3

Passing Offense:
U-M: 157.7
ND: 192.3

First Downs Allowed:
U-M: 61
ND: 49

Sacks
U-M: 3
ND: 11

That the Wolverines are giving up 211 yards a game on the ground is a fairly staggering number, and one that makes you believe Cierre Wood (we’ll get to him later), Theo Riddick and George Atkinson will make quite a difference on Saturday. You also need to wonder how Greg Mattison will dial up pressure on Golson, with Michigan only getting three sacks so far this season.

***

He played well last year, but expect Cierre Wood to make his presence felt against the Wolverines on Saturday.

It was an afterthought, but Cierre Wood put together a strong game against Michigan, running for 134 yards and a touchdown last year in the loss. But after missing the season’s opening two games after being suspended for violating team rules, expect the senior running back to try and make up for lost time.

Made available for the first time this season to the media, Wood talked about how tough it was to sit at home and watch his teammates play in Dublin.

“It was terrible,” Wood told CSNChicago.com. “I was cheering on my teammates, being a great team player, and stuff like that. But just not playing was terrible. You practice all summer, put in so much work and so much time, and to not play those first two games was heartbreaking, especially for me. But I remain positive, my teammates kept me up and I just cheered them on from afar.”

Worked slowly back into the rotation, it was Wood who carried the ball for the Irish down the stretch, icing the victory against Michigan State with some clutch carries. Wood talked about the benefits of having three top-shelf runners after forming a pretty dynamic duo with senior Jonas Gray last season.

“The way we come in and come out, it’s basically fresh legs on the field at all times, so it’s like nobody never really came out as far as the running backs go,” Wood said. “All three of us have a great amount of talent, so them putting us around different positions on the field is going to make our team that much better.”

It should be a bigger Saturday for the Irish running game, who can do damage by making plays, and keeping Denard Robinson off the field.

***

It may not be the bonanza last year’s night game was, but this weekend will be a recruiting showcase.

It’s not the all-in affair that last season’s USC contest was, but this weekend is shaping up to be a big recruiting weekend for the Fighting Irish. In addition to trying to beat Michigan, the Irish will try to impress a large contingent of 2013 and 2014 recruits that’ll be in town for the game this weekend.

In total, ten recruits will be taking an official visit this weekend:

Michael Deeb, LB — Committed
Mike Heuerman, TE — Committed
Jamel James, RB — Committed
Corey Robinson, WR — Committed
Corey Clement, RB — Offered (Committed to Pitt)
Torii Hunter Jr., WR — Offered
Cole Luke, CB — Offered
L.J. Moore, CB — Offered
Khalfani Muhammad, RB — Offered
Juwaan Williams, WR — Offered

In addition, the following Irish commits will also be in town for an unofficial visit:

Hunter Bivin, OL — Committed
Steve Elmer, OL — Committed
Jacob Matuska, DE — Committed
Colin McGovern, OL — Committed
James Onwualu, WR — Committed
Doug Randolph, LB — Committed
Isaac Rochell, DE — Committed
Jaylon Smith, OLB — Committed
Justin Brent, WR — Committed (2014)

Tyler James of the South Bend Tribune has a nice update on several more potential prospects in town, so if that sort of thing interests you, definitely give it a look.

The Irish will have to impress on the field this weekend, because it doesn’t look like the weather will be all that enjoyable. With cool weather heading through South Bend and intermittent rain in the forecast for Saturday afternoon, the product on the field will have to do the talking.

***

With their most daunting task to date, the focus will be on the young Irish secondary.

If there’s been a pleasant surprise this year, it’s been the solid play of the Irish secondary. Gutted by injury, Bob Diaco, Kerry Cooks, and Bob Elliott haven’t had the chance to go with Plan A, and now are on to Plan C or D after just three games. With starting jobs handed to Jamoris Slaughter and Lo Wood, and a significant role waiting for Austin Collinsworth, Notre Dame will now trot out three freshmen (eligibility wise, of course) to take their place.

No bigger spotlight will be on a defender than Matthias Farley. The soccer player-turned wide receiver-turned safety leapfrogged Danny McCarthy in the safety rotation before the season opener and has been a valuable contributor down in the box against Navy, Purdue and Michigan State, chipping in six tackles. Now he’ll be asked to fill Slaughter’s shoes against one of college football’s most electric ball carriers. Kelly thinks Farley’s up for the task.

