And in that corner… The Wake Forest Demon Deacons

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It’s a special Saturday in Notre Dame Stadium, as the senior class will play their final football game on campus. A group that’s put together a tremendous home field advantage will have to reclaim their winning ways on Senior Day, a streak tarnished during last season’s loss to Louisville.

The Demon Deacons come into Saturday as heavy underdogs. Nearly four touchdowns separate the two teams, the gulf a product of a gut-job renovation undertaken by second-year head coach Dave Clawson.

Clawson has worked his way up the coaching ranks, managing to gain experience as a head coach at smaller programs like Fordham and Richmond before landing a MAC job at Bowling Green. Four good seasons there led him to Winston-Salem, where he took over the Wake Forest program from Jim Grobe.

Joining us from Blogger So Dear is Griffin Kurzius. We traded Q&As (so head over there), and Griffin did a great job getting us up to speed on the state of the program as Dave Clawson rebuilds.

Hope you enjoy.

 

When we had a discussion this summer, concerns about a young roster and a difficult schedule existed. So sitting at 3-6, can you assess this season against the expectations? Any struggles more disappointing than expected? Any progress feel ahead of schedule?

Before the season, many of us at BSD asserted that Wake would be improved in every department except wins. Last season, Wake limped its way to three wins. With remaining games against Notre Dame, Clemson and Duke, getting three wins again is highly likely. This season, however, youthful mistakes thwarted the Deacs from a fourth. As such, the Demon Deacons are lightyears ahead of last year’s team and right on schedule. Last season, Dave Clawson + Co tore down the house.

This year, with 75 percent of the team comprised of freshmen and sophomores, the foundation for the house is being built. Clawson + Co are building the walls and have the roof in place, so to speak. The pieces are on the roster to turn bring Wake back to a bowl game for the first time since 2011. Some fans believe that this will occur as soon as next season, but they will assuredly be back in the bowl conversation by 2017.

As for right now, the fanbase understands where the program is and the current expectations. They are thrilled with Clawson’s recruiting and that he progressed one of the worst offenses in the last twenty years (in 2014) to respectability. This offense actually (believe it or not) moves the ball. Right now, the fanbase isn’t concerned with the color of the front door or the living room fireplace, Deacs fans are content with building a brick foundation with a slate roof.

 

One look at the advanced stats for the Deacs and it’s pretty clear that the offensive line is a mess. Is it just youth? Is that the spot that feels like a game-wrecker, especially with Sheldon Day so disruptive at defensive tackle for Notre Dame?

The starting left and right tackles are both freshmen, which, uh… doesn’t bode too well for our quarterbacks and running backs. Remarkably, this line is STILL better than the revolving doors on the line in 2014. Last season, the Deacs led the nation in sacks allowed. So any improvement is improvement, right?

But in all seriousness, this is a good question. Both Justin Herron (LT) and Phil Haynes (RT) were sought after three-star recruits, Wake’s bread and butter to consistently return to bowl eligibility. With more experience and time in the weight room, the team should be fine. But until then, I sit on the edge of my couch with my fingers crossed for the safety of our dear and running backs.

Yes, like with most of our ACC foes already, Notre Dame’s overall size and experience up front will cause more problems than Mike Myers on Halloween night. With absolutely no wiggle room for the running backs and no time for the quarterbacks, Wake is cornered into calling short-to-intermediate passing plays. Wide receivers KJ Brent and Cortez Lewis both possess impressive speed, size and catching prowess. The question always remains: will they have enough time to get open before the quarterback feels the pressure?

 

On the flip side of that, Wake Forest’s defense is really good. Brandon Chubb is having a monster season. Marquel Lee is disruptive. The Deacs have seen some good offensive personnel—Florida State, North Carolina to name two. What worries you about the matchup this weekend against the balanced Irish attack? Stopping the run? Will Fuller in the deep passing game? (All of the above?)

Like you alluded to with Brandon Chubb and Marquel Lee, Wake boasts arguably the best linebacking core in the ACC. They hit the gaps like a battering ram and have a great sense for which hole the running back wants to attack.

Overall, Wake’s front seven does a great job at eating up run plays and keeping the quarterback in the pocket. The biggest concern this season is big plays in the passing game. Speedy receivers have had success getting behind the defense and striking on home-run plays. DeShone Kizer clearly has a rocket arm and has the confidence to swing for the fences. With Will Fuller, averaging 20.5 yards per reception, the secondary will have more than their hands full.

