And in that corner… The Stanford Cardinal

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Notre Dame’s second primetime home affair has lost some of its luster. But every time the Irish play Stanford, a good game usually ensues, so even if the Cardinal are riding a two-game losing streak and Notre Dame comes in amidst a confidence-crushing swoon, there’s plenty at stake in the annual battle for the Legends Trophy.

To get us ready for Stanford is Do-Hyoung Park. A fellow Minnesotan from the great city of St. Paul, Do does everything for the Stanford Daily, all while on track for his masters in chemical engineering.

After spending the summer covering an epically bad Minnesota Twins season, Do is back in Palo Alto and went deep to get us ready for David Shaw and the tough gentlemen from the Pac-12.

Hope you enjoy.

* Let’s start with the obvious: What’s happened these last two weeks? After a strong start to the season, the bottom has fallen out against Washington and Washington State? What ails David Shaw’s team?

That’s the million-dollar question, isn’t it? No, really. If I knew the answer, I’d be making millions coaching the Cardinal right now, because, frankly, offensive coordinator Mike Bloomgren doesn’t exactly know what’s wrong with his offense, either, and he actually gets paid to do this. From top to bottom, Stanford is still among the most talented teams in the conference and is arguably the best-coached team in the Pac-12. On paper, this team isn’t 38 points worse than Washington, and it’s definitely not 26 points worse than Washington State.

Heading into each of the last two matchups, Bloomgren thought his offense — and the line — was trending up, only to be utterly blindsided by how badly Stanford fell on its face in execution both times. Bloomgren is actually concerned at this point that he might be over-coaching the line and giving them too much to think about, which has made Stanford hesitant in the trenches and slow to react to opposing defenses. But even with the injuries, there’s really no reason that the team should be playing this badly, and nobody can really put a finger on why — not the players, not the coaches and certainly not the fans. We saw this sluggishness to start last season on offense as well — and all it took was one jolt (a flea flicker against UCF) to light the fire. Stanford is still searching for that jolt, but nobody seems to know when (or how) it’ll come.

This answer might feel like a cop-out, but it’s really the prevailing sentiment around the program right now.

 

* After getting robbed in last year’s Heisman voting, Christian McCaffrey is back and clearly one of the country’s best football players. That said, his production is down and he’s now dealing with an undisclosed injury that has his status for the weekend up in the air.

A few questions on McCaffrey:

1) Is his drop in production tied more to the change in personnel up front or defenses keying on him?

In terms of public perception, Christian McCaffrey’s biggest enemy is how good Christian McCaffrey was last season. It’s really not fair to point to a “drop in production” and to ask what’s wrong, because the standard that he set last year was quite literally unprecedented in the history of the sport. He did go well over 100 rushing yards in each of Stanford’s first three games of the season despite a lot of turnover on the offensive line, with double-digit receiving yards in each of those games, to boot. In terms of all-purpose yardage, his numbers are down because nobody is kicking to him anymore — and rightfully so. The rushing and receiving numbers were still otherworldly.

Of course, I say “were” because he was bottled up quite well against both Washington and Washington State, but those numbers should be taken with the caveat that against Washington, Stanford found itself in a big hole early and couldn’t keep the ball on the ground (McCaffrey only carried the ball 12 times), and against Washington State, the Cardinal decided to go with 4-WR or 5-WR shotgun for most of the night, even before McCaffrey left with his injury.

The offensive line breaking in three new starters certainly hasn’t helped his cause. Last season, he’d get three or four yards before getting hit on any carry, but this year, he’s getting hit near the line of scrimmage more often — and regardless of how shifty he is, McCaffrey can’t carry the load by himself. I wouldn’t necessarily say that defenses have been keying in on him, either — in the last two weeks especially, defenses haven’t really needed to do so because Stanford was just that outmatched at the line of scrimmage.

2) Is there a feeling that he’ll actually miss this game — and maybe more — especially with Stanford’s postseason goals likely already squashed?

It’s really too early to tell, but my best guess is that he won’t play on Saturday. Stanford has already tried to rush somebody’s recovery this season (CB1 Alijah Holder) and he re-injured himself and is set to miss his third straight game this weekend. I’d say that with a player as valuable as McCaffrey, Stanford is going to take every precaution possible to make sure that he’s only going to play when he’s absolutely, 100 percent healthy, which probably won’t be this weekend. It helps that sophomore running back Bryce Love is very much like McCaffrey in his own right and has been chomping at the bit for an extended look since last season. Shaw said after the Washington State game that he didn’t put McCaffrey back in because it wasn’t worth it in a blowout. Not to say that the Notre Dame game isn’t important, but this doesn’t seem like a particularly worthwhile game to mess with McCaffrey’s health, especially with the team sitting at 3-2 and third place in the Pac-12 North.

3) Is there any chance he comes back to the Farm for his senior season?

People seem to be treating it like a done deal that McCaffrey will declare for the draft at the end of this year, but I’m personally of the opinion that he’ll be back next year. I don’t know how to say this in a way that doesn’t come across as incredibly pompous, but quite frankly, there’s no real reason to leave Stanford’s campus and educational opportunities early — especially when you’re the second-most beloved student at the school (behind Katie Ledecky). Generally, players that have left Stanford after only three years, like Alex Carter, Austin Hooper and Andrus Peat, have either been unhappy with the football program or with the academics at the school. McCaffrey doesn’t seem to fit into that mold at all. Remember: Even Andrew Luck stayed for his senior season.