“You know, he’s got 140-some snaps,” Kelly said of Farley’s contributions thus far. “That’s a lot of football. It’s not a guy that’s getting the first time out there on the field. He responded really well in practice this week. Now, he wasn’t put in the same position that he’s going to be put in this week. So he’s going to be asked to do a lot more. But he’s s smart kid, he’s athletic, he’s sneaky fast. He can run well. I think the most important thing is he’s played 140 snaps and he’s starting to feel more comfortable in the position.”

Also pushed into action at the nickel back is Elijah Shumate, who is already tied for the team lead with three pass break-ups. While he tried to contain his enthusiasm, Shumate’s potential has Kelly really excited, and the freshman is primed to take on a more prominent role in the Irish defense.

“We think he’s a very special player,” Kelly said of Shumate. “We’re going to continue to work with him. We’ll have more time over the bye week to spend some more time with him and continue to work with him both at that nickel and corner positions and allow us even more flexibility in the secondary.”

If you’re expecting Farley and the other youngsters to feel overwhelmed, don’t.

“Everybody has settled into the roles they have,” Farley said this week. “Maybe they didn’t start, they didn’t come in doing the roles they’re doing, but everyone’s been working real hard, and I feel like the fruit of everyone’s labor is being seen as far as the play goes.”

We’ll get a true status report tomorrow night.

***

If the Irish want to neutralize Denard Robinson, they’ll need to keep bringing the heat up front.

Worried that Denard Robinson is going to beat you with the deep downfield throws? Don’t give him enough time to make them. That recipe worked just fine against Michigan State, when the Irish pass rush bombarded the Spartans’ offensive line and quarterback Andrew Maxwell, making it near impossible to get the downfield passing game on track.

When the Irish lost Aaron Lynch in the middle of spring drills, many thought Kelly was paying lip service to the defensive line when he openly said he expected the front four to be the strength of this football team. Through three games, that strength is apparent. Notre Dame’s defense is getting to the quarterback better than it has in recent memory, finally adding a pass rush component to the Irish defense thanks to Stephon Tuitt and company.

Tuitt leads all underclassmen in the country in sacks and is third in the FBS with five. Even more impressive, the defensive line has nine of the team’s 11 sacks (T-8 in the country), with Louis Nix tallying 1.5 and freshmen Sheldon Day and Tony Springmann notching one each, and Kapron Lewis-Moore and Kona Schwenke each chipping in a half-sack. With Prince Shembo playing his best game in an Irish uniform last week, the Irish should take dead aim at Robinson in the pocket and overpower the Michigan offensive line.

Interestingly, that wasn’t the strategy Kelly and Diaco employed last season, keeping Lynch and Tuitt on the sideline in favor of Ethan Johnson and Lewis-Moore. With Sean Cwynar missing the game last season with a hand injury, the Irish played solid defense at the point of attack with a limited cast of characters.

With a full allotment of weapons, except to see the Irish getting a great surge at the line of scrimmage.

***

Hold onto the football, win the football game.

To call the Irish victimized by turnovers last season would be doing disservice to victims everywhere. Notre Dame imploded their own season last year by self-inflicted errors, turning the ball over more times in the first three games — 13 times — than any Notre Dame team since 1977.

But through three games this year, the Irish have turned things around. Notre Dame hasn’t had fewer turnovers through three Saturdays since 1993. Tied for 11th in the country in turnover margin, the stats seem to favor Brian Kelly’s team when they manage to simply hold onto the football.

Last year, the Irish were 3-0 when they didn’t turn the ball over. Kelly’s Irish squads are 7-0 when they’re unblemished with the football. Against a Michigan team that has plenty of problems at the line of scrimmage, the Irish don’t have to have a perfect performance. But they just can’t give the ball away. Thanks to a stingy defense and some offensive firepower, the Irish can beat another talented team from the state of Michigan by following the blueprint it used last week.

“Third down conversions are great.  You want third down conversions,” Kelly said, recapping the keys to last week’s victory. “But we were managing the game. We had a great kicking performance.  If we can kick that way, third down conversions are not going to impact the football game.  The turnovers.  It’s short fields.  And it’s the big chunk plays. I know you’ve heard this ad nauseam, but the fact of the matter is, the completion percentage will continue to get better.  The third downs will continue to get better.  We just need to take care of the football and keep our defense on the long field.”

It’ll be harder to do that against one of college football’s most explosive weapons. But if the Irish are going to make it to 4-0 for the first time since 2002, they’ll need Everett Golson to continue playing football wiser than his years.