In Saturday’s game, I expect the Demon Deacons to be stout against the run for three quarters, but allow several big plays to Irish wide receivers. In the fourth quarter, the front seven will wear down and the running backs will close the game out.

 

Talk me through what’s happening at quarterback with John Wolford and Kendall Hinton. Does the adage, “If you have two quarterbacks, you really have none” apply? What’s the difference in Wolford and Hinton’s games? And if you had your druthers, who would be taking most of the snaps on Saturday?

After observing this situation unfold, the adage is absolutely correct. To quickly provide a back story, sophomore John Wolford entered the season as the starter. Wolford is adept at reading defenses and has pinpoint accuracy on short-to-intermediate routes. He got injured and true freshman Kendall Hinton quickly proved his worth.

Trying to contain the elusive Hinton is like trying to put a cat in a cage. He has a huge arm but has suspect accuracy and makes some freshmen reads. They both offer vastly different looks and finally are both healthy. What has been dumbfounding is how they are rotating playing time. Let’s be clear: this isn’t Florida in 2006 where Chris Leak ran the offense and Tim Tebow played near the goal line.

Wolford will get three drives, then Hinton will sub in for three, then Wolford will take two and then Hinton will get his turn. Given their different skill sets, the offense and the playcalling depend on the quarterback. With the frequent rotations, the quarterbacks don’t have enough time to get into a rhythm. Meanwhile, this constant change prevents the other 10 players on the field to feel comfortable.

Against a Notre Dame team that will get frequent pressure on the quarterback, Wake should start a player who will get outside the pocket and make plays out of thin air. This is Kendall Hinton. Does he give Wake the best chance to win every week? No. But against the No. 4 team in the country, he can extend plays and keep the Irish off balance. Overall, it’s an awkward situation and Clawson doesn’t want to isolate either player and facilitate a transfer. This controversy likely won’t get handled until Summer 2016.

 

Everybody knew it’d be a renovation for Dave Clawson. There was optimism during the offseason, even after a 3-9 season. Wake Forest hung tough with Indiana, Florida State, and are coming off a really tough loss to Louisville. The home stretch looks brutal for this team, with ND, Clemson and Duke. But does it still feel like there’s light at the end of the tunnel?

I spoke about this above, but absolutely. As they say in Batman “The night is darkest just before the dawn. And I promise you, the dawn is coming.” Last season was the darkest point of the night. This season, there is a semblance of talent. It will take time for them to blossom, but there are clear flashes of raw talent on this roster. The same couldn’t be said last year. As I said above, many fans believe next year-with an easier schedule (no Notre Dame in a non-conference game)- that Wake has a good chance to reach a bowl. If not next year, the Demon Deacons will return in 2017. There is too much athleticism, youth and development for a turnaround to not take place.

 

Vegas has this a pretty lopsided game with the Irish a 27-point favorite on Senior Day. That feels like a lot of points to lay against a defense that’s pretty stingy. How do you feel heading into Saturday? Is there a morale victory out there to be had?

Our basketball coach Danny Manning doesn’t believe in morale victories. Me? At 3-6. In South Bend. Against the No. 4 team in the nation? Absolutely. Ideally, the Demon Deacons put up an admirable fight and keep the game within striking distance in the first half. But more than that, this is a huge opportunity on NBC and I just hope the Deacs don’t put up an embarrassing goose egg on national TV. Finally, I hope our team gets out of South Bend alive, spirits high, and healthy.

Notre Dame’s Opponents: North Carolina

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It illustrates the nature of the NFL Draft that No. 2 overall pick quarterback Mitch Trubisky and eventual second-rounder and former Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer were hardly ever in the same conversation about the 2017 first overall pick. Trubisky rose up draft boards after, and possibly partly due to, Kizer had already fallen down them.

No matter where the two passers went in April’s draft, both their former teams are now adjusting to life without them. Notre Dame’s response to that is clear: Plug junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush into an offense that did not lose much else. North Carolina, meanwhile, has a lot more questions to answer in addition to the quarterback quandary.

