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Things We Learned: Maybe, just maybe …

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NOTRE DAME, Ind. — Notre Dame’s embracing of what this season could become is candid, unusual and nearly taboo. Discussing anyone beyond next weekend’s opponent — now No. 16 North Carolina State coming off a bye — is typically verboten in every regard.

Yet there was Irish coach Brian Kelly following No. 13 Notre Dame’s 49-14 victory over No. 11 USC on Saturday, not offering a rote non-answer answer when asked about the national big picture.

“We just want to be aware so we can enhance where we are, just be aware of our situation, and that means you’ve gotten here because you have really stuck to what we’ve asked you to do,” Kelly said.

That much is somewhat par-for-the-course. Focus on the mental preparation that got you here and maybe you’ll get further. Not exactly earth shattering.

“My point being, the big-picture stuff, they’re aware of it,” Kelly continued. “But they know how they got here and they like where they’re at.”

The Irish being aware of national stakes means the Irish are starting to believe maybe, just maybe, those stakes could pan out.

Maybe, just maybe, Playoff talk in 2017 is not entirely and completely outlandish.
Let’s acknowledge all those disclaimers. “Maybe.” “Just maybe.” “Not entirely.” “Not completely.” “Outlandish.”

This is where a “Dumb and Dumber” quote might often be cited: There’s a chance.

Entering the weekend, Notre Dame had six remaining games, none of them cakewalks. Four of those, in particular, stood out as coin tosses, at best.

The Irish just turned one flipping half dollar into a 49-14 drubbing that was, for all intents and purposes, over by halftime. They are a quarter of the way to the Playoff — if being sticklers, a sixth — and another quarter of that dollar looks far more likely thanks to the ol’ transitive property. Notre Dame beat USC by 35. USC beat Stanford by 18. The Cardinal’s home-field advantage should not trump that math. (35 plus 18 equals, uhhh, 53. Right? Right.)

Maybe, just maybe.

Senior center Sam Mustipher found the right word to describe the balance needed between one week at a time and something bigger could be happening.

“You have to realize it’s a privilege to be where we’re at, and to not take for granted the opportunity we have moving forward,” Mustipher said. “Understand each snap, every play, as long as we go back to basics like we’re supposed to, we’re going to be in a pretty good position.”

Being in the conversation for a College Football Playoff bid is a privilege, not a right. Stick to the fundamentals against the Wolfpack, and that privilege can be extended another week like a Wisconsin driver’s license being good for eight years at a time. Lose focus, stray from the necessities, and suddenly that license is suspended. Feel too good about making it 22 months without a speeding ticket, and that streak can quickly become an 83-in-a-70.

“If we let this [win] get too big, we’re probably not going to do too hot against North Carolina State,” fifth-year left tackle and captain Mike McGlinchey said. “We just have to keep the message and the eyes forward, and as best as we can do that, good things will happen.”

Maybe, just maybe.

In no small part thanks to junior running back Josh Adams, Notre Dame has placed itself into the College Football Playoff conversation, and deservedly so. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

Notre Dame knows there is a long ways to go, but if the physical, emotional, psychological and stylistic outdoing of one of the country’s most-talented teams does not instill belief in those ambitious possibilities, what is the point of playing a team like USC every year?

None of this is to say the Irish are playoff-bound. This is to say Notre Dame showed that concept is no longer the ramblings of some blinded by wool. The Irish belong in the Playoff conversation. It is now up to them, and them alone, to stay in it.

While we’re here, let’s offer the reminder: The first College Football Playoff selection committee poll will be released Oct. 31 at 7 p.m. ET, otherwise known as the Tuesday after Notre Dame hosts North Carolina State. One of those two teams will be in the top-12 of that poll.

Mr. Stepherson, fashionably late is better than never in every regard.
When Kelly said sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson would have an increased role in the season’s second half, it may have come off as nothing but lip service. In his two games since returning from suspension, Stepherson recorded one catch for a loss of three yards. Even those wearing that aforementioned wool could not have genuinely anticipated a late-October resurgence.

Irish sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson notched his first touchdown of 2017 and sixth of his career in Notre Dame’s 49-14 victory over USC on Saturday. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

When Irish offensive coordinator Chip Long called a first-quarter end-around for Stepherson, it could have been seen as a gimmick. For all that anyone outside Long’s mind knows, perhaps it was intended as a one-off. Except it succeeded. Stepherson picked up 13 yards and a first down.

The end-around was called again on the next drive. Stepherson gained 11 yards and a first down.

This was a dynamic presented by Stepherson heretofore unseen, including his still-often-praised freshman season. Fifth-year senior Cam Smith has run a few such end-arounds already this year, so clearly this concept of utilizing receiver speed around the corner is a piece of Long’s playbook. Expect to see it again. Expect to see it with Stepherson.

