Pregame six pack: The Holy War

43 Comments

When Notre Dame goes to Chestnut Hill, they’ll be playing not just to get to 10-0, but to continue a winning streak against a rival that brings out the ire of Irish fans everywhere. Even with Boston College 2-7 and in the midst of a season that’ll likely end with Frank Spaziani getting fired, you won’t see any sympathy from Notre Dame fans, and certainly won’t see Brian Kelly’s squad take things easy either.

Kelly might not be well versed — or a fan — of replaying Notre Dame football history, but it isn’t hard to understand why this game means something to both sides. The series between the two Catholic schools was fairly innocuous until 1992, when the Irish rolled the undefeated and ninth-ranked Eagles 54-7, going as far as to fake a punt in the third quarter with a 37-0 lead. Tom Coughlin and his squad didn’t take kindly to the move and the next year, the Eagles used that snub as fuel to their shocking 41-39 upset, ruining the Irish’s undefeated season just a week after they beat Florida State. The No. 8 Irish lost the year after that as well, and while Notre Dame rallied to take back the momentum of the series throughout the late 90s, from 2001-2008, Boston College reeled off six consecutive wins, a streak that included the Eagles’ shocking 14-7 win over Ty Willingham’s No. 4 ranked Irish, who donned green jerseys.

With the Irish once again No. 4 and taking on a decided underdog, the Eagles will relish their role as potential spoilers as any postseason aspirations have washed away with seven Boston College losses.

‘‘I would rather knock Notre Dame out of the national championship than go to the Toilet Bowl,’’ offensive lineman Emmett Cleary said. ‘‘They’re not Alabama, but they’re a very good team. They’re winners and they’ve pulled out a lot of close games, so we’ve got our work cut out for us, for sure.’’

As Notre Dame prepares to take on Boston College for the 22nd edition of the Holy War, here are six fun facts, tidbits, leftovers and miscellaneous musings to get your ready for the Irish versus the Eagles.

***

If you were worried about the Irish special teams, you should worry about Spiffy Evans.

There isn’t a whole lot to get excited about for Boston College fans. But in a game where the Eagles will need to win by dominating the turnover battle and making big plays on special teams, one weapon the Irish will need to watch out for is wide receiver Spiffy Evans.

The sophomore from Hollywood, Florida hasn’t been burning up the field as a wide receiver, but he’s been one of the nation’s most explosive punt returners, averaging over 31 yards a return on the season. Evans has only had seven opportunities to field returns on the season, but he’s already broken one for a touchdown, and played a major factor in both of B.C.’s wins this year, racking up over 200 yards on five returns during the two wins.

Frank Spaziani talked about getting Evans involved in the return game.

“I think we’ve done a good job on our punt return scheme, Xs and Os, and then I think Spiffy has gotten a little more confidence and he knows where we’re going,” Spaziani said. “We’re not doing much back there, and it’s a matter of seeing an opening and taking it, and we’ve gotten a couple breaks with kicks and coverage and things like that. You put it all together, and it leads you to a 31‑yard average, which has been a big plus for us.”

Opponents haven’t started to kick away from Evans yet, but it’ll be interesting to watch how Ben Turk handles his punting duties on Saturday night.

***

Stephon Tuitt will be taking dead aim at Notre Dame’s single-season sack record.

With ten sacks through nine games, Stephon Tuitt ranks fifth in the country in taking down quarterbacks. And in his breakout sophomore season, Tuitt is also taking dead aim at the Notre Dame record books. Currently, Tuitt is tied for the third-best pass-rushing season in school history, tied with Bert Berry (1996) and Mike Gann (1984) with ten. He’s just a half sack behind Victor Abiamiri’s 2006 senior season and Justin Tuck’s impressive 2003 junior campaign, when Tuck racked up 13.5 sacks and 19 tackles-for-loss.

Making Tuitt’s season all the more impressive is the fact that he’s doing this as a true sophomore. Tuitt’s numbers for underclassmen are tops in the country, with Oregon State’s Scott Crichton (9.0) and South Carolina’s Jadeveon Clowney (8.5) trailing Tuitt’s sack totals. All of that done from his 3-4 defensive end position, and often times sliding inside to defensive tackle in pass rush situations.