2016 REVIEW
In the span of the first week of October, North Carolina went from a possibly program-defining victory to a harsh reminder it is not yet joined the ACC’s elite. From there, the season stumbled forward, culminating in a three-game FBS-level losing streak.

The Tar Heels upended Florida State on Oct. 1 in Tallahassee thanks to a 54-yard game-winning field goal from senior Nick Weiler. Suddenly at 4-1 — with the only loss being a respectable 33-24 defeat to then-No. 18 Georgia in a season kickoff special — North Carolina could think big picture.

Virginia Tech had other ideas. Only a week later, the same team that had just scored a road upset of the No. 12 team in the country fell at home to the No. 25 Hokies by a not-as-close-as-it-sounds score of 34-3.

In the first paragraph of this section, it notes the Tar Heels “stumbled forward” after that loss. That phrasing was chosen to indicate North Carolina did not outright collapse. It, in fact, followed up the clunker with a 20-13 win at No. 16 Miami (FL), raising the Tar Heels’ record in one-possession games to 3-0. Somewhere in the next few weeks, though, that clutch ability disappeared.

North Carolina lost its final three games against FBS foes — the distinction is needed since the Tar Heels slipped in a 41-7 victory over Football Championship Subdivision power The Citadel before their regular season finale — all by one score. Included in that streak: Losses to each of North Carolina’s biggest rivals, 28-27 at Duke and 28-21 vs. North Carolina State.

A 25-23 defeat to No. 16 Stanford in the Sun Bowl dropped the Tar Heels’ record to 8-5, quite a disappointment if looking back on the excitement of the Oct. 1 triumph.

WHAT NORTH CAROLINA LOST
Including Trubisky, six North Carolina contributors were drafted by the NFL this spring. Essentially, all of the Tar Heels’ offensive skill position players departed, including four of their top-five receivers and their top-four rushers (with Trubisky third).

Ryan Switzer (Getty Images)

Ryan Switzer stands out as the most notable receiver, pulling in 96 catches last season for 1,112 yards and six touchdowns. He was also the long-established punt returner, someone who Notre Dame game-planned around controlling back in 2014, and game-planned around successfully, it should be remembered. Elijah Hood, a former Notre Dame commit, and TJ Logan combined to rush for 1,508 yards and 15 touchdowns last year before both hearing their names called at the draft.

On the other side of the ball, North Carolina lost far less, most notably third-round draft pick defensive tackle Nazir Jones, who had 2.5 sacks and 7 more tackles for loss.

The aforementioned Florida State hero, kicker Weiler, also departed.

WHAT NORTH CAROLINA GAINED
The Tar Heels incoming graduate transfers warrant as much, if not more, recognition as the recruiting class. Head coach Larry Fedora seemingly raided the SEC’s cupboards for any suitable spare ingredients, coming away with LSU quarterback Brandon Harris, Florida center Cameron Dillard and Auburn running back Stanton Truitt.

Brandon Harris (Getty Images)

Truitt will need to compete with freshman Michael Carter, who turned down offers from Florida, Tennessee and Louisville to join a 20-member North Carolina recruiting class, rated No. 30 in the country by rivals.com. Receiver J.T. Cauthen joined Carter in the class rather than head to Michigan, Oklahoma or Virginia Tech andc considering the exodus of receivers this offseason, could become an immediate contributor.

HEAD COACH
In Fedora’s five seasons at Chapel Hill, he has amassed a 40-25 overall record, making last year’s 8-5 tally exactly average for his tenure. He has led North Carolina to four bowl games in those five years, but making it five out of six will be a difficult task this season.

It should be noted Fedora has shown to prefer a mobile quarterback, even getting 308 yards and five rushing touchdowns out of the prototypical-passer Trubisky. Harris may fit that mold perfectly.

OFFENSIVE SUMMARY
Losing four of its top-five receivers, top-four rushers and quarterback would be hard for any offense to recover from. In order to do so, starting with the offensive line makes sense, and the Tar Heels return three starters plus a promising sophomore right tackle, in addition to the Florida transfer Dillard.

What will remain unclear at least until North Carolina’s opener against Cal, and will probably remain muddled well into the season, is who exactly that line will block for. Truitt and Carter are competing with sophomore Jordan Brown for top running back honors. Shoulder injuries hampered Truitt throughout his time at Auburn. Once finally healthy last season, he took 31 carries for 187 yards and two touchdowns while catching seven passes for another 100 yards and a score. Those numbers may be modest, but they easily trump Brown’s totals of 20 carries for 45 yards and a touchdown.

