Pregame Six Pack: The present and future of a key rivalry

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Expectations have been recalibrated. But it doesn’t take a view from 30,000 feet to understand the importance of Notre Dame’s annual battle with USC.

While the four losses each team has suffered this season have muted the national view of the greatest intersectional rivalry in college football, a good Notre Dame-USC football game is usually a great thing for college football.

Especially now. As we get ready to go through the first, and only, vote of the College Football Playoff selection committee that actually matters, games like this one — a high-profile, non-conference, national matchup will be the type of game that the committee will view as important. Especially when it goes apples-to-apples against the cupcakes we’ve seen scheduled the last few weeks from SEC programs looking for a rest before a tough in-conference finish.

Both programs will limp into the Coliseum. Notre Dame both literally and figuratively, with a defense more battered and bruised than any we’ve seen in the recent past. The depth on the Trojans roster is far from healthy as well, with scholarship sanctions and a few key injuries also depleting a talent-rich but razor thin team.

In our regular-season finale, we’re changing things up a bit. As we run through the pregame six pack, consider these six Notre Dame players vital to the rivalry game success of the Irish on Saturday afternoon, both now and in the future.

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Cole Luke. Notre Dame’s sophomore cornerback is playing his way into quite a player. After contributing only part time as a freshman, Luke ends the year as the team’s No. 1 coverman, facing another difficult assignment a week after being matched up with Louisville’s DaVante Parker.

Kelly talked about the ascent of Luke this season, calling him one of the best developments of the season.

“Cole Luke is turning into an A player. He’s not an A player yet. He was a C player coming into the year. He’s a B-plus player right now,” Kelly said on Tuesday. ”

The Arizona native will likely take on the assignment of Nelson Agholor, USC’s top receiver and a junior potentially playing his final college game in the Coliseum. Agholor isn’t the physical handful that Jaelen Strong or Parker are, but he’s a smooth athlete that’s electric with the ball in his hands both as a receiver and in the return game.

As Luke prepares to transition from a sophomore to an upperclassman, he’s going to face yet another challenge that should prepare him for next season, when he’ll be ready to be a force at cornerback, finally lined up across from KeiVarae Russell.

“He did a heck of a job against the kid from Louisville,” Kelly said. “We matched him up all day. So that was clear that he’s a player that’s ascending for us.”

 

Nick Martin, Matt Hegarty & Steve Elmer. All three interior offensive linemen have more eligibility. But they aren’t likely thinking about next year when they face the challenge of USC’s Leonard Williams. The USC All-American is a wrecking ball in the middle of the defensive line, with the 6-foot-5, 300-pound junior a menace who will likely be in the hunt for No. 1 overall pick in next year’s NFL Draft.

“Leonard Williams is probably singularly the best defensive player front guy we’ll see this year. He’s simply that good of a player,” Kelly said Tuesday. “We’ll have to find ways to double him and slow him down.  He’s one of the best defensive linemen I’ve seen in a few years.  He’s that good of a player.”

This trio is likely to form this double team, with Elmer or Martin teaming with Hegarty to do their best to slow down Williams, the Trojans sack-leader with six, and who in 37 career games nearly matches that in tackles for loss, with 35.5 in his career.

Very quietly, the ground game has rounded into form this season. Much of that credit has gone to Tarean Folston’s emergence, but the front five should be given some of that credit as well.

That entire group will be tested on Saturday. And with the running game essential if the Irish are going to keep the ball away from the Trojans up-tempo offense, keeping Williams from a gigantic finale in the Coliseum will be critical.

 

Will Fuller. Notre Dame’s sophomore receiver is on record watch, his 14 touchdown catches just one behind Jeff Samardzija and Golden Tate’s single-season mark. Match him up with a young Trojan secondary that’s talented but ranked 111th in the country in passing defense and Fuller could be poised to write a big chapter in a rivalry game he could dominate for the next three seasons.

While Luke’s ascent on defense has been the surprise of the year on that side of the football, Fuller is poised to break 1,000 receiving yards for the first time since Michael Floyd did it. His touchdown numbers show you a player that’s efficient at finding his way to pay dirt, even as he grows into the role of a No. 1 target.

Kelly talked about that growth earlier this week, with the still stick-skinny Fuller now tasked with growing into his body.

“He’s not a guy that can carry it by himself.  He’s not physically able to just go out there and knock off double coverage,” Kelly said. “He can beat any man coverage around with his speed.  But he’s not physically able to go and play like Megatron (Calvin Johnson) and those beasts.

“His next step is to continue to work on his physical development.  And that’s the next step for him.”

 

Max Redfield. The sophomore still seems stuck in the doghouse. But he’s the future at a safety position where he’s physically capable of filling the role, only still taking baby steps as he’s learning his way through his second system in as many years in South Bend.