A season after tallying just two sacks in spot duty, Kelly talked about the confidence he had in his all-everything defensive end.

“We thought that he could pick up and be a better pass rusher for us this year because we were going to give him more of those opportunities to do that,” Kelly said. “So being on the field as much as he has and the kind of player he is, he’s quote unquote an inside player, but as you know, when we go to four down, we can kick him out and he can play at the end position too.”

Against a Boston College offense that’ll depend on the passing game to move the football, Tuitt will certainly get his chances to rack up some stats Saturday night.

***

If the flu couldn’t slow Louis Nix down, don’t expect the Boston College offensive line to do it either.

A week after gutting out an impressive performance after spending two nights in the infirmary, Louis Nix is back and healthy, joking with the media and preparing to take on a hefty load up front with back-up defensive tackle Kona Schwenke battling a shoulder injury. After “going into a gun fight with a pair of scissors,” Nix is back to full strength and ready to challenge an Eagles front that’s struggling with some depth after guard Ian White questionable with an ankle injury.

The Eagles offensive front isn’t one of Spaziani’s most stout, and the mediocre B.C. running game — a horrific 122nd in the country with just 75 yards a game on 2.7 yards per carry — is in for a load with Nix fired up and back to his jovial self.

Nix even jokingly explained how he planned the Irish comeback against Pitt.

“We said, Coach, we’re going to let them go up 20-6 in the fourth. We’re going to try to come back, have the fans sweating,’” Nix joked. “Told Everett, don’t do your magic until the last five minutes. He agrees, ‘Yeah. I’m gonna get the touchdown, get the two-point conversion.’ Then I hit up Cierre, told him fumble the ball. And then he let it go. Then, at the end of the game, I hit up the Pitt kicker, ‘Just go to the right a little bit.’

“I’m just kidding. It was a close one. We’re just happy we won. We just kept fighting the whole game and that’s all that matters.”

Whether it was Nix, or “Touchdown Deal With It Jesus,” a healthy defense — with Manti Te’o also recovered from his own battle with the flu — should help the Irish shut down a one-dimensional Boston College offense.

***

While the chemistry on this Irish team is certainly a key to an undefeated start, some of that groundwork was laid last season by leaders like Jonas Gray.

There is no doubt that the unity and chemistry on this Fighting Irish squad is better than the previous teams under Brian Kelly. Whether that’s a product of entering the third year of the program or strong leaders like Manti Te’o, this team has continued to win close football games thanks to mental and physical toughness that just wasn’t exhibited enough last season.

But that’s not to say it wasn’t there. While the 2011 Irish slumped to a 8-5 record as injuries and turnovers marred the season, they were lucky to have some strong leaders that laid the groundwork for the 2012 team that’s now the surprise of college football. While you’d expect the locker room to miss veteran leaders like Harrison Smith and Michael Floyd, UND.com’s Strong and True moment featuring running back Jonas Gray gives you a good idea of the culture that’s being built under Kelly and his staff.

***

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ntZBdeKNUcE&w=640&h=360%5D

***

Gray’s postgame talk after having his knee demolished against Boston College is one of those moments that help you understand what makes sports so great. That Gray was able to support his teammates when he knew his career at Notre Dame was over — not to mention any professional aspirations — goes to show you that a team like this wasn’t just formed in one offseason, but a team that evolved over time.

Addressing the team on crutches and fighting back tears, Gray cites the same Alexander Dumas quote that Manti Te’o referenced this year, comparing life to a storm. “You will bask in the sunlight one moment, be shattered on the rocks the next. What makes you a man is what you do when the storm comes.”

After spending much of the offseason and training camp rehabilitating the knee injury suffered against the Eagles last year on Senior Day, Gray is now back to practicing with the Dolphins. It’s a moment in the sunlight that’s well deserved.

***

Another Saturday, another opportunity to improve for Everett Golson.