Of the three, Carter has received the most hype. He may not be the lead back to begin the season, but six weeks in it is distinctly possible the freshman will have absorbed enough to take that role.

Presumably, Harris will start at quarterback. It is not a sure thing, and junior Nathan Elliott has reportedly been given an equal share of repetitions in preseason practice, but the dual-threat Harris makes the most sense. Either way, the quarterback will be looking to an inexperienced receiver corps led by senior Austin Proehl, the son of former NFL receiver Ricky Proehl. The younger Proehl totaled 43 catches for 597 yards and three touchdowns last year, finishing third on the team in both of the first two categories.

DEFENSIVE SUMMARY
On the complete opposite end of the returning players spectrum when compared to the offense, North Carolina’s defense returns its top three tacklers and all of its linebackers, led by senior Cole Holcomb (115 tackles) and junior Andrew Smith (113). Century tacklers are somewhat rare in college football, making it even more notable the Tar Heels return a third in senior safety Donnie Miles and his 102 takedowns.

Cole Holcomb (Getty Images)

Losing Jones in the middle is no small thing, but then again, this defense allowed 227.3 rushing yards per game in 2016. Plugging in junior Aaron Crawford (6-foot-1, 310 pounds) could bolster that aspect of containment, even if he is not necessarily as much of a presence in the backfield as Jones was.

Senior cornerback MJ Stewart could have probably declared for the draft, instead opting to return to build on a season in which he broke up 11 passes, leading a secondary that rated No. 12 in the country against the pass.

The Tar Heels defense did lose one more additional piece: Defensive coordinator Gene Chizik retired. Linebackers coach John Papuchis takes over, meaning continuity should lead to little drop-off.

SEASON OUTLOOK
North Carolina scored 32.3 points per game in 2016, a low in Fedora’s time there. It is hard to believe an entirely new offense will top that number this season, putting even more pressure on the defense. That defense, however, performed at a level consistent with Fedora’s tenure, allowing 24.9 points per game. Aside from 2014’s 39.0 points allowed per game, which led to Chizik’s arrival, Fedora’s defenses have given up between 24.5 and 25.7 points.

All this is to say, matching last year’s 8-5 seems a tall order. It is more likely the Tar Heels fall short of their over/under win total of 7, finishing fifth or sixth in the ACC’s Coastal Division.

Monday: Temple
Tuesday: Georgia
Wednesday: Boston College
Thursday: Michigan State
Yesterday: Miami (OH)
Tomorrow: Bye Week
Monday, the 21st: USC
Tuesday, 22nd: North Carolina State
Wednesday, 23rd: Wake Forest
Thursday, 24th: Miami (FL)
Friday, 25th: Navy
Saturday, 26th: Stanford (The same day as Stanford’s opener vs. Rice in Australia.)

Friday at 4: 40 Predictions

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The Notre Dame class of 2021 moved onto campus today. Roommates were met. Lofts were modulated. Mothers cried. These things are as inevitable as summer equaling visits to brewery rooftops, Christmas bringing familial tension, and someone being upset about where the Irish land (or don’t land) in Monday’s Associated Press top-25 release.

Years ago, I managed to move in two days earlier than most freshmen. International students are afforded that luxury. No, I am not from abroad. As has been discussed, this scribe is a Wisconsin native. Rather, my roommate was from Canada, though I will always take great joy in reminding him my green-and-gold hometown is actually farther north by latitude than his Maple Leaf roots.

Two weeks after moving in, I wrote my first football article for The Observer, Notre Dame’s student newspaper. It was actually purposed for a long-since defunct blog. It included references to “Rudy,” Sly Stallone and initial, but momentary, college friendships. Pretty standard fare, in all of reality, though the ignorance of the AP Stylebook and improper usage of only makes its author cringe in rereading.

That roommate did not notice those errors. Rather, his review was simple and has stuck with me nearly a decade later.

“You shouldn’t have started with ‘I think.’ It made your point weaker.”