 

Things To Learn: Will Notre Dame, and Wimbush, rebound?

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When Navy and Notre Dame meet, many of the usual barometers of success go by the wayside. No, not because it is such a heated rivalry. Rather, playing the triple-option is a unique challenge for the defense, one otherwise not seen (with the exceptions of the occasional meeting with Army or Georgia Tech), and the Midshipmen’s ball control limits the Irish offense’s chances, minimizing the effect of any talent advantage there.

Simply enough, little of what is learned is applicable so much as a week later.

But one thing this weekend will be quite clear: Will Notre Dame play with the pride necessary to close the season 10-2 just a week after a humiliating loss dashed any national championship hopes?

If the Irish are not whole-heartedly engaged this weekend, if they do not absolutely want to play, Navy will expose that and take advantage of it.

“You can stay focused with Navy for 10 plays, 12 plays, and then if you don’t stay focused they get you with a big play,” Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said Thursday. “They’re so efficient in what they do.

“The good thing is we’ve been talking about how important our traits are and they really have to be applied this particular week against this team.”

The loss at Miami was ugly in all facets and undoubtedly a difficult humbling for the Irish to swallow. If that still lingers in their minds, it will show in a sluggish start against the Midshipmen. If it has been put in the past and all focus is on finishing this season strongly in a way not seen since 2012, then even the mind-numbing effectiveness of the triple-option should not phase Notre Dame.

How will defensive coordinator Mike Elko handle Navy’s triple-option?

Before Kelly hired Elko away from Wake Forest, he made sure Elko had plans for the option.

“That was something we vetted out in the interviewing process,” Kelly said Tuesday. “[We’re] very comfortable with what we’ll be doing. This isn’t a defensive coordinator that’s coming in inexperienced in terms of stopping the option.”

Indeed, Elko faced Army each of the last three seasons while with the Demon Deacons. Navy may run the triple-option with even more precision than the Knights do, but the tenets are very similar. Aside from his first year there, Elko’s Wake Forest defenses fared pretty well against Army.

In 2014, the Knights ran for 341 yards and two touchdowns on 59 carries, a 5.78 yards per rush average, exceeding their season average of 296.5 yards per game.

In 2015, the Deacons gave up only 186 yards and two touchdowns on 54 carries, a 3.44 yards per rush average, keeping Army well below its season average of 244.2 yards per game.

In 2016, the Knights gained 238 yards on 64 carries, scoring twice and averaging 3.72 yards per rush. They averaged 328.7 yards per game last season.

How will Brandon Wimbush respond to the first genuine adversity of his career?

If Notre Dame’s offense is to return to potency, it will begin with junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

Sure, the Irish lost to Georgia in week two and the junior quarterback struggled, but that was in his second career start against a known top-flight defense. More may have been wanted from Wimbush then, but little more was genuinely expected Sept. 9.

By mid-November, that is not the case anymore, and his showing against the Hurricanes played a large part in the rout. After all, Kelly benched Wimbush to give him a chance to refocus. Wimbush handled that moment well, but it was still a moment of strife.

“It was tough as a competitor to have someone take your spot,” he said this week. “But I knew it was for the greater good and for the team’s benefit, and I realized that pretty quickly and I went out there and tried to help [sophomore backup quarterback Ian Book] as best as I could because I wanted to win the game just as much as anybody else wanted to win and I wasn’t executing.”

Much like a basketball player needing to hit a few lay-ups to break out of a cold-shooting slump, Wimbush can get back to executing by converting against the Midshipmen.

Which senior will get the loudest ovation?

Notre Dame will honor 26 seniors this weekend before the opening kickoff (3:30 p.m. ET; NBC), and if wanting to learn about each and every one of them, turn to The Observer’s profiles of all 26.

Which senior earns the crowd’s recognition is an unscientific survey and bears no effect on anything, but it is a curious question because there does not seem to be an obvious answer this year. A guess would be either fifth-year left tackle Mike McGlinchey for being both a star on the field and a public face off it, senior left guard Quenton Nelson for being arguably the best player on the team or senior linebacker Drue Tranquill for overcoming two season-ending knee injuries to lead the defense this season.

Then again, there is a good chance Tranquill returns next year — though he says he has not made that decision yet — so perhaps the best bet would be McGlinchey or Nelson. (Yes, Nelson can return in 2018, as well, but he shouldn’t and almost certainly won’t.)