Then Stepherson caught a 23-yard touchdown pass from Wimbush. The pass was thrown where it should have been, but it still necessitated an impressive snag from Stepherson.

“I knew that he was going to have an effective day,” Wimbush said. “I told him before the game, I’m coming to you a couple times here today. He did his thing and went up and got the ball for me.”

Stepherson finished with three catches for 58 yards along with the 24 rushing yards on two carries. That would be an admirable afternoon for any Irish receiver, especially in this passing-anemic season. Stepherson also returned a third-quarter kickoff for 11 yards, joining junior C.J. Sanders in the end zone as return options.

Smith did not play Saturday due to a hamstring injury. Look for an updated status on him either Sunday afternoon or Tuesday midday. Whether he is cleared to return soon or not, Stepherson may have staked his claim to Smith’s spot.

That does not mean Stepherson has supplanted sophomore receiver Chase Claypool. The latter had his chances against the Trojans — finishing with one catch for 13 yards — most notably a deep ball on the sideline on Notre Dame’s second snap from scrimmage. Wimbush just overthrew Claypool by a yard. (That one was on Wimbush. A later overthrow, intended for junior tight end Alizé Mack, probably should have been caught.)

The Irish will continue running, including against decent defenses.
Notre Dame ran 46 times against the Trojans, throwing 22 passes and taking one sack. Even if removing the fourth quarter (at the end of the third, the score was an easygoing 42-14), the Irish ran 37 times and threw on only 17 snaps.

Notre Dame will go as far as Long’s offense can run it. Finding success in the running game against USC deserves notice. The Irish had yet to find that option against a defense this good. That is partly due to not rising to the occasion against Georgia and Michigan State and partly due to not facing other strong defenses. Entering this weekend, the Trojans rush defense rated No. 65 in the country in yards per carry at 4.12 yards. The best defense Notre Dame consistently gained rushing yards against was No. 78 Temple’s.

USC does not boast a top-tier defense, but gashing it still counts as a step in the right direction. In this instance, “gashing” means running for 8.41 yards per carry.

Again, usurping any version of a “24-hour rule” and looking toward next week, the Wolfpack allow 3.04 yards per carry, good for No. 14 in the country entering the weekend. The Irish beat USC on the legs of junior running back Josh Adams and Wimbush (and Stepherson). Moving a step closer to that Maybe, just maybe will come down to that running game again next weekend.

Brandon Wimbush calls Chip Long, “Chip.”
This is completely inconsequential, but it led to a good laugh during Wimbush’s post-game media availability. Asked a question about him and Long getting to know each other’s strengths and tendencies, Wimbush started out referring to his coordinator as “Chip,” before catching himself in a public setting. The ensuing chuckles made it clear, some personal familiarity has already been established.

A Notre Dame fan’s thanks to give

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Brian Kelly is thankful for the opportunity to coach football at Notre Dame. Brandon Wimbush claims to be grateful for a room full of media. These typically-rote answers offered by the Irish coach and junior quarterback this week make surface-level sense, especially given the obligatory nature of dealing with that room full of cameras, reporters and recorders.

Senior linebacker and captain Drue Tranquill provided a more in-depth response Tuesday, thinking of his grandfather, or “Big Daddy.”

“He moved in with us probably about 12 years ago to help my parents taking all the kids to all their sporting events and stuff, and he was always the one taking me to my baseball tournaments, staying in hotels with me and taking me around everywhere,” Tranquill said. “So I’m really thankful for him and just the investment he gave to help me pursue my dream.”

What might Notre Dame fans specifically be appreciative of this holiday? With a likely — somewhat inevitable — personal skewing, let’s run through a few more than three dozen items worthy of giving thanks …

— Defensive coordinator Mike Elko. Last year the Irish defense created 14 turnovers and recorded 14 sacks. With a game to play before matching last season’s 12 games, Notre Dame has forced 18 turnovers and brought down the opposing quarterback 20 times. There is a reason Elko is a Broyles Award finalist, given to the country’s top assistant coach.

— Offensive coordinator Chip Long. His effect may not be as statistically-dramatic as Elko’s, but Long’s influence is rather noticeable, nonetheless. Long took over the play calling of an offense led by a first-year quarterback and — with two exceptions against two of the best defenses of 2017 — created a truly explosive attack.

— Strength and conditioning “coordinator” David Balis. Every indication, both on- and off-field, shows the Irish are in better shape this year, holding up better in fourth quarters and into the final month of the season.

“When you spend nearly 70 percent of your time with those [strength] coaches and with your physical and technical development, that’s key to having a sustainable model in terms of culture of a winning football team,” Tranquill said. “If you look at teams who have been successful, that’s where they’ve started. …

“That’s something we’ve been able to do here this year, and it’s helped us to be successful. I think it’ll continue to help us be successful.”

