Welcome to the final week of the 2013 college football regular season, a time where pretty much nothing makes sense in the worlds of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and Stanford Cardinal.
For Stanford, the last couple weeks have been all about playing hot potato with Oregon atop the Pac-12 North standings. One week, the Cardinal are defeating the Ducks to seemingly gain a stranglehold over a Rose Bowl berth. The next, they're losing to a USC squad we had all—at the time—left for dead despite having a 10-day rest.
And then, Stanford was put right back in the catbird seat after Oregon had a meltdown against Arizona.
You'll also have a tough time making much sense of Notre Dame's last two outcomes. On one side, you have a loss to Pittsburgh, an outcome that killed all chances of the Irish sneaking into a BCS bowl. The Panthers, may I add, are not exactly juggernauts. Losses to the likes of Navy, a team that Notre Dame beat, should have told us that much.
A week later, the Irish completely controlled a very solid BYU team.
So good luck figuring out which version of these two teams is going to show up. At their best, the Cardinal and Irish could compete with any team this side of Alabama (but not Alabama). At their worst, their offenses fold into themselves and leave nothing but a fiery crater.
Now, they're playing one another.
With that in mind, let's check in with a complete preview of Saturday's action and predict how the regular-season finale will play out.
When: Saturday, Nov. 30, at 7 p.m. ET
Where: Stanford Stadium in Palo Alto, Calif.
Spread: Stanford -14
|Louis Nix III||DT||Knee||Out|
Will Either Offense Show Up?
Neither Stanford nor Notre Dame are ever going to be mistaken for an Art Briles-led bunch. Their offenses are more plodding than uptempo, more conventional than boundary-pushing.
That's by design, of course. Just last season, the Irish went to the national championship game on the back of a dominant defense and merely mediocre (at best) offense. The pendulum has swung a bit in favor of the offense this season with Tommy Rees under center rather than freshman Everett Golson, but Brian Kelly's squad still prefers playing in the low-to-mid-20s and is rarely involved in a blowout.
It's bad timing to draw parallels with Stanford, considering that the Cardinal are coming off a 63-13 beatdown of California, but they're pretty obvious. Last week was the first time David Shaw and Co. had scored more than four touchdowns since September. Likewise, it was the first time any of their games have been decided by more than 14 points.
We have as large a sample as we're going to get with these two teams. Notre Dame trends slightly more toward the run than pass, preferring a balanced, under-center style predicated on Rees making big plays and the Irish's capable running backs moving the chains. Lord knows which of the Irish backs are going to get a majority of the handoffs from a week-to-week basis, but no matter what, it seems the blueprint remains the same.
The Cardinal, meanwhile, are going to run their face off. Tyler Gaffney returned from his baseball hiatus to a role that will very likely see him eclipse 300 carries this season. Stanford, as a whole, has run the ball nearly 200 more times than it has passed. Kevin Hogan's role under center is essentially to play the Palo Alto version of Alex Smith by avoiding the mistakes that make you want to hit him in the head with a ladder and hitting throws when they matter.
For the most part, both strategies have worked, but both sides have had trouble showing up once the schedule difficulty is ratcheted up. Rees is an interception waiting to happen, and Hogan showed his own propensity for major mistakes in the Cardinal's loss to USC.
Notre Dame will have to figure out how to defend the run without Louis Nix, and Stanford's secondary has some creaks, but we're looking at a game where the first team to three touchdowns could win. The question is whether either team will get there.
Let's first get this out of the way: The two-touchdown spread here is a joke. It's rare for Vegas to make an egregious error at this point in the season, so perhaps they know something that I don't, but every bit of anecdotal evidence we have at our disposal points to this being a close game.
It doesn't have to be "close" in terms of how well the two teams are playing in order to be within arm's reach on the scoreboard. Notre Dame plays teams close and so does Stanford. All you need is a basic understanding of trends to discern that this should be a game decided by less than two touchdowns.
Beyond that? The oddsmakers got the favorite right.
Stanford is arguably the best defensive team in the nation. The Cardinal are ranked behind only Virginia Tech in defensive FEI and metrically grade out as the third-best team in college football—period. They're the best team that doesn't reside in Tuscaloosa or Tallahassee by that measurement. Football Outsiders' other advanced college stat, S&P, rates Stanford sixth and Notre Dame 37th.
More than anything, though, it's hard to be encouraged about how the Irish have played away from South Bend, Ind. The only time Notre Dame has even played its C game away from home was in a 45-10 victory over Air Force. Keep in mind that the Falcons have exactly one win over an FBS program this year.
Stanford wins and looks better throughout. Expect the Cardinals to play just conservative enough to avoid the blowout in a traditional sense.
Score: Stanford 24, Notre Dame 14
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