And In That Corner … The Duke Blue Devils, Notre Dame’s first-ever conference opponent

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For 103 consecutive Notre Dame games, this space has featured a preview of the upcoming opponent from a beat writer on the other side of the aisle in the press box. That stretches back to the 2012 season opener, a run that includes a national championship appearance, a College Football Playoff appearance and a trip to Dublin, as well as two undefeated regular seasons, a few chaotic wins against Michigan and all of that 2016 debacle.

Sometimes a student writer jumps in at the 11th hour to answer the questions (Ball State). On occasion, one newspaper writer will help out twice within one season (Virginia, Virginia Tech). Every so often, the process involves no hiccups or worries whatsoever (Navy).

Thanks to Brian McLawhorn of DevilsIllustrated.com, we can make it 104. As one might imagine, Brain had neither advance notice nor much time to turn around the answers, but he did not balk, and for that, we should all be quite grateful …

DF: I appreciate you stepping up to field these questions on particularly short notice in chaotic times. I apologize for my tardiness in sending them your way; I felt a responsibility to actually do some Duke (2:30 ET; NBC) research first.

Obviously, any research turned up Chase Brice’s name in the first sentence. The Clemson transfer has been named the Blue Devils’ starting quarterback and one would presume a well-built, experienced quarterback is all Duke head coach David Cutcliffe asks Santa for every winter. Brice’s career stats (82-of-136 for 1,023 passing yards and nine touchdowns with only four interceptions) are enough to get past any small sample size worries and efficient enough to suggest as much talent as one would presume from a Dabo Swinney recruit. What do the Blue Devils expect from him? What buzz have you gleaned, admitting the lack of spring practices and a typical preseason may have robbed you of any chances to see him yourself?

BM: I think quite simply Duke needs Chase Brice to be a confident leader of the offense, and David Cutcliffe expects as much. That comes with the territory for a starting quarterback, but it’s something that was lacking last season. Quentin Harris was a great teammate and leader in the locker room, but he lacked the ability to efficiently run the offense and put it in the best position to succeed. Duke was never able to become a threat offensively because of it. Brice won the starting job because Cutcliffe believes he gives Duke the best opportunity to open up his offense and be a threat to create explosive plays. It’s a lot to put on the shoulders of a transfer that’s been on campus for less than two months, particularly in such a unique environment that exists due to COVID-19. But Cutcliffe has complete faith in Brice and has built a culture around him of players that will not let him bear the weight alone. 

As far as the buzz around Brice’s presence goes, his teammates seem to love his confidence and ability to quickly fit in with the rest of the squad. Brice had connections to the roster with Will and John Taylor, whom he played high school ball with in Snellville, Ga., so it’s helped him connect quickly with his fellow teammates. Beyond that, I think he’s generated excitement around his ability to open opportunities for big plays downfield, something that was lacking last season. Unfortunately, due to practice restrictions for media as a result of the virus, I have not seen him in person, so it’s difficult to offer my own assessment. I think overall people around the program are excited for the Brice era to get rolling. 

Chase Brice
Clemson graduate transfer quarterback Chase Brice could change the dynamics of Duke’s offense under head coach David Cutcliffe’s tutelage. (Photo by John Byrum/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Brice will have a few returning skill position players, but from what I have gathered, Duke’s offensive success may come down to its offensive line. That line returns four starters and 102 starts, and also added a Stanford graduate transfer, but it also struggled greatly in ACC play last year. Is the lack of change actually a good thing, or could this be more of a weak spot once again?

Duke’s offensive line certainly stumbled during conference play last season, ranking No. 11 in sacks allowed, while struggling to open up holes consistently for the run game. But there’s actually a lot of change that’s happened with the offensive line – by way of injury and new faces. 

Duke hired a new offensive line coach in Greg Frey, who previously held roles at Michigan and Florida State, and he has injected a new level of intensity that this Duke offensive line has not possessed in the past. I have heard great things about how he has re-energized this offensive line, and based on Chase Brice’s assessment, the group has progressed quite a bit in camp. 

Just last week, the unit took a huge blow with last season’s All-ACC Honorable Mention recipient and starting center Jack Wohlabaugh suffering a torn ACL, effectively ending his season. With his loss, Duke will run out just two full-time starters from last season’s unit, redshirt sophomore Casey Holman and sophomore Jacob Monk. They will be joined by Stanford grad transfer Devery Hamilton, who has started 10 games in his career, redshirt sophomore Maurice McIntyre, who has one start and played 347 snaps last season, and finally Will Taylor, who has started three games in the past and will play center. 