— Special teams coordinator Brian Polian. Notre Dame’s return units have not been explosive this year, but the coverage units have limited the opposition, something not inherently true the last few seasons. In many respects, with an offense producing as much as Long’s has, those return possibilities are not as vital to the team’s success as the coverage protections are, anyway. Breaking a return also relies on a singular talent more than team-wide coverages do.

“Sometimes to be great, you’ve got to have one great game-breaker,” Kelly said Tuesday. “You’ve got to have somebody that changes the game, and I don’t know that we have that guy right now.”

— White bread, toasted, dry, with nothing on it. And four whole fried chickens and a Coke.

— The emergence of the defensive line. During some back-and-forth banter in fielding this preseason’s ballots for the annual “Counting Down the Irish” series, jokes were cracked about how few defensive linemen warranted even consideration for the top-25 listing. In the end, three made the cut: sophomore end Daelin Hayes at No. 9, junior tackle Jerry Tillery at No. 11 and senior end Jay Hayes (no relation) at No. 20.

By this point, at least two more would land in the top 25, perhaps as many as four.

“Our defensive line has been a consistent group all year,” Kelly said. “… They’ve fought. They’ve been very consistent.”

— Specifically, sophomore defensive end Khalid Kareem has made himself a known commodity this season, making 5.5 tackles for loss including three sacks. His name will certainly land in next season’s “Counting Down the Irish.”

“This year has been a breakout year for him in [the weight room],” Kelly said. “He’s gained a lot of confidence, and he’s made so much progress in the weight room, so from a physical standpoint he can go in there and he can battle with anybody.”

— Freshmen defensive tackles Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa and Kurt Hinish give even further reason for forward-looking optimism along the defensive front. Neither was expected to be a contributing presence this season. Both have been, and they thus ease concerns about the possible pending departures of both starting defensive tackles, Tillery and senior Jonathan Bonner.

— Senior defensive end Andrew Trumbetti may not be the highlight-providing force Kareem or some of the other defensive ends are, but he has provided steady play on both ends of the defensive line. One could even consider his steady play exceptional, if that were not such an oxymoron.

Trumbetti very well may have saved the victory over Navy, diagnosing and pressuring the halfback pass before the play could fully develop. The subsequent incompletion allowed Notre Dame to kneel out the clock.

10 — 5-Hour Energy Extra Strength bottles of delight. They are the fuel behind this space multiple times a week, including each and every third quarter. Without them, the frame following halftime would hardly register in memory. Fortunately, they are smaller than 3.4 fluid ounces, meaning they can slip in with one’s toiletries when flying. Thanks, TSA.

Greer Martini. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

— The Irish have been remarkably healthy this season. Perhaps the closest thing to a severe injury timed itself for the bye week, so senior linebacker and captain Greer Martini (meniscus tear) missed only one game.

— In missing that one game, Martini created an opportunity for junior linebacker Te’von Coney to earn both more playing time and more notice. He now leads Notre Dame with 93 tackles through 11 games, even though he had all of 75 entering the season.

The Irish dominated USC without Martini, and he has looked little, if any, worse for wear since surgery to repair the torn meniscus. Thus, there was little-to-no short-term harm. Martini’s missing that game may have served Notre Dame a greater good in the long-term. Look at it this way: In the season’s first six games, Coney had a total of 42 tackles. In only five since, he has 51, including a team-high 11 against the Trojans.

— Bluetooth, one of the more-underrated technological advances that has become a commonplace luxury in the 21st century.

— USC’s gift of a fumbled punt. In retrospect, the Irish outplayed the Trojans in every facet of the game, but they relished the chance to go up 21-0 in the first half after USC muffed a punt inside its own 10-yard line. That moment may have sealed the outcome and will be one of the overlooked but consequential moments of Notre Dame’s 2017.

— Recovering that fumble may be the easiest turnover credit of Tranquill’s career. The most unexpected recurring quote of his collegiate time came following the 20-19 loss to Georgia. On-field, in-house interviews are only a symptom of the video board installed this year. If only for garnering this tidbit, the video board should be appreciated.

— Fettuccini alfredo. It is simple to cook, yet delectable either hot or cold. Even pizza cannot claim all those qualities.

Shaun Crawford’s forced fumble at Michigan State. The Spartans were literal inches from cutting the Irish lead to 21-7. The junior cornerback’s heady play to not only force the fumble at the goal line but then to also recover it opened the door for a 28-0 halftime lead. Much like Tranquill’s recovery against USC, this low-key highlight need not be forgotten as the season’s end nears.

— Pilot travel centers. Some things can be explained only after eight separate 1,000-mile roundtrip treks of I-94. The hot dogs are tolerable and cost-efficient, the bathrooms clean, the ease of access from the road quick. Not much else can be asked for in this life.