The lights might not be as bright as they were against Oklahoma, but Saturday night is another primetime opportunity for Everett Golson to take command of this Irish offense. A week after rallying the Irish back for victory against Pitt, Golson will have another chance to play a team that’s over-matched on paper.

This time, it’ll be up to the young quarterback to bury the opponent.

For the Irish to do that, they’ll need to play better in the red zone and get a more efficient performance out of Golson. When asked about the young quarterback’s week of practice, Kelly praised the progress Golson made staying in the pocket and making the correct throws.

“The thing we really asked him to do was to get his footwork settled within the pocket,” Kelly said. “That was probably the priority from last week’s game. Get settled in the pocket. I think you can say it all you want. They have to decide to want to do it and I thought he decided this week that he was going to work on that and he made some progress.”

Golson’s inability to settle in behind center cost him a few easy reads, including one to tight end Troy Niklas that Kelly acknowledged Thursday after practice. And with a young quarterback learning as he goes, mastering the basics and adding that to his game-breaking abilities will help catapult this offense to new places.

***

There’s a chance Notre Dame could come up smelling like Roses this year.

Thanksgiving weekend might not be the only trip the Irish take to Southern California this season. While there are plenty of permutations possible as postseason bowl implications continue to sort themselves out, there’s a growing chance that Notre Dame could find itself heading to Pasadena this year, matching the Irish up with the Grand-Daddy of them all, the Rose Bowl.

The Irish have only played in one Rose Bowl, way back in 1925, but if the Irish find themselves the odd man out in the National Championship game, a date on New Year’s Day in Pasadena might be quite the consolation prize.

“There is still so much that can happen, and of course the biggest story out there is whether we would take Notre Dame, but there is a lot to play out before it starts to become a serious conversation within our group,” Rose Bowl spokeswoman Gina Chappin said Wednesday.

The Irish playing in Pasadena will likely mean Oregon makes its way to Miami, bumping the No. 1 Pac-12 team out of its traditional spot in the Rose Bowl. And if Oregon State stumbles against Stanford and Oregon, and the Irish give USC another loss, the Irish all of a sudden look mighty attractive as an at-large option, with potentially no Pac-12 team even in the BCS top 14 .

‘‘There are so many variables that go into the conversation of the matchup. It’s not a conversation we have a lot,’’ Chappin said. ‘‘We’re at a position right now where it’s too early to focus on the what-ifs.’’

Any what-if that don’t include Notre Dame (and perhaps an undefeated Irish squad) in the national championship are obviously relegated to back-up duties. But January 1 in Pasadena certainly isn’t the worst fall back in the world.

No. 15 Notre Dame vs No. 6 USC: TV, Time, Preview & Prediction

2 Comments

Every so often, Marcus Freeman’s honesty emphasizes how young he is. It is not just that the first-time head coach was only at Notre Dame as its defensive coordinator for one season before being promoted, but he is also just 36 years old.

Freeman has assuredly watched a few Notre Dame vs. USC games, but he was a sophomore at Ohio State when the most famous game of Freeman’s life occurred, the Trojans topping the Irish courtesy of the infamous Bush Push in 2005. The Buckeyes were wrapping up a win against Michigan State as this rivalry kicked off, coming back from an early 10-0 deficit.

So Freeman turned to a Notre Dame expert this week for some insights into this rivalry. 

“I spent some time [Monday] morning actually talking to [Irish offensive coordinator Tommy] Rees,” Freeman said. “He’s been out there twice, once or twice as a player and then once as a coach. I know he was out there in 2018.

“I played out there in 2008 when I was at Ohio State, but to be a part of this rivalry for the last game of the year, and there’s a lot on the line for both teams.”

Rees has, in fact, enjoyed two trips to the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum capping unbeaten regular seasons, not to mention a win out west in his third career start in 2010. If ever there were moments for USC to stymie Notre Dame dreams, it was in 2012 or 2018. Instead, the Irish clinched championship chances on the road, certainly a sweeter venue to do so at than Stanford’s Farm.

