Forgive me if I'm spoiling something, but neither the Notre Dame Fighting Irish nor the Oklahoma Sooners are perfect football teams. They're good football teams, ones capable of playing in January bowl games if the season unfolds in a certain way.
But as the two national powers head into their clash in South Bend Saturday, it's fair to have questions about both teams' viability.
The Irish are coming off two straight wins that left them barely hanging on to their Top 25 spot. They needed a three-touchdown fourth quarter to beat a mediocre-at-best Purdue team, and somehow squeaked out a 17-13 win over Michigan State despite having only 220 yards on offense. Considering the Irish were ranked fifth in the country when they upset Oklahoma in Norman last season, it's safe to say things are a bit different.
As for Oklahoma, the story is somewhat similar. The Sooners got off to slow starts in wins over Louisiana-Monroe and West Virginia, prevailing on the strength of their defense and the fact that neither opponent is all that good. However, their Week 3 clash against Tulsa could be seen as a turning point. Oklahoma burst out and scored 51 points on the overmatched Golden Hurricane, dominating from start to finish in a fashion far more becoming of a team scratching on the Top 10.
And yet the oddsmakers aren't quite sure what to make of this game. The Sooners are 3.5-point favorites as of publication, according to Vegas Insider, but the line has been mostly stagnant throughout the week.
Why? Mainly because neither team has gained the trust of the betting public.
With that in mind, let's quickly check in on the biggest reason why they haven't gained that trust.
Notre Dame: Where's the Running Game?
It's not necessarily a criticism to say Notre Dame isn't winning games with its offense. The Irish rode arguably the nation's best defense to a national championship berth last season, and they're among the most talented in 2013. If Nick Saban makes a cottage industry out of building a program with his defense, it's not exactly a bad thing to model your program similarly.
The problem with being a defense-first program, of course, is a consistent running game is necessary. Alabama churns out first-round running backs like an assembly line, seemingly feeds its offensive line whatever the hell oxen eat and uses uberintelligent quarterback play to create an all-around efficient attack.
Last season, the Irish had that balance. Everett Golson played the role of sophomore year A.J. McCarron, giving the Irish just enough production to win. Theo Riddick and Cierre Wood provided the elite ground game, allowing Kelly to chew up the clock on his opposition and keep his defense fresh. The entire thing was filled with nail-biting wins, how-did-they-do-that finishes and a defense led by the nation's most productive linebacker.
In 2013, the balance is out of whack. Defensively, the Irish are pretty good. They're at least one step down on the rung lower than last season, especially when it comes to containing quarterbacks. But it's still good enough of a unit for BCS bowl contention. Tommy Rees has done just fine job in the Golson role; that's about a push.
Where the Irish have really struggled is on the ground. The trio of Cam McDaniel, Amir Carlisle and George Atkinson III are giving them absolutely nothing on the ground. Notre Dame's long run on the season is just 45 yards, and it's the club's only rush of 20 or more yards this season. McDaniel has taken over something resembling the lead back role, which has been only good in theory. He's given the Irish 116 yards over 32 carries the past two weeks.
The Irish's struggles against the run have a trickle-down effect that runs right through Tommy Rees. Rees is—and I mean this completely as the backhanded compliment that it is—the proverbial game manager quarterback. The Irish want him throwing 25 to 30 times, usually on efficient dump-offs that travel in the five- to seven-yard range.
When he's throwing 52 times against Michigan or gaining only 142 yards on 34 pass attempts against Michigan State, well, things aren't going to go well. Until the Irish get better at running the football, they'll be left scrambling even more than usual against good teams.
Oklahoma: Is Blake Bell a One-Week Fluke or the Start of Something Special?
For a quarterback in his first start, it's hard to have a better performance than Blake Bell did against Tulsa two weeks ago. The junior signal-caller threw for an Oklahoma first-game record 413 yards and four touchdowns, helping the Sooners torch the Golden Hurricane 51-20. He added 24 yards on the ground, finishing the afternoon with a QBR of 96.7.
Yes, folks. That's out of 100. In his first collegiate start. Praise be to Tulsa and everything, but that's not a good sign for their 2013 football season.
The question is whether that performance is good long term for Oklahoma. Bell was good enough that Bob Stoops understandably named him the starter for Saturday's contest. He'll be replacing Trevor Knight on the depth chart, a freshman who beat Bell out in camp and only lost his spot in the lineup due to injury.
To be fair, Knight was probably on the verge of a benching regardless. He had completed a miserable 21 of 48 passes through the first two weeks, throwing four touchdowns against three interceptions. Knight was so bad in his first two collegiate starts that Oklahoma nearly lost to West Virginia. The same West Virginia team that just got shut out by Maryland last week.
So Knight wasn't very good. Bell is, right?
Well, maybe. This is always a weak criticism, but you have to at least acknowledge that Bell beat out Knight in the preseason for the starting job. Stoops, for all of his shortcomings these past couple years, still has vision as far as I can tell.
There is at least a chance Bell's breakout performance was more circumstantial than anything. A majority of the Sooners' big plays through the air came on short slants or screen passes where wideouts broke the play after a failed initial contain. I'm not going out on a limb here to say Notre Dame will do a better job at keeping those plays to minimal gains.
Bell is a solid runner, but he's not at the game-breaking Devin Gardner level. It's not impossible to say Bell will be the second coming of Sam Bradford; it's also possible that he'll be the guy who wasn't good enough to beat out Knight.
We'll see Saturday.
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