20 — Quenton Nelson, and not just for the above manhandling of Kelly after winning at Michigan State. The senior left guard and captain has been the best player for Notre Dame this season. It is unlikely he accepts Kelly’s offer of the coach’s parking spot to return next season, nor should Nelson do so.

— Mike McGlinchey. The fifth-year left tackle and captain’s on-field performance has been outdone by only Nelson, and McGlinchey’s off-field candor is unrivaled.

— The combination of Nelson and McGlinchey. The two have shifted the line of scrimmage all season. Their dominance allows the Irish to focus any blocking assistance on the right side entirely. It creates a litany of running design possibilities between combination blocks and/or pulling schemes. The two stand alone in many respects.

Such a hand-in-hand fit along an offensive line is rare in the NFL and nearly unheard of in college football. As great as the left guard/left tackle combination of Chris Watt and Zack Martin was just a few years ago — and it was superb — Nelson and McGlinchey have raised the bar even further, both in individual excellence and in the innate chemistry developed by starting alongside each other for multiple seasons.

— Asinine notes courtesy of a character named Edgar starting a thought process of actual, usable fixes.

— Robert Hainsey’s emergence this year. The freshman right tackle has complemented sophomore Tommy Kraemer wonderfully, making for a complete offensive line rather than only 80 percent of one.

“There’s been some learning curves,” Kelly said. “But standing here right now going into the last game, if you ask me about playing two first-time starters, I’m pleased with their performance.”

— The comfort that emergence provides when pondering the 2018 offensive line. Kelly and Irish offensive line coach Harry Hiestand could have reasonably hoped for one genuine starter to emerge at right tackle this season. To come up with two-fifths of next year’s line is a luxury unexpected but happily welcomed.

— There is an establishment directly across Angela Boulevard from Notre Dame’s campus. After every home game, “Things We Learned” relies on its wifi, its understanding and — especially after night games — its late hours. Even after day games, TWL needs midnight to fly by before conclusion, and that shelter provides a comfortable and nearby venue to function within.

— Offensive sets featuring two running backs, especially when both sophomore Tony Jones and junior Josh Adams are healthy. When afforded that availability, Long has made it a habit to put defenses in compromising positions by moving Jones out wide or using him as a lead blocker. Most every possible play design is feasible with both those ballcarriers in those alignments.

— The “33 Trucking” campaign to get Adams into Heisman contention was short-lived, but it did provide one excellent video.

30 — 70 miles per hour speed limits. Even this memory’s relatively short lifespan notices that uptick.

Kevin Stepherson’s perseverance to return. The sophomore receiver could have found many easier options than sitting out this year’s first four games, staying engaged the entire time and working his way back into the offensive scheme.

— Caffeinated gum. Before turning to those aforementioned bottles of 5-Hour Energy in the second half, coffee’s faster-acting cousin carries these fingers through the first quarter each week.

— The Irish do not have to return to Miami and Hard Rock Stadium until 2025, unless they end up in the Orange Bowl at some point, which would likely be considered a good problem to have, even if the last two trips to that venue have been complete and utter debacles. If anything, that description is being generous.

— ACC bowl tie-ins. A loss this weekend would send Notre Dame to Orlando for either the Citrus Bowl (Jan. 1) or the Camping World Bowl (Dec. 28). Before the deal with the ACC, it would be much more difficult to provide such a prognostication, and the options posited would be nowhere near as alluring, even after a 9-3 season.

— The College Football Playoff, a debate worth embracing. Arguing with computers in the days of the BCS never felt like the best use of time. At least now conversations can be based on logic, even if that logic is regarding whether a loss to Iowa State is a greater negative than a loss at Miami.

— Noon kickoffs. Oh, wait, well, never mind. 5 p.m. local time could be worse, though it may not be great for anyone hoping to view from London when that local time is on the Pacific coast.

— An unexpected Maui Invitational conversation at an airport bar. Take basketball chats wherever you can find them.

— Exit interviews. Kelly sat down with each and every player following last season to discuss what broader flaws led to the 4-8 disappointment. Suffice it to say, the resulting changes have been noticed. Kelly is yet undecided if he will hold the exit interviews again after this season.

“It was a valuable tool for me last year,” he said Sunday. “I’ll certainly give it some thought after we complete this game, but my focus really is on just trying to prepare our guys this week.”

— Keith Arnold’s poor judgement of capability, competence and character. Truly, thank you, Keith. I raise this glass of nine-year-old Foursquare Rum to you, good sir.

40 — Online commentators. Hopefully placing this acknowledgement here shows where it is amid priorities — last really is least — but still provides enough lip service to serve its purpose. If nothing else, some of those comments justify some other, shall we say, 40 thoughts.