All of which brings us to today, when No. 15 Notre Dame (8-3) can do what USC did not on those occasions, upset the No. 6 Trojans (10-1) and halt their Playoff hopes.

TV: ABC has the broadcast tonight with its top booth on the call, Chris Fowler and Kirk Herbstreit. The latter will fly out from the College GameDay set in Columbus, Ohio, a bit of an irony given Notre Dame started its season with that booth and that set in Columbus, Ohio.

TIME: 7:30 ET, with the West Coast’s sunset coming only minutes after kickoff tonight.

PREVIEW: The Irish have played some talented quarterbacks this season, most notably Heisman frontrunner CJ Stroud to open the season and North Carolina sophomore sensation Drake Maye later in September. Notre Dame kept them both in check.

But neither was playing as well as Trojans star Caleb Williams of late.

“He is a talented quarterback,” Freeman said, sounding nearly exasperated. “We have faced some really good quarterbacks this season, and he is one of the best I’ve seen. His arm strength is one thing. His decision-making is another, his ability to extend plays.

“He’s one of the few guys I’ve seen just continuously break tackles. Yeah, he can make people miss, but he breaks tackles. Guys have their hands on him and he continues to stay up and that can be devastating to a defense. That can make you try to do something outside of what your responsibility is on defense. I want to make a play, I’m going to try to rush around this guy instead of staying in my lane. You have to stay in your rush lanes, but you can’t play cautious.”

If any Notre Dame unit should be disciplined enough to toe that line, it is the Irish defensive front-seven. With the exception of junior defensive end Rylie Mills, every starter up front for Notre Dame is a senior, and Mills may not even technically start. Among the linebacker rotation, the only action from a non-senior may be sophomore Prine Kollie’s limited snaps.

But in the secondary, the Irish may have a concern.

“We got to cover those wideouts and continue to mix up the coverage we play against [Williams],” Freeman said. “Continue to do your job, stay in your rush lanes. If you have an opportunity to bring him down, bring him down and bring your feet and don’t dive.”

Notre Dame will not have senior cornerback Cam Hart tonight, dealing with yet another shoulder injury. Northwestern safety transfer Brandon Joseph should be back from a high-ankle sprain, but losing Hart against the Trojans’ bounty of receiving weapons may leave freshman Jaden Mickey and/or junior Clarence Lewis in uncomfortable depths.

In that respect, it could be reminiscent of the last time the Irish visited Los Angeles, something only the fifth- and sixth-year players have done. Then a freshman, cornerback Tariq Bracy was repeatedly targeted by USC quarterback JT Daniels. It got to a point that the entire press box would point to Bracy before the snap whenever he was in single coverage.

Of course, Notre Dame won, anyway, sealing a Playoff berth, not what is at stake for the Irish tonight but instead now a Trojans hope.

PREDICTION: Game flow is less an abstract concept than a box score often indicates. It was supposed to be a Notre Dame strength all season, with Rees’ opening game scripts an asset in 2021. Eight of the 13 Irish opening drives last year resulted in quality possessions, but only six of 11 have this season. More notably, that six of 11 trend was an early-season struggle, Notre Dame failing to put together a quality possession on its opening drive in three straight games to end September. Since then, Rees has directed a quality possession to open five of seven games, including each of the last two.

If that streak reaches three, then the Irish may spring the upset tonight as 4.5-point underdogs, as of Saturday morning.

That is an obvious claim: If you score early and possibly take a lead on the scoreboard, you have a better chance at winning.

But the thought goes beyond that. Notre Dame’s greatest strength matches USC’s greatest weakness: a dominant rush game of late meeting the worst rush defense in the country. The Irish want to lean into the ground game just as they did against then-No. 16 Syracuse and then-No. 4 Clemson. To do so, they need to remain in range of Williams’ explosive offense.

Rees’ early-season struggles early in games appear to be behind him. And that is reason enough to think Notre Dame will win yet again in Los Angeles.