So despite the injury to Wohlabaugh, there is a lot of excitement and optimism around this offensive line. There’s young talent with some experience under their belt, so I expect this group to be better than it was a year ago. How much better? I don’t know. It’s hard to make that overall assessment having not seen them firsthand, but those around the program tell me there is a different aura with this group.

The Blue Devils defense should not be a weak spot, led by possible first-round draft pick defensive end Chris Rumph and former All-American cornerback Mark Gilbert, but its interior strikes me as middling. Given Notre Dame’s experienced and promising offensive line, how can Duke mitigate the damage done up front?

Well, this is the big question mark. As you mention, Duke will have an ability to put pressure on the offense from the edges, and the backend of the defense should be strong. The uncertainty lies up the middle at tackle and linebacker. 

Middle linebacker Shaka Hayward should be poised for a big year, and I think he will help a lot in Duke’s ability to implement blitz packages and clog the middle against the run. No matter, though, they’ll need to probably scheme their way into limiting damage up front. Derrick Tangelo and Ben Frye have been named Duke’s starters at tackle, so there’s some experience with Tangelo, but Frye has never started a game. Behind them, Duke has four freshmen making up the depth chart. That’s a lot of uncertainty. And for a team that struggled mightily at keeping opponents from running the ball effectively up the middle a year ago, that’s not very comforting. On the bright side for Duke, it’ll be mostly a fresh start. 

If these guys cannot limit damage in the middle and prevent Notre Dame from controlling the line of scrimmage and running the ball as they please, all that talent on the edges and in the secondary will be rendered useless. 

That’s a lot of responsibility for some new faces, so the bottom line is they have to be disciplined and the coaching staff likely has to be creative in how to bring help. 

To my understanding, Cutcliffe has decided to call plays this season rather than offensive coordinator Zac Roper. How much of a change will this be? Cutcliffe’s reputation precedes him, but I have always thought that to be in development, not so much on game day.

It will be a huge change for Duke. Zac Roper’s play-calling was as much of an issue for Duke as Quentin Harris’s struggles at quarterback last season. He was conservative, not very creative, and was repetitious and predictable. That was a recipe for disaster, and it played out that way. 

There is an expectation that Cutcliffe will be all of those things that Roper was not. And players are excited about Cutcliffe’s new role with the offense. And while, yes, his reputation is as a quarterback guru, and someone that develops talent, he’s one of the most talented offensive minds in the game. He orchestrated the Tennessee offenses in their heyday and played key roles in that while at Ole Miss as well. The bottom line is that perception of development hasn’t translated to game day because that’s what’s talked about. He hasn’t called plays in more than a decade, so out of sight, out of mind. 

Ultimately, this Duke offense will be more aggressive under Cutcliffe, and I anticipate seeing more chances being taken. 

Duke was the last of the ACC schools to allow football players to return to campus and began voluntary workouts on only July 12. What sense have you gotten about where the program feels it is in its general readiness? We are all grasping at straws in some of these regards, but you certainly know better than I do.

Again, as you mention, even from my perspective there is some sense of grasping at straws. In a normal world, I would have seen these guys in action several times by now during scrimmages. So, it’s just me trying to read players and coaches in how they respond to questions, and gauging thoughts from those around the program. 

Several ACC schools that got off to an early start had to shut things down for a little bit due to positive COVID cases, so their prep time was hit. I think the one benefit Duke’s had by the late start is the lack of issues with the virus. They have played catch-up, but this extra week of preparation has helped them feel a little more confident. Luckily for Duke, the players were extremely disciplined in prepping for the season before returning to Durham. Cutcliffe has mentioned multiple times how pleasantly surprised the staff was with the work the team put in on their own. 

I think some uncertainty exists for players, although none have outright said that. They’ve worked hard in the time they’ve been allotted, but Saturday will tell us a lot about how the late start has impacted them. 

Lastly, as nearly three-touchdown underdogs, how close do you think the Blue Devils can keep it this weekend?

I believe they can keep it under that three-touchdown number, and perhaps be in striking distance. I truly think this Duke team will look a lot different than it did a year ago, and will be more competitive. They have to get off to a good start, though, particularly with this being the opening game of the season. Duke has to build confidence early to make this game have a more competitive spirit. 

As we talked about previously, the key for Duke will be along the lines on either side. Defensively it will be not allowing Notre Dame’s offensive line to dictate things play after play after play. The Blue Devils’ interior line has to hold its own. That doesn’t mean win every battle, but it means being enough of a presence that the team’s strengths – edge rushers and secondary – can be in a position to play at their very best. 

Offensively, the guys up front have to give Chase Brice time to make plays. If they give him time, he has the tools and players around him necessary to give Duke a fighting chance. 

If those things don’t happen, it could go awry quickly. 

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.