Is this the day, finally, at last, Montgomery VanGorder throws a pass?

The senior and former walk-on quarterback has no career pass attempts. He would need the Irish to have enough of a lead to get into the game, first of all. Then, maybe a third-and-11 would warrant a pass attempt without showing poor sportsmanship. Even to honor VanGorder, Kelly will not risk showing up the Academy.

VanGorder has earned some version of recognition. Most people would have left when their father was fired midseason. Montgomery not only stayed, but he has also remained one of the most beloved players within Notre Dame’s locker room.

And In That Corner … The Navy Midshipmen with that pesky triple-option

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If Notre Dame ends its season with two wins, a headline-grabbing bowl berth will be assured and the Irish will have rebounded quite nicely from a 4-8 campaign only a year ago. If, however, Notre Dame loses this weekend, the talk of the issues that led to that dismal season will abound anew.

First up in the concluding fortnight is Navy. For some intel on the Midshipmen, let’s chat with Ava Wallace of The Washington Post.

At 6-3, the Midshipmen are already bowl eligible, but do not have a genuine chance at the American Athletic Conference title game. That makes the focus rather narrow this week, simply on beating Notre Dame. For so long, this series was decisively one-sided. Obviously that has shifted in the last decade. Does that diminish Navy’s reaction to getting the win last year at all? How much does that carry over to this point?

Ken Niumatalolo has seen all sides of the Notre Dame-Navy series, being on the sideline for all four Midshipmen wins in the last 52 years.

Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo actually addressed this in practice this week. He mentioned Navy’s four wins against Notre Dame since 2007, but one thing that’s pretty deeply ingrained in the team culture under Niumatalolo is humility. The Midshipmen know they are oftentimes not as big, strong or fast as their opponents that can recruit without the restrictions that come with being a service academy. A win over a program as elite as Notre Dame is always a big deal for these guys, and even if his players are used to a more even series with the Irish, Niumatalolo was around when Navy was losing year after year. He makes sure his guys realize how meaningful a win over Notre Dame is. (Niumatalolo was an assistant at Navy from 1995-1998 and 2002-2007, at which point he became head coach when Paul Johnson headed to Georgia Tech, partly thanks to finally beating Notre Dame in 2007.)

It has been an up-then-down season for Navy, opening 5-0 before losing three straight. What was the downfall during that stretch? I would blindly chalk it up to the competition, but Memphis only squeezed by 30-27 and Irish fans know Temple is not what it used to be.

Part of the reason for Navy’s slide was teams started to figure out junior quarterback Zach Abey’s tendencies. He stays in the middle and doesn’t execute on the perimeter as much as, say, sophomore Malcolm Perry did against Southern Methodist. Once teams figured out how to slow Abey, defenses had an easier go of it. (Temple held them to a season-low 136 yards rushing.) Niumatalolo also said speed was a problem for his team during those losses, as in, the defense wasn’t reacting quickly enough.

To my understanding, any one of three quarterbacks could get the start this week, Abey, Perry and junior Garret Lewis. Who do you think will start, and what differences do each of them bring to the offense?

Niumatalolo said it’s likely Perry, who sprained his ankle last weekend against Southern Methodist, won’t be healthy in time for the Notre Dame game. Offensive coordinator Ivin Jasper is left to decide between Abey and his backup Lewis, who has been used strictly for cleanup duty so far this season. Niumatalolo said Navy might not reveal its starter until kickoff.

If his non-throwing shoulder is healthy enough to play, Navy junior quarterback Zach Abey will give Notre Dame’s defense all it can handle. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)

Though players and coaches call Perry the team’s best athlete, Abey is the Midshipmen’s leading rusher, averaging 150.2 yards per game. He hurt his left, non-throwing shoulder earlier in the year and is still a little beat up, which is why he didn’t play at all against SMU. But Niumatalolo praises Abey for his toughness above all else — he was an accomplished rugby player in high school in Baltimore — and the junior can execute Navy’s triple-option offense, whereas Niumatalolo calls Lewis a spread quarterback at heart. I wouldn’t be surprised if Abey gets the start against Notre Dame — the Mids need all the toughness they can get.

Last year Notre Dame got the ball a total of six possessions against the Midshipmen. How much of an anomaly is that when going against Navy? Obviously, the Irish hope to have the ball a bit more often this weekend.