Notre Dame 27, USC 24.
(Spread: 2-9; Over/Under: 3-8; Straight-up: 6-5)

INSIDE THE IRISH
Notre Dame’s seniors set a ‘foundation’ for Freeman’s tenure, prove it with Boston College rout
Notre Dame finally adds a QB to its recruiting class of 2023, landing former Pitt commit Kenny Minchey
Notre Dame’s Opponents: Irish hopes of a Cotton Bowl appearance hinge on Tennessee comparison
And In That Corner … Playoff-hopeful USC gives Notre Dame a chance to be spoiler
Things To Learn: Notre Dame’s season of development to be tested, and perhaps proven, on ground at USC

OUTSIDE READING
Can Caleb Williams have another Heisman moment? What to watch for in USC-Notre Dame
Ranking (and picking) this weekend’s spiciest rivalry games
Five current most compelling Notre Dame-vs.-USC recruiting battles
 Notre Dame vs USC Odds, Picks and Predictions: Fighting Irish Keep Caleb and Co. Under Check
Here are 9 chaos CFB scenarios you may (or may not) root for this weekend

Things To Learn: Notre Dame’s season of development to be tested, and perhaps proven, on ground at USC

3 Comments

Notre Dame did not have four-year starting offensive lineman Jarrett Patterson to open the season at Ohio State. Sophomore running back Audric Estimé had never been the lead back for a Saturday afternoon, and he wouldn’t be in that role for another couple weeks. And the Irish special teams had not become a game-wrecking unit just yet in that 21-10 loss.

Patterson has started every game since then, every bit the leader expected as a two-time captain. Estimé has rebounded from a game-costing fumble to Stanford by taking 57 carries for an average of 6.1 yards per rush the last four weeks. And Notre Dame’s punt block unit has gotten to seven boots this year, the rare big-play that almost feels usual by now.

But those signs of progress have not come against an opponent as talented as the Buckeyes. No. 6 USC (10-1) may yet be a few steps behind Ohio State, but it is cut from the same cloth: An explosive aerial offense supplementing a defense in transition. So as No. 15 Notre Dame (8-3) returns to a likely similar gameplan, the Trojans (7:30 ET; ABC) will be the measuring stick of how far the Irish have come.

“We have to continue to prepare, prepare, prepare, and that is what is the answer to the test,” head coach Marcus Freeman said Monday. “I don’t know any other way. It isn’t to come up with trick plays. It isn’t trying to confuse them.

“It’s prepare and continue to get better at the things we do really, really well.”

Run the ball. That’s what Notre Dame does really, really well. And here is the twist this weekend: USC is worse at defending the run than anyone else in the country.

Remember when the Irish found an early lead against Syracuse and then completely and successfully abandoned the pass in the second half in order to just wear down the Orange front? USC is worse against the run than Syracuse.

Teams do not expose that Trojans’ weakness as often because USC’s offense creates a worrisome lead, usually spurred by its defense forcing a couple turnovers. But on a per-rush grade, the Trojans’ rush defense can be considered the worst in the country.

“Expected points added” is not a complex version of analytics: When factoring in down, distance, time and score, a team has an expected points total on a possession. Every play changes that total. When teams rush against USC, they add 0.294 points to their expected points total on each snap, on average.

That is last in the country. At 0.134 expected points added per rush against, Syracuse ranks No. 116.

More traditional numbers show the same problem while lessening the Trojans deficit because of their scoreboard-testing offense.

USC: 147.2 rushing yards against per game, No. 67 in the country.
Syracuse: 155.6 rushing yards against per game, No. 77 in the country.

USC: 4.57 yards per rush against, No. 102 in the country.
Syracuse: 3.94 yards per rush against, No. 57 in the country.

Notre Dame’s ground-and-pound approach starred in the second half against the Orange, to the extent that the Irish attempted just five passes after halftime, completing one for 11 yards. And yet, Notre Dame grew its lead. That was an extreme approach, albeit a successful one.

It was less successful in Columbus, the Irish throwing eight passes after halftime, completing just two for 49 yards. That day’s failure sparked some outward existential crisis, but Notre Dame never wavered from this offensive identity.