4) Do you think his career at the next level can be representative of his dominance in the Pac-12?

Not as an all-around threat. As good as McCaffrey has been at the collegiate level, I don’t think he’s sturdy enough to be an every-down, between-the-tackles running back in the NFL, where everyone is an athletic freak of nature, or fast enough to be a good returner. I believe McCaffrey’s future in the NFL will be something like a Wes Welker/Danny Woodhead hybrid, where I could see him being heavily involved in a team’s passing game out of the backfield while also lining up in the slot to match up against linebackers and safeties in coverage, where he can do plenty of damage thanks to his tremendous field vision and open-field maneuverability. His route-running and hands as a receiver are already among the best on the team (even among the actual wide receivers), which I expect to be his primary calling card at the next level.

 

* Notre Dame’s season went up in smoke. Stanford’s feels a bit in free fall. We’ve spent a lot of time here discussing the root cause of the problems facing the Irish. Are there big picture issues in Palo Alto, or are fans taking a more measured approach to the two-game swoon?

You would expect Stanford fans, of all people, to be reasonable, right? I was confounded to see people calling for David Shaw’s head and for the team to replace Burns at quarterback during the loss to Washington State, and even got blocked on Twitter by one of our fans for refusing to publicly denounce the coach that has taken the program to three Rose Bowls in the last four years. Really controversial stuff, right? The sad truth is that there’s a segment of fans that forget just how utterly abominable Stanford football was as recently as 2007 and fail to appreciate what Shaw has done for this program to make Stanford a perennial conference championship contender. That’s not to say it’s all bad — there are plenty of fans out there that remember the doldrums of the mid-2000s and are letting cooler heads prevail — and rightfully so.

The fact of the matter is that Stanford’s recruiting pipeline is only growing more formidable and the coaching staff is full of proven winners that aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. This program is built to stay. I sure hope our fans are able to keep that in perspective.

 

* Defensively, Solomon Thomas and Harrison Phillips look like monsters up front and Stanford’s run defense seems to be back to what it was in previous seasons. But again — two straight weeks have you wondering what gives with the Cardinal defense, and the pass defense is 95th in the country. This is Lance Anderson’s third year coordinating the unit. How stiff of a challenge will he give the Irish offense?

Thomas and Phillips are absolutely monsters up front, but the execution bug has been plaguing them over the last two weeks, too. The Stanford pass rush just wasn’t able to get consistent pressure on either Jake Browning or Luke Falk, and especially with the Cardinal’s top two corners out, Stanford seemed unwilling to send too many blitzes and leave its less experienced defensive backs on islands against two of the best quarterbacks in the conference (if not the nation). The coverage actually hasn’t been all too bad, but given enough time, receivers will always get open. Browning and Falk had time, and they didn’t miss their receivers.

Stanford is also down another starter this week, with budding star safety Justin Reid (brother of Eric) lost for the first half after being ejected for a targeting penalty in the second half against the Cougars. Cornerback Quenton Meeks is expected to be back for the game and sophomore corner Frank Buncom IV has played really well in his first collegiate action, but the secondary’s depth is precariously thin at the moment. Lance Anderson is the king of in-game adjustments with his coverages and pressures, but if Notre Dame can take advantage of Stanford’s anemic pass rush to put up one or two scores early, the Cardinal might again be in trouble, since this team is clearly not built to play from behind.

 

* This game has routinely been one of the best on the calendar each year, a rivalry growing in importance at both the school and national level. What’s this game mean to the team? What’s it mean to the fans? And is it a game that means something to Stanford fans, too?

I guess this is technically a trophy game, right? To tell the truth, it honestly doesn’t feel like much of one on campus. Of course, people dislike Notre Dame, but only as much as the country in general seems to dislike Notre Dame, for, well, being Notre Dame. The fans out here certainly don’t see it as a rivalry or anything. Last year’s Senior Night spectacle at Stanford Stadium aside, matchups against Notre Dame just seem to lack any sort of clout because it’s either a) in South Bend, which is a world and a half away from the Bay Area or b) the last week of the season, when the Pac-12 race has already been decided and Stanford has already been eliminated from BCS/Playoff consideration.

The game might have meant something more to Kevin Hogan (whom I really hope isn’t broken in half behind the Browns’ offensive line) because his late father was a huge Notre Dame fan, but among the rest of the team, it really feels like just another game — especially with Stanford at 3-2 and Notre Dame at 2-4 this year.

 

* How do you see this football game playing out? And how much do your expectations change if the Cardinal are without McCaffrey?

Notre Dame’s defense has been a mess, but I’m not sure the Stanford offensive line will be able to figure things out before Saturday. They might, but given that they’ve been working without results for the last two-plus weeks, it seems hard to believe that after dropping a dud against Washington State, they’ll all of a sudden find their mid-season form against a Notre Dame team that has much more talent than the Cougars. I think Notre Dame’s offense takes advantage of Stanford’s anemic pass rush and missing defensive backs to take an early lead that it’ll hold against the McCaffrey-less Cardinal. I don’t think Stanford’s offense changes all too much without McCaffrey (Love is talented and versatile, too — we’re very excited about him) but the offensive line in its current form won’t win too many games. I’m taking the Irish, 27-14.

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

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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 likely 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

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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

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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

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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.