Saturday’s game means quite a bit to Redfield. He’s a former USC commit who starred in Southern California as a prep athlete. So if there’s ever a Saturday for Redfield to play with the type of tenacity and mental sharpness that Kelly and defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder demand, this is the one.

Drue Tranquill’s ACL injury almost forced Elijah Shumate out of the doghouse. But if Shumate’s playing strong safety and Austin Collinsworth is playing as the free safety, it’s only a matter of time before Redfield gets his opportunities, because a one-armed Collinsworth just isn’t a good physical matchup for the athleticism that runs two-deep in the Trojan’s receiving corps.

While Kelly preaches patience with Redfield’s development, some fans have seemingly already tabbed Redfield a bust. It’s the same thing that happened with Harrison Smith, who three years into the position seemed a lost soul before the lightbulb switched on and Smith emerged as a force at safety in his (redshirt) junior season. It might take until next year for Redfield to take that leap, but there’s reason to believe it’s still coming.

Redfield will learn this defense — if he can take on Mandarin Chinese in the classroom, he can learn VanGorder’s system.

It’s his athleticism that you just can’t teach.

 

Greer Martini. That Notre Dame’s freshman middle linebacker is starting is a nice reminder in the not-so-scientific state of the modern recruiting world. Because only former walk-on Joe Schmidt had a lesser recruiting profile than Martini. Schmidt’s worked out pretty well for the Irish. And it looks like Martini is going to be a pretty good linebacker as well.

Martini is starting in the middle because even the best laid plans can go belly up. Jarrett Grace is still in the middle of a daunting rehabilitation. Schmidt’s departure all but signaled the demise of this defense. Fellow freshman Nyles Morgan is sitting out a half-game suspension after his targeting penalty, leaving Martini to take over the job as middle linebacker, just 11 games into his college career.

“I’m kind of blown away, I never thought as a freshman I’d have the opportunity to have my first start at the Coliseum,” Martini said Wednesday.

But Martini’s worked his way up the depth chart because of an advanced football IQ that the Irish coaching staff identified very early. Martini was the earliest pledge of the group, with the Irish staff watching Martini grow up as a football player at Woodberry Forest, where C.J. Prosise and Doug Randolph played before him.

Pete Sampson at Irish Illustrated caught up with Woodberry Forest head coach Clint Alexander, who isn’t surprised that Martini is making an early mark.

At Woodberry, Martini played football, basketball and baseball. Alexander discovered him during a junior high sports camp when the Irish freshman excelled in soccer, lacrosse, softball, golf and tennis.

When the junior high kid had free time during that camp, he found Alexander to talk more football.

“That’s when I told my wife that if Greer comes here, he’ll be the best inside linebacker we’ve ever had,” Alexander said. “He ended up being a coach on the field for me. He could give adjustments, make checks, see the big picture.

“I know he certainly takes that ‘slow, white boy linebacker’ concept and gets a chip on his shoulder. When (Joe Schmidt) got hurt, Greer was probably a bigger version of him with more athleticism.”

Now it’s up to Martini to hold the fort against one of the most athletic offenses the Irish have faced all season. And even without Schmidt, Sheldon Day and Jarron Jones — the only projected upperclassmen starters outside of Austin Collinsworth — it’s time to find a way to beat the Trojans on Saturday.

“We all know that we’re young. But we’re all going to challenge each other to be better,” Martini said. “It doesn’t matter how young we are. We’ve got to perform, and I think that’s what we’re going out to do.”

 

Everett Golson. Make no mistake, Notre Dame’s best chance to win on Saturday is a big game by Golson. And after battling back in the second half against Louisville, Golson will face another attacking defense that aims to confuse and disrupt the second-year starter.

Reminding fans and media members that Golson is only in his second year as a starter is likely a fruitless endeavor, but one that remains important. Golson has fewer career starts than Ronnie Stanley. Irish fans understand that Stanley’s still growing into the player that he’ll become. So is Golson. For better, and at times, for worse.

After playing the role of conservative game-manager as a freshman, Golson’s responsibilities as a quarterback grew considerably this season. We’ve seen that in his production, with his 29 touchdown passes and 3,280 yards both Top 10 in the country. Combined with his eight touchdown runs and two two-point conversions, Golson is fourth in the country in points responsible for. That’s no small feat.

But those points have come at a cost. And while Golson’s early-season success had some (ESPN’s Desmond Howard the most visible) calling his 2013 season spent training with George Whitfield a value-add, no amount of practice time can make up for lost game experience.

The lumps Golson has taken are the type of struggles you get with a second-year quarterback, especially one who is the focal point of the offense. So on Saturday, Golson will have one more opportunity to balance his responsibilities as a game-manager with his skills as a playmaker.

His ability to successful walk that line will determine whether Notre Dame or USC emerges victorious on Saturday.

 

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.