“The growth in our offense, the growth in me as a head coach from the first game of the year has been tremendous,” Freeman said. “I’m not trying to say that’s a compliment. I’ve grown a lot from that moment, but it’s a compliment to our offense, not for me.

“I think back to that game and all I wanted to do was run the ball and huddle, run the ball and huddle, run the ball and huddle. And we had some success doing it. We didn’t run the ball that game and early in the year as we’re doing now.”

Freeman went on to insist a well-rounded offense will be crucial Saturday, but the reality is less complicated: If Notre Dame’s rushing development is as strong as it has seemed of late, then the Irish should notch a road win against a top-10 team.

That would mean Notre Dame’s plodding offense can match the Trojans’ high-flying one by leaning on Estimé, Logan Diggs and Chris Tyree. They would, in effect, reduce USC’s chances at scoring. Syracuse head coach Dino Babers compared Notre Dame to a triple-option offense in that respect.

It would be a proof of concept Freeman and offensive coordinator Tommy Rees can build on this offseason. One season’s development elevating the Irish from false hope at Ohio State to Playoff spoiler against their biggest rival.

“There’s a different feeling about this one, and I can feel it amongst our program and our players,” Freeman said. “I knew it last year, but this year being at the end of the year at USC, you can really feel it.”

It might be a different feeling, but it should be the same — but better — Irish offense as seen on Labor Day weekend.

And In That Corner … Playoff-hopeful USC gives Notre Dame a chance to be spoiler

4 Comments

The last few years of And In That Corner … previews of Notre Dame’s meeting USC spent extensive time on the job status of former Trojans head coach Clay Helton. Finally, that storyline is far in the past and everything else about No. 6 USC (10-1) is intriguing.

To catch up on all that has changed for the Trojans — maybe the only program in the country that can match the Irish for amounts of drastic changes in the last 52 weeks — let’s chat with Adam Grosbard of the Orange County Register before kickoff on Saturday night at 7:30 ET on ABC.

DF: Brian Kelly’s favorite axiom that Marcus Freeman has leaned into a bit is that “Winning is hard.” It is. And anytime a team has must-win after must-win after must-win, it can wear out the 18- to 23-year-olds. USC may be at that risk, coming off that back-and-forth 48-45 win at UCLA last week and with the Pac-12 title game awaiting in a week. Though only one game into that three-game stretch, do you sense any version of the high-wire act wearing out the Trojans?

AG: Not really, though it would be tough for anyone on the outside to sense that prior to Saturday’s game. USC has had opportunities to overlook games all season. Fresno State before Oregon State, Arizona State before Washington State and Utah, Colorado before UCLA. The Trojans never allowed themselves to get caught looking. It’s hard to look past a rival like No. 15 Notre Dame (8-3), especially when the team understands it’s two wins away from the College Football Playoff. And defensive tackle and captain Tuli Tuipulotu described this season as “the revenge tour” for returning Trojans — they are well aware no player on the roster has ever beaten Notre Dame while at USC.

This whole season has been a high-wire act for USC. It may be 10-1, but four of those wins came by one score, barely escaping at Oregon State and Arizona before that UCLA close call, not to mention giving up 35 points to Cal. Both Arizona and Cal needed late touchdowns to make the scores that close, but even two-possession wins against the bottom half of the Pac 12 should be concerning for a Playoff contender. What has it been about the Trojans that leads to such drama this year?

In a word, defense. The unit has generated headlines by creating turnovers, but it also has been extremely shaky at tackling and basic coverage. The defense had the furthest to go after the Clay Helton era, and it’s nowhere near a final product and likely won’t be for at least another year. But USC scores enough and creates enough turnovers to win in spite of its shortcomings.

Obviously, the story at USC is the offense. If quarterback Caleb Williams stars Saturday, he could find himself as the Heisman frontrunner on Sunday. The offseason headlines were about him and Pittsburgh transfer Jordan Addison, but the Trojans pulled in two transfer running backs, as well, in Travis Dye from Oregon and Austin Jones from Stanford. Dye is now out for the season. How much has that changed USC’s offense?