Six possessions is low even for Navy’s defense, but because they run the triple-option, the Mids tend to out-possess their opponents regularly. This season, they’ve had the ball for an average of 35:48 each game, compared to their opponents’ 25:12.  Niumtatlolo is conscious the Irish are running the ball more this year, so that may skew in Notre Dame’s favor against a tired Navy defense.

As it seems is often (always??) the case, opposing teams do not struggle to put up points against the Midshipmen, averaging 30.3 points per game. They just can’t stop Navy’s triple-option attack. Looking at the first aspect of that, how much will Niumatalolo focus on simply keeping the ball out of Notre Dame’s hands compared to actually stopping the Irish outright?

Niumatalolo would certainly say he’ll try to do both, but you’re completely right — his teams go as the offense goes. Part of why he started Perry against Southern Methodist was because the team needed a spark on offense. Correcting the defense wasn’t less of his focus, per say, but in my opinion that move showed what Niumatalolo values most. If his team isn’t running the ball well, there aren’t many teams Navy can beat. I think the Temple game showed that.

The spread is currently 18 points. As much as a score prediction, how competitive do you expect Saturday afternoon to be?

Notre Dame 38, Navy 28.

Notre Dame’s bowl likelihoods and opponents round-up

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If discussing Notre Dame’s bowl possibilities, the new No. 8 ranking in Tuesday night’s College Football Playoff selection committee poll means only so much. One most also project how the Irish will finish the season.

If Notre Dame wins its last two games (v. Navy; at Stanford), a spot in a playoff-eligible bowl is assured. A loss makes for some time in Orlando.

A Playoff-Eligible Bowl
A process of elimination helps guess which of the four possibilities is most likely. Presume USC continues on its current post-Irish tear and wins the Pac 12. The committee will attempt to avoid rematches, preventing Notre Dame from facing the Trojans in the Fiesta Bowl. If Clemson beats Miami in the ACC title game — and remember, that will be held in Charlotte, N.C., not in Hard Rock Stadium — then Miami will get to enjoy a home game in the Orange Bowl and the Irish will not be there, either.

As much as some might profess a desire for revenge, Notre Dame should be glad to avoid the Orange Bowl for a while. Between last weekend and the 2013 BCS title game vs. Alabama, the last two Irish appearances in that stadium have resulted in a combined 83-22 score for the other guys, including a 55-0 combined halftime margin.

That theoretical situation leaves the Cotton Bowl and the Peach Bowl for Notre Dame. The latter has one slot filled by the highest-ranked Group of Five team, almost certainly Central Florida. The time in Dallas goes to two at-large teams. With three SEC teams in the committee’s top 7, the championship game loser seems destined for the week in Atlanta and the Peach Bowl.

There has been debate about who is better: Penn State running back Saquon Barkley or Notre Dame’s Josh Adams. They could meet in a bowl game. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

That narrows this pool to only the Cotton Bowl. However, this changes quickly if the Hurricanes win the ACC. At that point, with the Irish likely higher-ranked than any non-playoff SEC or Big Ten teams, Notre Dame would head back to its 10th circle of hell.

Who would the Irish face in Dallas? Some quick projecting makes the likely opponents either Auburn or Penn State.

An Orlando Bowl
If Notre Dame falls to either Navy or Stanford, two possibilities come into play. The Irish would head to Orlando for either the Citrus Bowl (Jan. 1, 1 p.m. ET) or the Camping World Bowl (Dec. 28, 5:15 p.m. ET). Nothing Notre Dame does would influence which it is.

Excluding Playoff teams, the highest-ranked SEC or Big Ten team goes to the Orange Bowl. (As referenced above, the Irish also fit into that determination, but right now this conversation hinges on Notre Dame falling to 9-3 or even 8-4.) If that is a Big Ten team, then the Irish enjoy New Year’s near Disney World. (Checks which one is which, yep, World is in Orlando. Land is out west.) If all three of Alabama, Auburn and Georgia remain in playoff-eligible bowls, the opponent here would be the fourth team in the SEC, meaning Mississippi State or perhaps LSU.

Should an SEC team claim the Orange Bowl berth, then the Big Ten heads to the Citrus and Notre Dame claims the ACC’s spot in the Camping World Bowl to face a Big 12 foe, likely Oklahoma State though possibly TCU.

But, isn’t there a chance …?