And In That Corner … The No. 21 Stanford Cardinal and (maybe) Bryce Love

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Both Notre Dame and Stanford can still get to 10 wins before a bowl game, though the path for the Cardinal is a bit tougher. The Irish need to win one game, though it is at a place where they haven’t found a victory in a decade. Stanford needs to beat Notre Dame, have Washington top Washington State, and then the Cardinal could proceed to the Pac 12 title game for a rematch with USC.

The focus today is on this weekend, naturally. For some insight, let’s turn to Jacob Rayburn of the Cardinal Sports Report.

DF: Obviously the story this year has been Bryce Love. When he’s healthy, I’d argue he is the most explosive running back in college football. But, much like the Irish backfield, ankle issues have nagged at Love for most of the season. How is he this week?

JR: Bryce Love’s ankle and whether he will play is the mystery of the week. Love wasn’t able to finish the Big Game win over Cal and missed most of the fourth quarter of a three-point game. Love has a very high pain tolerance but it was too much Saturday after he was once again rolled on by a defender. He has done a fantastic job of playing the past couple weeks despite the fact that he has only one healthy ankle.

There are a number of Stanford fans on the forum arguing it’s not worth him playing this week. There is a chance the Cardinal will play USC in the conference championship game the following Friday, so a short week after a physical game would be troublesome.

Love’s scouting report is speed, speed, speed. He is more than that, though. What about his game sets him apart? Not that this is applicable this week, but curiosity forces me to ask, what kind of NFL future do you see for him?

His vision is excellent and he is much tougher to bring down than people think. The vision he has to spot not even a running lane but just a tiny gap between bodies is incredible. Love regularly slides through the smallest opening to break off a run that few other running backs would even try, let alone be able to do.

He’s had some bad luck with injuries the past two seasons that may raise questions about his durability. But when a 300-pound human falls on your ankle it doesn’t matter it if you’re a 220-pound running back or a 190-pound running back. It hurts.

Love’s speed alone makes him valuable for an NFL team, but his draft stock will also be determined by his ability to catch the ball — which he hasn’t been asked to do much this season, but he can — and if he can stop a blitzing defender. But even as a situational back and returner he would add great value to a team. He’s too talented a runner for a skilled offensive play caller not to find successful ways to use him.

Stanford sophomore quarterback K.J. Costello has completed 60.71 percent of his passes and averages 7.1 yards per attempt as he has thrown for 993 yards and five touchdowns, compared to only two interceptions, this season. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

Love has been the engine to the Cardinal offense this year partly because of some uncertainty at quarterback. Head coach David Shaw has now settled on sophomore K.J. Costello, but only a month ago he was hardly playing. Senior Keller Chryst had the honors then. We should expect Costello this weekend, right? What does he bring to the table that Chryst lacks?

There really isn’t a major difference in the skillset of the two quarterbacks, although when healthy Chryst is the better runner. But Chryst’s inconsistency was his undoing. He was capable of delivering NFL caliber throws one week against Oregon and then in the next game against Oregon State nearly throw multiple interceptions.

It would be simplistic to describe Costello as a gunslinger, but there is some merit to describing him such. He can make more happen with his arm than Chryst and his personality seems to bring out more energy from the team. Chryst is a tough kid who worked very hard to return to the team from a knee injury in the Sun Bowl, but Costello better balances the offense.

Costello didn’t see the field when Stanford slipped past Oregon State on Oct. 26. Neither did Love. Yet, that was the one game most people actually might have seen, played on a Friday night with little competition for eyeballs. What in the world happened that night? The Cardinal had been rolling along, winning four straight with three of them by at least 10 points. Was the offensive ineptitude entirely because of those two absences?

Not having Love really hurt but generally there were some major steps backward that Friday. As you pointed out there were positive signs in the previous four games that the offense’s worst days were behind it. That clearly wasn’t the case and fits into the narrative of this season that this Stanford team has been very difficult to figure out.

The Oregon State defense played inspired and there is something about playing up in Corvallis that does funky things to visitors. It has been a major trip for Pac-12 teams. Stanford’s offensive line wasn’t able to dominate the line of scrimmage like people expected in that game. And without Love, none of the running backs had the ability to turn a small opening into a big run.

Stanford’s rush defense is decidedly average, allowing 171.7 yards per game, good for No. 70 in the country heading into this weekend. Notre Dame’s rush offense is much better than average. What chance does the Cardinal have of slowing down that ground attack? Will Shaw sell out on that effort, daring Irish junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush to produce through the air?

Every week has been a challenging experience for Stanford defensive coordinator Lance Anderson to figure out a new way to keep opponents out of the end zone. Really there aren’t any statistics that show Stanford is a great defense and in some categories they aren’t even good. But the Cardinal are allowing only 21 points per game.

