And In That Corner … Clemson’s wounded defense looms for Notre Dame

DJ Uiagalelei Clemson
ACC Media
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We’re all suffering through another waiting this week, so let’s do away with the formalities at the top here and instead jump straight into a preview of Saturday’s matchup of No. 4 Notre Dame (6-0, 5-0 ACC) and No. 1 Clemson (7-0, 6-0), in which Matt Connolly of The State newspaper discusses Clemson’s defensive wrinkles, worrisome injuries and, of course, freshman quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei

DF: I usually enter these Q&As with some intentional blindspots, things I know are somewhat important, but the beat writer’s answer will be both more informative and more convenient than me doing my own research. That’s not the case here, at least not intentionally, because you and a few of your colleagues so aptly supplement the already-robust national coverage of the Tigers. And there are no big picture queries here, because Dabo Swinney has created the most stable program in the country. (Alabama is No. 2 if only because of Nick Saban’s age, though I suppose that creates some uncertainty at Clemson, as well.)

For example, you spent time last week detailing Brent Venables’ diabolical abilities in avoiding defensive predilections, keeping opposing quarterbacks and coordinators up all hours of the night. I have two follow-up questions to that story. First, the pertinent: Has Venables dialed back in those regards in any perceivable way this season or even just recent weeks without several defensive starters? I think my current list is close to accurate; The Tigers will be without linebackers James Skalski and Mike Jones, tackle Tyler Davis, end Justin Foster and, for the first half, end Xavier Thomas. That’s less than ideal.

MC: Clemson was still holding out hope that Jones and Davis would be able to play, but Dabo Swinney ruled them out Wednesday night. So yes, Skalski, Jones, Davis and Foster will all be out Saturday, and Thomas will miss the first half. Foster hasn’t played all year, so Clemson is used to playing without him. And Thomas missed the first three games and has been limited since returning, so Clemson is used to playing without him as well.

As far as dialing back his defenses, Venables hasn’t done that at all. If anything, he has gotten even more creative. Clemson opened last week’s game in a 4-2-5 with Jones out. I expect to see Clemson mainly in a 4-3 against Notre Dame to try to slow down the rushing attack, but there will still be plenty of blitzes. It would not be a surprise at all to see several different formations with 3 and 4 down linemen.

Before my second follow-up question, how inaccurate is my list? Which of those are the greatest losses that Notre Dame might be able to exploit?

No Tyler Davis and no James Skalski is a huge loss for Clemson. That means Clemson’s best linebacker and best defensive tackle will be out. Both players are very good at stopping the run and clogging up the middle, necessities against this Irish offense.

My other question about that Venables story from last week: I am sure there was some bit you could not get into the story that you still thought was worthwhile. The cutting room floor is never clean after that much reporting. Whether or not it applies to this weekend, what one thing didn’t hit the print that you still have logged in your head?

I touched on it a little bit in the story but I think just the fact that it’s the combination of Venables and the players Clemson gets that makes its defense so good. Here’s a quote from former Georgia and Miami coach Mark Richt:

“Quite frankly there’s a very big margin between Clemson and everybody else in our league. They’re just physically superior top-to-bottom when you go to the top 22. They can withstand injuries. They can withstand suspensions. They can withstand issues whereas other teams don’t have enough depth.

“Alabama is probably playing against more teams that are more like them than Clemson is in our league. So that doesn’t hurt. They’re pretty good against the best teams, but LSU had their way with them like they did with everybody. So everybody’s beatable.”

On blitzing and bringing people like Isaiah Simmons from all over as Clemson did last year, Richt said sometimes Venables brings six-plus rushers to go up against five offensive linemen:

“You end up with your sixth guy (blitzing) is a guy like Simmons and you’ve got your running back trying to block the guy. Even the best running backs, the only thing you can hope is that they get run over slowly.”

Boston College and Phil Jurkovec cut through Venables’ defense in the first half last week. My notes watching the game were simple: “The real story not O, but Clemson’s D.” What were the Eagles able to do that led to 21 first-half points (28 coming via a 97-yard fumble return)? What did the Tigers do to shut that down after halftime?

Early on BC used tempo, took some shots and connected. As the game went along, I thought Boston College made a mistake by slowing down the tempo, running the ball more and shortening the game. It’s hard to beat Clemson by trying to run out the clock. I think Clemson’s defensive backs also did a better job of finding the ball in the air in the second half and making plays on the ball. Jurkovec also missed some throws.

Opponents are not having much success running against Clemson, 2.74 yards per carry, despite many people thinking this defensive front pales in comparison to recent years. Notre Dame has leaned on the run this season, although not necessarily against the staunchest competition. It is hard to ask, “How good/bad is this Tigers line?” while removing the 2018 generational version from the comparison points, but if that’s possible, is there a weakness up front for the Irish to target?