Will Greier is good, but he probably is not good enough to upset Oklahoma twice in two weeks. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

Yes, Lloyd Christmas, there is a chance of the Irish falling backward into the College Football Playoff. The most-likely scenario involves current-No. 1 Alabama, No. 3 Miami and No. 5 Wisconsin all finishing the season undefeated, and No. 4 Oklahoma losing twice to West Virginia and cult hero quarterback Will Greier.

At that point, the debate would be between 10-2 Notre Dame, 10-2 Georgia (currently No. 7), 11-2 Clemson (currently No. 2) and 11-2 Ohio State (currently No. 9). Based off committee chairman Kirby Hocutt’s comments Tuesday night, the edge would go to Clemson. The committee is giving the Tigers some leeway for suffering their only lose to-date largely without their starting quarterback due to a concussion. Even when he played at Syracuse, an injured ankle robbed Kelly Bryant off much of his dynamism.

Clemson also travels to South Carolina, so add a Gamecocks upset to the Irish wish list. For thoroughness’ sake, perhaps hope Georgia Tech also upsets Georgia in two weeks.

Of course, after enough chaos, 13-0 Central Florida (currently No. 15) should enter the conversation simply out of principle.

Opponents’ Round-up
Temple (5-5): The Owls beat Cincinnati 35-24 on Friday, but now brace for a visit from undefeated Central Florida (12 p.m. ET; ESPNU). The Knights are favored by two touchdowns and given their need to hope for chaos and impress the committee, perhaps that margin is too slim. A combined points total over/under of 56 hints at a 35-21 conclusion.

Georgia (9-1): The Bulldogs suffered their first loss, a 40-17 whooping at Auburn. These things happen at Jordan-Hare Stadium.

Georgia gets to recover with a visit from Kentucky (3:30 p.m. ET; CBS). Favored by three touchdowns with an over/under of 51, Georgia should cruise to something along the lines of a 36-15 victory.

Boston College (5-5): In a pyrrhic defeat, the Eagles both lost to North Carolina State 17-14 and lost their starting quarterback freshman Anthony Brown for the season to a right leg injury. Brown had led the way to Boston College’s resurgence from a 1-3 and 2-4 start, possibly saving head coach Steve Addazio’s job in the process.

The Eagles still hope for bowl eligibility, and that may cement another season for Addazio. This weekend gives them a ripe chance at securing it with a visit from Connecticut (7 p.m. ET; CBS Sports Network). Even without Brown, Boston College is favored by 21.5 points with an over/under of 50.5. A 26-14 victory would satisfy Addazio just fine.

Michigan State (7-3): The Spartans’ upstart hopes came to a sudden halt with a 48-3 loss at Ohio State. Suffice it to say, the Buckeyes are motivated.

Michigan State can return to the positive side of the ledger this weekend against Maryland (4 p.m. ET; FOX). Favored by 16.5 points with an over/under of 43.5, bookmakers expect the Spartans to prevail 30-13.

Miami (OH) (4-6): The RedHawks kept their bowl hopes alive with a 24-14 victory over Akron last Tuesday. They will need to keep on winning tonight (Wednesday) against Eastern Michigan (7 p.m. ET; CBS Sports Network). Favored by 2.5 points with an over/under of 50, Miami would hypothetically squeak by 26-24, but do not underestimate the Eagles.

North Carolina (2-8): The Tar Heels won. The Tar Heels won. Repeat, repeat, the Tar Heels won.

North Carolina beat Pittsburgh 34-31 on Thursday, ending a six-game losing streak. The Tar Heels should make it two in a row this weekend, hosting Western Carolina (3 p.m. ET; ACC Network).

USC (9-2): The Trojans won their third consecutive game by multiple possessions since falling in South Bend, this time 38-24 at Colorado. To conclude their season, they will look to do the same to UCLA (8 p.m. ET; ABC). Expectations are for USC to indeed finish with an exclamation point, favored by 16 with an over/under of 71. Putting up 43 in the final week of their regular season would probably be okay with the Trojans.

North Carolina State (7-3): Barely squeezing past Boston College was enough for the Wolfpack, looking to stay in the mix for a playoff-eligible bowl should both Clemson and Miami somehow make the Playoff. North Carolina State heads to Wake Forest this weekend (7:30 p.m. ET; ESPNU) as two-point underdogs. An over/under of 63 hints at a 32-30 final. That seems like a lot, and it seems like the wrong team is favored.

Wake Forest (6-4): The Demon Deacons scored 64 in a come-from-behind victory over Syracuse, trailing 38-24 at halftime but outscoring the Orange 24-0 in the fourth quarter to notch a 64-43 victory.

