No. 2 Notre Dame at No. 19 North Carolina: Who, what, when, where, why and by how much?

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WHO? No. 2 Notre Dame (8-0, 7-0 ACC) at No. 19 North Carolina (6-2, 6-2).

WHAT? The only top-10 game expected to be at-all competitive this weekend, no other boasting a spread within two touchdowns. Given 2020’s regard for expectations, that suggests the Irish will blow out the Tar Heels while both No. 1 Alabama and No. 4 Ohio State lose.

In all seriousness, this Black Friday contest should serve as a test of Notre Dame’s defense, more so than even No. 3 Clemson did. The Tigers brought a dynamic offense ripe with playmakers to South Bend, to be sure, but it was (and is) relatively one-dimensional, the Clemson ground game yet to find efficiency despite enjoying a generational talent. North Carolina cannot be reduced to such a singular concern. The Tar Heels boast one of the country’s best quarterbacks taking snaps alongside two running backs with more than 800 yards apiece.

So in terms of “What?”, a test of Notre Dame title viability.

WHEN? 3:30 ET on ABC, just as every Irish road game has been thus far and yes, that much of this sentence was copied-and-pasted from the preview of Notre Dame’s game at Boston College. To continue to acquiesce to Thanksgiving feast-induced fatigue and lean into past points yet true … The next one (at Wake Forest) has not yet been scheduled, but should the Irish make the ACC title game on Dec. 19, it will hardly deviate from this precedent, officially scheduled for 4 ET on ABC. Selfishly-speaking, this run of mid-afternoon kickoffs while on the road is a delight, particularly after a gifted bottle of a Russian Imperial Stout complemented Thursday’s late dinner.

WHERE? Kenan Memorial Stadium, Chapel Hill, N.C.

Not to diminish home-field advantage in 2020 — though doing so would be warranted — let’s look ahead for a moment. The next time Notre Dame faces North Carolina could be (should be) a chance for the Irish to set the all-time record for consecutive wins at Notre Dame Stadium. The current record is 28, set between 1942 and 1950.

All college football records come with a “modern” acknowledgement, a period beginning after World War II, partly due to changes in the game, partly due to the anomalies presented by teams like the Great Lakes Naval Training Station. The active stretch of 23 straight home wins serves as the modern Irish record, but beating Syracuse on Dec. 5 and then Toledo, Purdue, Cincinnati and USC would set up Notre Dame to reach 29 against Sam Howell in 2021.

Given Howell’s prolific trends, that could very well also be Irish head coach Brian Kelly’s third chance to notch a top-10 win at Notre Dame Stadium. Note: Not a third win, but a third chance, as well as a third win. A byproduct of coincidence and USC’s continued dead-ends, Kelly has faced only two top-10 opponents in South Bend in 11 years. One was three weeks ago. The other …

WHY? The short-sighted will ask why the Irish must play on a Friday, but given both Notre Dame and North Carolina are coming off scheduled idle weeks, there is no reason not to relish the day’s spotlight. Very few will tune into Central Florida at South Florida instead.

BY HOW MUCH?
Just like you methodically added a spoon of cheesy mashed potatoes next to your serving of creamy spinach without crowding your sampling of stuffing, already encroaching on the turkey itself which may have knocked the cranberry bread off your plate, this edge has methodically ticked up to favoring the Irish by six with a combined points total over/under of 69. The early part of the week saw that spread fall as low as 3, and more broadly 3.5, before a slight move accompanied each sunrise.

A 37-31 result would certainly fit the gluttony of today’s two servings of leftovers, but it would bode poorly for both Notre Dame’s defensive hopes against likely Playoff opponents — the only offenses better than the Tar Heels’, per SP+, are Alabama, Ohio State and Oklahoma — but also its offensive line.

Make no mistake, Irish fifth-year quarterback Ian Book has elevated his play of late, but Notre Dame will still go only as far as its running game can carry it. That is not to say Book will not win a game or two yet in his collegiate career’s twilight, possibly even today; he certainly did so against Clemson. But the rushing attack sets the Irish offense’s floor, and it now must adjust to a new starter at its fulcrum point.

If sophomore center Zeke Correll is up for the task, then Notre Dame should control the ball and limit Howell’s chances at explosive plays. When Howell has those chances, he will convert a few, no matter how good Clark Lea’s defense is and how dynamic his safety pairing is. If the Irish cannot run for four or five yards seemingly at will, then Book will have to adjust pace and that will only mean Howell gets more opportunities.

Not to glamorize the young gunslinger, but he is simply that effectively dangerous. “Effectively” may sound disparaging, alongside “game manager” in the litany of misappropriated football phrases, but Howell is a sophomore quarterback who thrives by pushing the envelope yet has not thrown a fourth-quarter interception in 21 career starts. “Effectively dangerous” fits.

Notre Dame will want to limit him until it is too late for Howell Magic.

Notre Dame 31, North Carolina 23.
(7-1 straight up, 4-4 against the spread, 3-5 over/under)

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INSIDE THE IRISH READING:
Kelly’s 100 Notre Dame wins, marked by 2012 Stanford & 2020 Clemson
Correll, Lugg to fill holes along Notre Dame offensive line
Idle week crucial for Notre Dame’s beat-up line and RBs before facing high-powered Heels
Notre Dame adds another DB commitment, this from in-state
Notre Dame’s Opponents: Irish debut at No. 2 in Playoff rankings, Clemson at No. 3
And In That Corner … No. 19 North Carolina poises biggest road challenge or ND’s season
Observations from the Notre Dame Stadium sideline
Things to Learn: Notre Dame’s defense may pivot on the new Irish center
40 Thanksgivings and missing for Irish fans 

OUTSIDE READING:
College football week 13 preview
Why you haven’t even seen the best of North Carolina’s breakout QB Sam Howell
Chazz Surratt is coming, and he’s bringing the Tar Heels with him