I expect Stanford to go all in to stop Notre Dame’s run game. This Cardinal defensive front is not a dominant group, even though they have one of the best interior players in the conference and even the country with senior defensive tackle Harrison Phillips. But the front seven has been inconsistent and was hurt significantly when inside linebacker Sean Barton suffered a season-ending injury at San Diego State in week three. Bobby Okereke is playing very well in the middle of the field and they would have been a formidable duo at this point in the season.

Entering the season, expectations were not as high for Stanford as they may have been in the recent past. That’s what happens when you lose two top-10 NFL Draft picks, one on each side of the ball. Yet, here the Cardinal are, with a chance to win the conference and head to a playoff-eligible bowl at 10-3. How much has this been seen as a “down” year in those parts? Has David Shaw’s performance this season earned the praise it likely deserves?

It has been a down year in the sense that Stanford’s inconsistency has left wins on the field. The loss to USC was completely understandable because the Trojans played like a playoff-caliber team that night. Sam Darnold and that offense looked better in that game than most of the rest of the regular season.

But losing to San Diego State and Washington State, and nearly suffering a stunning upset at Oregon State, were disconcerting for a variety of reasons. The loss to Washington State really hit the team hard because it was a painful missed opportunity to take control of the North Division. After that game Shaw went further to publicly criticize his own performance as a playcaller than he ever has before. There was a feeling that Stanford was at a tipping point where things could really go bad.

But the team has rallied since and they have a chance for another 10-win season. If Stanford can maintain that as the “down season” standard then that’s something fans can live with.

The Farm, as Stanford’s home field is known, is a unique place to play, offering great scenery though not often a rambunctious atmosphere. Notre Dame has lost on each of its last four trips to Palo Alto. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

With a 2.5-point spread in Notre Dame’s favor, bookmakers have this one pegged as closer than I expected. Perhaps that has to do with a decade’s worth of Irish struggles at The Farm. What do you expect to see unfold this weekend?

I think a lot has to go right for Stanford, especially on defense, to keep Notre Dame close. If Josh Adams and the Irish offensive line have their way it would be a very tough night for the Cardinal defense. I don’t expect Bryce Love to play in the game but anything could happen with someone as determined as him. Welcoming back tight end Dalton Schultz and wide receiver Connor Wedington — who missed the Cal game due to injuries — will help Costello keep the game close with the passing game.

I have Notre Dame by 10 points.

Notre Dame’s Opponents and Playoff Competition: Results and Upcoming

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Winning at Stanford would give Notre Dame its third win over a team in this week’s College Football Playoff selection committee top 25, with the Cardinal moving up one spot to No. 21 on Tuesday.

In Irish coach Brian Kelly’s mind, that résumé might yet warrant Playoff consideration.

“Our mission is still to hold out hope for one of the Playoff spots,” Kelly said Tuesday. “… It’s trying to prepare [his team] for one more game and finishing off the season on a high note.”

Kelly’s mission may be far-fetched, though he is certainly aware of as much. However, it is not yet beyond fathoming.

“If you’re in the top eight, you’re strongly considered,” Kelly said. “… The teams that are up there have all had one bad day, and we had one bad day, too.”

Remaining at No. 8, Notre Dame will need a few teams to have another bad day in the next two weekends. This past bland weekend left the top 12 largely unchanged, only Miami moving up to No. 2, knocking Clemson down to No. 3. A conspiracy theorist might think that set the groundwork for a tight Clemson victory in the ACC title game next weekend leading to both ACC finalists making the Playoff. With that in mind, make the first Irish-preferred domino a Miami victory in that game.

Kelly should also hope No. 6 Auburn beats No. 1 Alabama this weekend before losing to No. 7 Georgia next weekend. No. 5 Wisconsin topping No. 9 Ohio State next weekend in the Big Ten championship would likely aid Notre Dame’s cause, as would No. 12 TCU upsetting No. 4 Oklahoma in the Big 12 final.

For Notre Dame to make the College Football Playoff, Heisman front-runner Baker Mayfield and Oklahoma will likely need to lose at some point in the next two weeks. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

That scenario would leave Georgia, Miami and Wisconsin as likely locks for the Playoff. The conversation around the fourth Playoff spot would revolve around a one-loss Alabama, a two-loss Clemson, a two-loss Oklahoma, a two-loss TCU and a two-loss Notre Dame.

Of course, that all only comes into consideration if the Irish beat Stanford this weekend.

Arguments could be made for each of those five possibilities. Spending time on those could quickly be time spent on fantasy if all five of those dominos do not fall perfectly.

In that case, it remains simple for Notre Dame. Beat the Cardinal and make a Playoff-eligible bowl, which one likely depending on if Miami makes the Playoff or not. If the Hurricanes are in the Playoff, then the Irish may be heading back to Miami Gardens and the Orange Bowl. If Miami lands at its home venue, than a Notre Dame victory this weekend should send Kelly to the Cotton Bowl.