Miami (FL) (9-0): The Hurricanes won this past weekend, if anyone missed that bit of information. They now host Virginia (12 p.m. ET; ABC). Expect another blowout. Bookmakers project a 35-16 result.

Navy (6-3): The Midshipmen barely got past SMU, 43-40.

Stanford (7-3): The Cardinal upset Washington 30-22 on Friday thanks to home-field advantage and a short week for the Huskies. It welcomes Cal (8 p.m. ET, FOX) this weekend with expectations of a two-touchdown victory, perhaps something along the lines of 35-20.


Note: This space will continue to refer to the Cotton, Fiesta, Orange and Peach bowls as playoff-eligible bowls this year, not pieces of the “New Year’s Six.” The Cotton Bowl will be held Dec. 29 this year while the Fiesta and Orange Bowls are on Dec. 30. Those aren’t exactly New Year’s.

Question for the Week (rather, for the Year): On Notre Dame, pride and progress

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Pride is a tricky thing. It notoriously comes before the fall, and yet after a defeat, it is the quickest rallying cry for moving forward.

Pride played no part in Notre Dame’s 41-8 failure at Miami this past weekend. It was, however, the buzz word afterward. With their College Football Playoff and national championship aspirations reduced to what ifs and pieces of the past, the Irish grasped for a tangible purpose, finding only intangible ones.

“Our mission from the start has been to restore the pride and tradition of Notre Dame football,” Irish senior linebacker and captain Drue Tranquill. “That’s what we’re going to do.”

That is a hefty task, one certainly beyond the doings of any one player, if not beyond any one team.

“It’s pride,” fifth-year left tackle and captain Mike McGlinchey echoed. “We have a lot of good people and a lot of good seniors that have helped turn this program around.”

Playing for honor, pride, tradition or whatever other abstract noun you may prefer is a worthy undertaking and a positive trait. If anyone will embrace that pursuit, it will be the Irish offensive line led by McGlinchey. That unit already oozes the characteristics Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly expects to rely upon now, partly thanks to it boasting four seniors with multiple years of starting experience.

“We’re looking at markers within our own locker room of how guys respond,” Kelly said. “Football is a game that builds character, that builds resolve. That’s what we’re looking for.

“It’s kind of a bigger picture.”

Needing to focus on that bigger picture is a side effect of remaining a college football independent. The Irish have no hopes of — for example — the Hurricanes losing their next two games to create a chance for Notre Dame to backdoor its way into a conference title game.

To some extent, even an ACC crown or a national championship would be an arbitrary goal. Those are results simply established, enforced and exaggerated by social convention. Nonetheless, they are established, enforced and exaggerated. Hence, banners, rings and bragging rights exist.

Pride and tradition are much less rewarded by societal construct. They offer only inward incentives. Manufacturing that version of motivation, inspiration and compensation is difficult enough with anyone subject to human nature. It is especially challenging when dealing with 18- to 21-year-olds.

This success or failure will define the 2017 season’s retrospective success or failure. The one-point loss to Georgia and the embarrassment in Miami will become pieces of a larger story. Finishing the season 10-2 would mark a definitive upward trend back toward Tranquill’s “pride and tradition of Notre Dame football.” Reaching a playoff-eligible bowl would establish the program as a part of the 2018 Playoff conversation.

“It’s really about how we respond now, individually and collectively as a group after a disappointing performance,” Kelly said. “The challenge really is about jumping back.”

That response would separate this rendition of a multi-loss season from 2014’s and 2015’s, years also filled with Playoff hopes that quickly devolved into specters of false confidence. Unfortunately, that standing was not recognized as paper-thin until the Irish crashed into last year’s 4-8 conclusion.

That is the hurdle ahead of the Irish now, one only rewarded with personal satisfaction at not repeating previous slides into the offseason and mediocrity. Instead, a strong finish would be another piece of evidence of the progress made since the end of 2016.

To pull a paragraph from an Oct. 27 column, “Back in August, if offered a 9-3 or 10-2 season with two or three notable wins — including a blowout over USC — and no bad losses, most Notre Dame fans would have gladly, readily and blindly accepted that step in the right direction.”

The Irish players may not have granted that premise, nor should they have, but that does not take away from its validity. With the always-a-likelihood second loss now a reality, Notre Dame needs to take pride in that long view, even if some of its fans might not.