He was, and is, right. With all due respect to that fact, arbitrary, varied and debatable predictions may necessitate a weaker stance. Thus, I think … (more…)

Notre Dame unveils Rockne Heritage uniforms

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Notre Dame will wear Rockne Heritage uniforms in the home schedule’s season finale against Navy on Nov. 18. Though they are alternate uniforms, the outfits are far more in-line with the typical Irish weekly attire than most years’ additional uniform designs are.

Clearly paralleling the $400 million in updates to Notre Dame Stadium, “The House That Rock Built,” the uniforms combine the fashion of Knute Rockne’s era with the progress afforded nearly a century later.

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“I think it is a unique opportunity with this uniform to celebrate the past while creating the future,” Under Armour Design Director Nick Billiris said in a University release. “That’s why we incorporated some of those elements that harken back to the 1920s and the 1930s when Knute Rockne was there, but we did it with cutting edge fabrics and technology. The whole idea is that this uniform is a time-capsule of Notre Dame football from when Rockne first grew the football program into the national power that it has become today.”

Perhaps most notably, the uniforms will feature a ND monogram unfamiliar to modern fans. It comes from a 1912 sweater, per Billiris.

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The helmets will lack some of their weekly shine, with subtle graphics intended to elicit the leather helmets of the 1930s.

Each uniform will read “ROCKNE” across the back nameplate, and will feature an excerpt of his famous “We’re going to get them on the run, and we’re going to keep them on the run” pep talk on the shoulders.

Notre Dame’s Opponents: Miami (OH)

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When former Irish offensive coordinator Chuck Martin left Notre Dame for Miami of Ohio, he was departing a team coming off a frustrating, but promising, season for one showed no great potential and any frustration around it would have started with misguided optimism.

Since then, the Irish have gone up and down while the RedHawks have trended in only an upward direction, albeit slowly. That growth will be tested quite bluntly in Martin’s return to Notre Dame at the end of September.

In an effort to desensitize any to the time and channel of that game, they will be mentioned in this space anytime the Notre Dame vs. Miami (OH) matchup is discussed.  Hopefully when that week comes around, no questions will remain about the Irish playing at 5 p.m. ET on NBCSN on Sept. 30.

2016 REVIEW
Miami had one of the most-interesting storylines in the country last season, beginning the year 0-6 before finishing 6-7, becoming the first FBS team to ever follow a six-game losing streak with a six-game winning streak within one season. All six of those wins came in conference play.

That opening series of losses was not simply due to facing superior opponents. The RedHawks choked away a win over Eastern Illinois by getting outscored 14-0 in the fourth quarter, losing 21-17. The tail end of the half dozen losses came against MAC division foes Ohio and Akron. Ohio’s head-to-head victory gave the Bobcats a tiebreaker over Miami, hence why Ohio headed to the MAC title game and not the RedHawks when they tied atop the Eastern Division at season’s end, with Akron three games behind them tied for third place.

The swing in the season came in part due to a quarterback switch. Then-sophomore Billy Bahl was putting together a statistically-satisfactory season through five games, completing 55.2 percent of his passes and throwing eight touchdowns, but then he went down with a season-ending injury. Martin first turned to a freshman — who has since transferred from the program — but he did not perform such in the loss to Akron to convince the coaching staff not to start then-sophomore Gus Ragland a week later.

Quarterback Gus Ragland‘s insertion into the Miami starting lineup played a key part in flipping the Redhawks‘ season. (Getty Images)

Ragland proceeded to lead the way in the six-game winning streak, throwing 15 touchdowns and no interceptions in that stretch. With the 6-6 record, Miami headed to the St. Petersburg Bowl, falling 17-16 to Mississippi State. Ragland threw two touchdowns and one interception, going 22-of-30 for 263 yards.

Ragland certainly deserves some credit for the midseason swing, as does Martin simply for keeping Miami upbeat and confident enough to string together a few wins. Yet, it was somewhat a schedule fluke, too. In the six wins, the RedHawks beat only one team that finished better than 3-5 in the conference. The one team earning that exception was Eastern Michigan, not exactly excelling with its 4-4 conference mark.

WHAT MIAMI (OH) LOST
Perhaps even more encouraging than the six-game winning streak was the youth with which the RedHawks rattled off those wins. Offensively, Miami lost receiver Rakeem Williams and his 26 catches for 501 yards and three touchdowns. The yardage qualifies Williams as Miami’s No. 3 receiver last year, but it came despite missing two games due to injury. If healthy, he may not have leapt to No. 1, but he was, for all true intents and purposes, the most dangerous receiver on the team, averaging 19.3 yards per catch.