An Irish loss in Palo Alto still sends them to Orlando in one form or another, be it the Citrus Bowl (Jan. 1, 1 p.m. ET) or the Camping World Bowl (Dec. 28, 5:15 p.m.).

As a refresher of the Playoff contenders and their remaining slates:
1) Alabama: at No. 6 Auburn; with a victory in the Iron Bowl, then head to face No. 7 Georgia in the SEC championship.
2) Miami: at Pittsburgh, vs. No. 3 Clemson.
3) Clemson: at No. 24 South Carolina, vs. No. 2 Miami.
4) Oklahoma: vs. West Virginia; most likely vs. No. 12 TCU in the Big 12 title game, though the Horned Frogs have not secured that finish just yet.
5) Wisconsin: at Minnesota; vs. No. 9 Ohio State.
6) Auburn: vs. No. 1 Alabama; with a victory in the Iron Bowl, then head to face No. 7 Georgia in the SEC championship.
7) Georgia: at Georgia Tech; vs. the Iron Bowl victor.
8) Notre Dame: at No. 21 Stanford.
9) Ohio State: at Michigan; vs. No. 5 Wisconsin.

Notre Dame’s Opponents
Temple (5-6): The Owls lost 45-19 to undefeated Central Florida. Temple now needs to beat Tulsa (4 p.m. ET; ESPN News) to secure bowl eligibility. The Owls are favored by three with a combined point total over/under of 59, indicating a 31-28 conclusion.

Georgia (10-1): The Bulldogs trounced Kentucky 42-13, cashing in on another efficient performance from freshman quarterback Jake Fromm, who finished 9-of-14 passing for 123 yards, one touchdown and one interception. Georgia is favored by 11 against Georgia Tech (12 p.m. ET; ABC), an over/under of 51.5 pointing to a 31-20 result.

Boston College running back A.J. Dillon is the Eagles offense sole reliable producer at this point. (Getty Images)

Boston College (6-5): The Eagles secured a 13th game to the season by beating Connecticut 39-16 in Fenway Park, even though they were without starting quarterback junior Anthony Brown. Freshman running back A.J. Dillon picked up the slack, taking 24 carries for 200 yards and two touchdowns. Boston College now travels to Syracuse (12:20 p.m. ET; ACC Network) as 3.5-point favorites with an over/under of 56.5, roughly equaling a 30-27 score.

Michigan State (8-3): The Spartans moved up one spot to No. 16 in the CFP poll after beating Maryland 17-7. They can’t win the Big Ten, but they can win at Rutgers (4 p.m. ET; FOX), favored by nearly two touchdowns with a 26-13 decision sounding reasonable only if Michigan State comes out flat.

Miami (OH) (5-7): The RedHawks season ended Tuesday night with a 28-7 win at Ball State. Entering the year with seemingly-realistic aspirations of winning the MAC, missing out on a bowl game entirely makes for quite the disappointing season for former Irish assistant Chuck Martin.

North Carolina (3-8): The Tar Heels won their second straight, beating FCS-level Western Carolina 65-10. That win streak is likely to come to an end at North Carolina State (3:30 p.m. ET; ESPNU) this weekend. The Wolfpack is a 16-point favorite with an over/under of 56. Quick math makes for a 36-20 Tar Heels loss.

USC (10-2): After a 28-23 victory over UCLA, the No. 11 Trojans can finally enjoy a week off, their first of the season, before the Pac 12 title game next Friday. They will face either Washington State or Stanford then, depending if the Cougars beat Washington this weekend.

North Carolina State (7-4): A 30-24 loss to Wake Forest is the first real letdown of a loss for the Wolfpack since the season opener, only otherwise dropping games to Notre Dame and Clemson.

Wake Forest (7-4): Head coach Dave Clawson can put the final cherry on top of a resoundingly-successful 2017 with a victory against Duke (12:30 p.m. ET; ACC Network). Bookmakers certainly expect as much from the Deacons, making them 12-point favorites with an over/under of 58, leading to a 35-23 projected score.

Miami (11-0): The Hurricanes overcame a slow start to top Virginia 44-28. Just shy of two-touchdown favorites for its trip to Pittsburgh on Friday (12:00 p.m. ET; ABC), Miami will be fine with a 33-19 victory.

Navy (6-4): The Midshipmen will look to rebound from their 24-17 defeat at Notre Dame by traveling to Houston on Friday (12 p.m. ET; ESPN). While it would be an upset, Navy just might win, only a 4.5-point underdog with an over/under of 55. That’s a theoretical 30-25 nod toward the Cougars.