It really hasn’t at all, surprisingly. Dye was a tremendous weapon for USC, but Austin Jones stepped right into his shoes with 25 touches for 177 yards and two touchdowns against UCLA. Jones was a workhorse back at Stanford for a while before falling out of favor. He is a patient veteran back who doesn’t try to do too much. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t areas that USC misses Dye. The senior back was unstoppable in third-and-short, and Jones does not match Dye’s ability as a pass blocker.

Defensively, the Trojans are playing with fire. They force 2.2 turnovers per game, mostly picking off opposing quarterbacks (18 interceptions in 11 games). Let’s set aside the absurd turnover margin of +20, and focus on the defensive chaos. Only Washington State has avoided giving up the ball against USC this season. UCLA can point to four turnovers as to how it lost. What are the Trojans doing to force all these turnovers? There must be more to it than luck, even if 13 of 17 fumbles, including their own, going their way is a bit fortuitous.

I’m honestly not sure this is explicable, because there certainly is luck involved. But I respect defensive coordinator Alex Grinch‘s simple philosophy that the ball doesn’t know that it’s supposed to go to the offense, and the ball doesn’t know about the law of averages.

To me, those may be the two keys this weekend. Can Notre Dame turn USC’s offense one-dimensional — for all Caleb Williams’ deserved hype, any offense that averages 5.34 yards per rush will struggle to adjust if it can no longer rely on the ground game — and avoid gifting the Trojans’ defense a few more turnovers? If yes and yes, then an upset may be brewing. What would you pinpoint as a third key?

Can USC get some tackles for loss? That’s been an under-the-radar part of the USC defense this year, but USC averages more than six tackles for loss per game and just fewer three sacks per game. That’s how the Trojans’ defense has gotten off the field in its better games, by creating third-and-long situations for opposing offenses. Notre Dame conversely has been very good about preventing negative plays, so that will be an area to watch for me.

Before I get to asking you for a prediction, let’s jump back to November and to August. First of all, last November, when Lincoln Riley took the USC job less than 24 hours after the Oklahoma season ended, how shocked were you?

The night before the Riley hire was announced, a leak came out that Matt Campbell was staying at Iowa State. At that point, I was honestly wondering if USC was about to end up with Jack Del Rio as coach. So to say I was shocked when the Riley news dropped would be an understatement.

And in August, what did you expect from the Trojans this season?

In one sense, this team is exactly what I expected: A superb offense that needs to outscore a bad defense. What I did not expect was how quickly the offense would come together, or how many turnovers USC would force. Because without turnovers, you’re probably looking at a respectable 8-3 team right now, which was more in line with my expectations.

Now then, a prediction. USC is favored by 5.5, as of late Wednesday night. How do you see Saturday night playing out?

I’m expecting a lot of points, possibly a game that comes down to who has the ball last. In those games, I usually pick the team with the better quarterback so in this case I’m picking USC and Caleb Williams.

Notre Dame’s Opponents: Irish hopes of a Cotton Bowl appearance hinge on Tennessee comparison

1 Comment

This all depends on No. 15 Notre Dame beating No. 6 USC on Saturday night (7:30 ET; ABC). If the Irish lose, then this entire conditional scenario goes out the window.

It’s conceivable, Notre Dame (8-3) winning. Its current five-game winning streak has been impressive enough to earn back some of the respect the Irish lost with their 3-3 start. The Trojans (10-1) are only 5.5-point favorites, a piece of worthwhile context as we delve into this wonder, can Notre Dame make the Cotton Bowl?

Whether it is preferable to play in the Cotton Bowl against the AAC champion or in the Holiday Bowl against a strong Pac-12 opponent, as an example, is a different debate. The fact of the matter is, the Irish would have no say in that debate. Either they finish the season ranked high enough by the Playoff selection committee to be required to play in the Cotton Bowl or they don’t.

That ranking will come down to how Notre Dame compares to the current Nos. 9-14 after Tuesday night’s poll update.