Defensively, the Redhawks will need to find a new source of a pass rush. While they returned six of their top eight tacklers, the two who left were also the leaders in sacks. Defensive ends JT Jones (No. 6 tackler with 47) and Austin Gearing (38 tackles) combined for 10.5 sacks, eight more tackles for loss and 10 additional quarterback hurries. Add in the departure of fellow defensive end Zach Smierciak and his three sacks, and suddenly Miami is without more than half its 24 sacks from a year ago.

WHAT MIAMI (OH) GAINED
Included in a recruiting class which rated about middle of the pack in the MAC, defensive end Joshua Maize could quickly find himself working to replace some of that lost pass rush. While he was never necessarily a recruit targeted by Notre Dame, Maize — from Deerfield, Ill., a Chicago suburb north of the city and only about two hours from South Bend, Ind. — did visit campus three times.

HEAD COACH
Martin enters his fourth season at the Cradle of Coaches. There are two particular items to note about his return to face the Irish. First of all, Notre Dame deserves some degree of credit for how often it reaches out to former assistants or administrators to offer a scheduling boon. Similar to this contest, the Irish men’s basketball team will visit Delaware this winter to face former assistant Martin Inglesby. Notre Dame does not need to schedule those games, but it is a small luxury afforded former staffers who left on good terms.

Secondly, and related, the Irish schedule would have allowed for Martin’s return in his second or third season with the RedHawks if he had wanted such. Instead, he intentionally put off the game until his fourth season there, hoping to bring a more-respectable team to Notre Dame.

Considering Martin has turned Miami from an 0-12 team the year before he arrived to a genuine MAC title contender this season, it seems appropriate to say he achieved his goal of respectability, if not more than that.

OFFENSIVE SUMMARY
Heaping too much praise onto Ragland could come at a cost. Then again, his record as a starter is 6-1. That praise is earned.

Ragland not only aided the Redhawks offense with his nearly mistake-free passing, but also with his rushing abilities. (Getty Images)

This year, he will lead an offense returning nine starters, including four offensive linemen with a combined 80 career starts. They will be opening holes for a running back by committee attack that fared quite well last season. Including Ragland, Miami’s top-four rushers combined for 1,726 yards. Ragland accounted for 202 of those. Remember, that came in only seven games. All four of those rushers return.

The RedHawks also return four of their top-five receivers, losing only the aforementioned Williams.

Overall, the offensive unit should continue the prolific stretch with which it ended the season. In weeks six and seven last year (the turn from the losing streak to the winning streak), Miami totaled 260 yards in each game. In the following six contests, the RedHawks averaged 409 yards per game.

DEFENSIVE SUMMARY
Aside from the already-discussed pass rush, Miami is returning nearly all of its defense, including eight starters. Most notably, junior linebackers Junior McMullen and De’Andre Montgomery each started 13 games last season, and will now be joined by classmate Brad Koenig, who started six.

On the outside, senior cornerback Heath Harding should warrant NFL notice by the end of the year, and his counterpart junior Deondre Daniels should not be scoffed at, either, having broken up six passes last year and intercepting one more.

SEASON OUTLOOK
Miami is favored to win the MAC’s Eastern Division, though only a touch ahead of Ohio in that evaluation. (The two face off on what should be an annual holiday: Halloween MACTion!)

If Martin can lead the RedHawks to a conference title game in only his fourth season at the helm of what was the laughingstock of the FBS, then he will be well on his way to continuing the tradition of the Cradle of Coaches.

On that note, the Notre Dame vs. Miami game could present a great opportunity for additional homages to the late Ara Parseghian. He got his start at Miami, and obviously reached a legendary status with the Irish.

Monday: Temple
Tuesday: Georgia
Wednesday: Boston College
Yesterday: Michigan State
Tomorrow: North Carolina
Sunday: Bye Week
Monday, the 21st: USC
Tuesday, 22nd: North Carolina State
Wednesday, 23rd: Wake Forest
Thursday, 24th: Miami (FL)
Friday, 25th: Navy
Saturday, 26th: Stanford (The same day as Stanford’s opener vs. Rice in Australia.)