I don’t know that there’s necessarily one weakness to target. I just think when you have the injuries Clemson does, it’s going to be tough for the Tigers against Notre Dame’s offensive line. Clemson’s defensive line will rely on guys like Justin Mascoll, Bryan Bresee, K.J. Henry, Jordan Williams, Nyles Pinckney and Myles Murphy. They’re all talented players and three are former five-star recruits, but Davis can take over a game, and Skalski is a guy Swinney said he had to take out of practice at times this spring because it wasn’t fair to the offense — he was making every tackle. 

I focus on Clemson’s defense. I think it is what has elevated this program the last five years. Defensive fronts like the Tigers’ standard don’t take games off, lessening the chances of an inexplicable upset. But the highlights go to the offense.

Obviously this week that starts with freshman quarterback DJ Uiagalelei. Aside from experience, what are the biggest differences between him and Trevor Lawrence?

I think experience is far and away the biggest difference. Uiagalelei has a huge arm and can make every throw, and offensive coordinator Tony Elliott said Saturday the game plan for Boston College didn’t change at all once Lawrence was ruled out. Swinney made headlines this spring when he said Uiagalelei makes Lawrence “look kind of normal at times” with his arm strength. That’s a heck of a statement. Of course experience is no small factor. When you have a guy who has played in four College Football Playoff games and a guy who is making his first career road start, that’s a big difference.

The other difference would be size. Uiagalelei is massive at 6-foot-4, 250 pounds. He’s tough to bring down in the pocket and can get tough yards in short-yardage situations.

Heading into last week, Uiagalelei was nursing an injury. It seemed to limit his exposure to hits early against Boston College, but then he broke that 30-yard touchdown run to get within one possession, and it was clear he is still plenty mobile. How severe is that injury? Does it limit Uiagalelei?

It’s actually a throwing shoulder injury Uiagalelei has been dealing with. Clemson definitely does not want him taking too many shots, but as you mentioned they ran him a little bit against BC. I think it’s a situation where they want to protect him some but also understand he makes a big difference in the running game when he can keep on some zone reads. My guess is his carries are limited, and when he does run he’ll do his best to protect his shoulder. 

Have you, personally, recovered from the shock of Lawrence’s positive coronavirus test? I suspect last Thursday was a day in your professional life you will remember for a good while.

Last Thursday was wild, for sure. I was coming back from picking up some pizza, checked my phone and had several messages from friends asking if the news about Trevor was true. I made some phone calls and started working on a story pretty much immediately. I guess that’s just the world we live in during COVID times. You never really know when major news is going to break.

Needed follow-up: What kind of pizza?

It was Pizza Inn, which I’m not sure y’all have there. Sausage/pepperoni and chocolate chip pizza.

Is … that … on one pizza? Or is the chocolate chip a dessert pizza, almost a big cookie? You have my attention.

Two different. Chocolate chip pizza is one of the best things I’ve ever eaten.

And then there is Travis Etienne. If he gets rolling, Notre Dame does not stand a chance, and he has shown a penchant for taking over in Lawrence’s stead when necessary. If granting that as a fact, then the best chance for the Irish to contain Etienne will be devoting either linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah and/or safety Kyle Hamilton to the cause. Let’s say that works, as those two might actually be physically capable of the task. What will Clemson’s next offensive ploy be? If Etienne somehow accounts for only 120 total yards and one score, where do the Tigers turn for four more touchdowns?

Let’s start with Etienne. If I’m Notre Dame, I’m as concerned with him catching the ball out of the backfield as I am with him getting carries. Etienne is averaging 15 yards per catch and is a nightmare to bring down in the open field. Defenses have done a nice job of bottling him up and closing down running lanes this year, but he is second on Clemson’s team in receptions and receiving yards.

As far as other playmakers to watch — it starts with Amari Rodgers. The senior lines up mostly in the slot but is also Clemson’s best deep threat. He has 40 catches for 586 yards and six touchdowns this season. Rodgers is tied for fourth in the ACC in catches, second in yards and is tied for the team lead in touchdown receptions. Cornell Powell, Frank Ladson and Joseph Ngata are other receivers to watch out for, while Braden Galloway is a receiving threat at tight end. Ngata and Ladson have big-play potential, but Ngata has been limited by injuries all year and Ladson has struggled with drops.

I suggest five total touchdowns because if this game remains in the 20s, I think Notre Dame has a chance. Admittedly, these last two questions have now included three massive “if”s, but that is what happens when facing a team with 36 regular-season wins in a row. IFs becoming THENs is what creates an upset. Have I missed any other “if” propositions you think may prove distinctly relevant?

I don’t really have any other “if” propositions but one other thing I think is fascinating is the way the two teams have viewed the game. Notre Dame has been pretty open this season about how it is pointing to the Clemson game as a huge one. The Tigers have said they’re treating it just like any other game. We’ll see how that plays out Saturday.

What do you expect Saturday night (7:30 ET; NBC)? Be as broad or as specific as you see fit.

I think it’s going to be a great game, and I’m really excited to see how it plays out. My guess is Notre Dame makes Clemson one-dimensional and a lot is on the shoulders of Uiagalelei. Offensively for Notre Dame, I expect them to be able to establish the run with so many Clemson injuries. At this point I’m leaning Notre Dame. 

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.