Map out a Playoff scenario any way you’d like — “If LSU beats Georgia …,” “If TCU loses …,” — the conclusion remains rather consistent: Beating USC may not be enough for the Irish; to jump all six teams directly in front of them, the Irish may need to dominate the Trojans.

Some of those scenarios include Kansas State in the Sugar Bowl (with TCU in the Playoff) and some slide Tennessee into the Orange Bowl (requiring two SEC teams in the Playoff), but otherwise, the question is how Notre Dame compares to Oregon, Tennessee, Penn State, Kansas State, Washington and Utah.

If this thought process has changed drastically in a week, thank the Volunteers’ blowout loss at South Carolina. Suddenly, it is not a sure thing Tennessee would remain ahead of the Irish no matter what they do this week. That opens up the board.

Yet, the Volunteers may still be the hurdle the Irish cannot clear.

No. 9 Oregon — at Oregon State (3:30 ET; ABC) — Good wins: vs. UCLA, vs. Utah — Bad losses: None.
No. 10 Tennessee — at Vanderbilt (7:30 ET; SECN) — Good wins: at LSU, vs. Alabama — Bad losses: at South Carolina.
No. 11 Penn State — vs. Michigan State (4 ET; FS1) — Good wins: None — Bad losses: None
No. 12 Kansas State — vs. Kansas (8 ET; FOX) — Good wins: vs. Oklahoma State — Bad losses: vs. Tulane.
No. 13 Washington — at Washington State (10:30 ET; ESPN) — Good wins: at Oregon — Bad losses: at Arizona State.
No. 14 Utah — at Colorado (4 ET; P12N) — Good wins: vs. USC  — Bad losses: None.
No. 15 Notre Dame — at USC (7:30 ET; ABC) — Good wins: vs. Clemson, hypothetically at USC — Bad losses: vs. Marshall, vs Stanford.

Note: Oregon and Kansas State are likely to play in conference title games. Kansas State beating TCU would adversely impact the Irish chances, unless the Horned Frogs still landed in the Playoff. Oregon beating USC would not matter, as that would be the Trojans second straight loss, likely knocking them out of the top-12, regardless.

So Notre Dame needs to beat USC, have TCU win the Big 12 and … trust the committee to ignore September.

Beating Clemson and USC would be a better pair of wins than any of those six teams can claim, but for Tennessee (9-2). Losing at home to Marshall and Stanford looks far worse than the Volunteers’ losses at Georgia and at South Carolina.

Thus, it is hard to see the Irish reaching a New Year’s Six Bowl unless they outright devastate the Trojans, a la their 35-13 win against Clemson and 44-0 shutout of Boston College this month.

Of course, Tennessee is now without star quarterback Hendon Hooker. Maybe the Volunteers lose to former Notre Dame defensive coordinator and current Vanderbilt head coach Clark Lea. The two Irish defensive coordinators since Lea’s departure would greatly appreciate that, if they can get by USC at the same time.

Any losses among those other six teams will help the Notre Dame claim.

Oregon: Favored by 3, as of midday Wednesday, at Oregon State (3:30 ET; ABC).
Tennessee: Favored by 14 at Vanderbilt (7:30 ET; SECN).
Penn State: Favored by 18.5 vs. Michigan State (4 ET; FS1).
Kansas State: Favored by 11.5 vs. Kansas (8 ET; FOX).
Washington: Favored by 2 at Washington State (10:30 ET; ESPN).
Utah: Favored by 30 at Colorado (4 ET; P12N).
Notre Dame: A 5.5-point underdog at USC (7:30 ET; ABC).

If not the Cotton Bowl, the Irish will find themself somewhere in the first tier of ACC bowl tie-ins. That becomes more a subjective exercise, but the more notable half of that tier includes …

The Holiday Bowl in San Diego on Dec. 28 against a Pac 12 opponent.
The Cheez-It Bowl in Orlando on Dec. 29 against a Big 12 opponent.

The Duke’s Mayo Bowl in Charlotte on Dec. 30 against a Big Ten opponent.
The Gator Bowl in Jacksonville on Dec. 30 against an SEC opponent.