Stanford (8-3): The Cardinal put the pressure on Washington State to keep it out of the Pac 12 title game by beating Cal 17-14. After starting 1-2, this has been a strong turnaround for David Shaw’s charges. As of this early Wednesday a.m. typing, Stanford welcomes Notre Dame as 2.5-point underdogs with an over/under of 57. Hypothetically, that points to the Irish prevailing 30-27.

It should be noted, that over/under ticked upward by two points after Shaw said star junior running back Bryce Love is “day-to-day” Tuesday.

Questions for the week: If without St. Brown, who will Notre Dame turn to?

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Equanimeous St. Brown may not have matched his breakout sophomore season of a year ago, but his junior year has been nothing to scoff at. Despite being held without a catch in Notre Dame’s 24-17 victory over Navy on Saturday, primarily due to injury, the junior receiver stands second in all Irish receiving categories.

If St. Brown is not cleared from the concussion protocol by the end of the week, he will be missed at Stanford (8 p.m. ET; ABC).

How will Notre Dame adjust without its most consistent receiver?

St. Brown has 26 catches for 357 yards and three touchdowns this season. Sophomore Chase Claypool exceeds the first two figures and sophomore Kevin Stepherson caught his third and fourth touchdowns against the Midshipmen. Those two are the obvious candidates to replace St. Brown’s production.

Sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson led all Irish receivers with five catches for 103 yards and two touchdowns during Notre Dame’s 24-17 victory over Navy on Saturday. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

That applies to Stepherson more than Claypool, despite the greater physical disparity from St. Brown. Simply enough, Stepherson’s continued increase in prevalence in the Irish passing game would likely surpass a healthy St. Brown this weekend.

The other possibility is junior Miles Boykin. In St. Brown’s absence this past weekend, Boykin caught two passes for 33 yards. His physicality and skillset most mirrors St. Brown’s, and plugging him into any three-receiver sets would allow Stepherson and Claypool to stick to the roles they regularly rehearse.

Will Notre Dame slow Stanford star running back Bryce Love? Rather, will the Irish need to?

Continued ankle and lower leg injuries have hampered Love for much of the season now. They kept him on the sidelines when the Cardinal barely slipped past Oregon State a few weeks ago, and they limited his fourth quarter this past weekend during Stanford’s 17-14 victory against Cal. The junior finished with 101 yards and a touchdown on 14 carries. Backup Cameron Scarlett added 61 yards on 14 carries.

Injuries have been about the only thing capable of consistently stopping Stanford running back Bryce Love this season. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

In the fourth quarter, Love took four carries for 11 total yards. For a running threat rarely stopped at or behind the line of scrimmage, it was startling to see him take one of those carries to the line and no further while another gained just one yard.

Thus, there seems to be some logic to Stanford keeping Love sidelined once more. If Washington beats Washington State on Saturday — played concurrently on FOX with the game at hand — then the Cardinal heads to the Pac-12 title game. As much as Stanford undoubtedly wants to beat Notre Dame, there are many more rewards available for winning the conference, such as a nice New Year’s holiday spent in Phoenix, Ariz., instead of a Christmas week spent at home preparing for the Foster Farms Bowl in Santa Clara, Calif.

Will there be any movement within the College Football Playoff poll?

When it comes to tonight’s poll, not much, if any, of note. Few games registered on the national radar last week, and none resulted in top-10 upsets.

One development affects it looking forward, though. West Virginia quarterback Will Grier underwent finger surgery Sunday and will not lead the Mountaineers against Oklahoma as a result (3:45 p.m. ET; ESPN). If West Virginia ever stood a chance at the upset — and greatly helping any Irish dreams of still reaching the Playoff — it was likely going to need an otherworldly performance from Grier.

With a win this weekend, the Sooners would all but assure themselves priority over Notre Dame, even if Oklahoma loses to TCU in the Big 12 championship.

Will Miami finish the regular season undefeated?
Similarly, a win this weekend should lock the Hurricanes ahead of the Irish no matter next week’s results. Miami heads to Pittsburgh (12 p.m. ET on Friday; ABC), but that should not be seen as the sure thing instinct might imply it is. A mere 54 weeks ago, a middling Panthers team upset the No. 3 team in the country, stopping Clemson’s pursuit of a perfect slate.

Can Georgia survive Georgia Tech’s option?
Again, a Bulldogs win (12 p.m. ET, ABC) should secure them a nice spot in any chaos-filled future pecking order. However, that will not be an easy task. Paul Johnson will be sure of that.

Can North Carolina State hit the over?
This may not be as consequential, but before the season, this space predicted the Wolfpack would exceed 7.5 wins this regular season, and a win over North Carolina (3:30 p.m. ET; ESPNU) is needed for that cause.

Lastly, remember folks, you won’t nod off late Thursday afternoon because turkey has an excess of tryptophan. Chicken actually has more per ounce. Rather, you simply ate too much of the fowl.