Six down, six to go.
If Notre Dame wants a realistic shot at a BCS bowl game this year, it’ll have to win its next six games. Who’s on the slate?
(Note: At the time of publication, BYU and Stanford had not completed their games on Saturday night, Oct. 12.)
Record: 4-2 (1-2 Pac-12)
Season in a nutshell: A close win over conference foe Arizona was just what Southern California needed in the wake of Lane Kiffin’s firing. Under the direction of former defensive line coach Ed Orgeron, USC narrowly avoided its worst start since 2001 (when the Trojans started 3-4). The Trojans aren’t in the clear, though. Top receiver Marqise Lee is still out with a knee injury, though he could be back for the Notre Dame game. In its two losses, USC gave up 62 points to Arizona State while only scoring seven against Washington State. Despite its struggles, USC’s offense is still loaded with talent if Lee can get healthy. Running backs Tre Madden and Justin Davis have combined for 960 yards and 9 touchdowns and each average over 5 yards per carry.
Against Notre Dame? USC’s defensive numbers look solid, but the Trojans gave up at 30-plus points to the only two Top 40 scoring offenses they’ve faced. With Lee injured, quarterback Cody Kessler struggling to assert himself and the athletic department riding the coaching carousel, USC won’t be in prime shape when it travels to South Bend. This game goes to the Irish.
Record: 1-6 (0-5 Mountain West)
Season in a nutshell: After dropping six of its last seven games, Air Force is off to its worst start since 1993. The Falcons’ lone win of the season came against FCS Colgate. As always, Air Force presents a dynamic, multi-option offensive package and presents one of the top ground games in college football. However, its 111th-ranked rushing defense, 112th-ranked scoring defense and 118th-ranked total defense doesn’t give the Falcon offense any support. The Falcons gave up more than 40 points in losses to Utah State, Boise State, Nevada and Wyoming.
Against Notre Dame? Air Force’s strength may be its run game, but Notre Dame has fared pretty well against the rush this year. The Falcons have the potential to be dangerous — they nearly won a 45-42 shoot-out against Nevada — but the Irish will handle Air Force like they did two years ago. Count this as win No. 6.
Season in a nutshell: Navy opened its season winning a shoot-out with Indiana and rolling over FCS Delaware 51-7. The Mids’ losses came at the hands of Western Kentucky and Duke, who held Navy to just seven points in both games. Like Air Force, Navy’s strength comes in its trademark service academy triple-option run game with almost no passing game to speak of. Navy ranks 119th of 123 teams with 109.5 passing yards a game. Save the 35 points the Hoosiers scored, Navy didn’t give up more than 10 points in its last three games. Though strength of schedule plays a big part here, the Midshipmen rank 20th in scoring defense and a middling 56th in total defense.
Against Notre Dame? After visiting Air Force a week earlier, Notre Dame should be in prime shape to stop Navy’s similar offensive attack. Keenan Reynolds is every bit the mobile quarterback that has exploited the Irish this season, but he’s more of a glorified running back than a true dual-threat signal caller. The Irish win at home.
Record: 3-2 (2-2 Athletic Coast Conference)
Season in a nutshell: Pitt has rallied back from its season-opening slaughter at the hands of No. 6 Florida State. The Panthers won three straight with quarterback Tom Savage under center before losing to Virginia Tech on Saturday. Savage isn’t the greatest quarterback Notre Dame will see this year, but he has two deep-threat receivers in Devin Street and Tyler Boyd. The receiver tandem have combined for 890 yards and seven of Savage’s 10 touchdown throws. Savage exploited Duke’s secondary to pass for 424 yards and six touchdowns in a 58-55 win. Pitt’s offensive line gave up nine sacks against Virginia, though, so it could be a busy day for Notre Dame’s front seven.
Against Notre Dame? Notre Dame’s secondary should be wary because it ranks even lower than Duke in passing yards allowed. If Savage gets hot like he did against the Blue Devils, it could be a long night for the Irish. The Panthers are playing good football and have given Notre Dame headaches the past two years, but Notre Dame will squeak this one out at Heinz Field.
Season in a nutshell: BYU is having another year where it’s a handful of plays away from 5-0. A fourth-quarter interception against Virginia put an end to the Cougars’ rally, and a holding call on a kickoff return for a touchdown erased BYU’s go-ahead score over Utah. BYU turned heads with a 41-20 spanking of then-No. 15 Texas in Week 2, but the Longhorns’ roller coaster ride this season chips away at that credibility a bit. Running backs Taysom Hill and Jamaal Williams are each on pace to have a 1,000-yard season and combine for the 11th-best rushing game in the country. The two average 278 yards per game together. On the other side of the ball, BYU doesn’t give up many points. Even in its losses, it gave up less than three touchdowns to Utah and Virginia. Texas is the only team that has scored more than 20 points on the Cougars this year. Against Notre Dame? This will be a low-scoring ground affair, especially with Notre Dame recovering from a close win over Pitt. The oddsmakers like the Irish in this one, and Notre Dame should enter its final game of the regular season 9-2.
Record: 5-0 (3-0 Pac-12)
Season in a nutshell: Unlike some of Notre Dame’s other opponents, Stanford isn’t excellent in any one area. Instead, the No. 5 Cardinal are a well-rounded squad that put up solid numbers in just about every category. Stanford has rolled over just about everyone, including a then-ranked Arizona State team that Notre Dame struggled to beat by three. The Cardinal’s first true test of the season came against Washington, eking out a 31-28 win. The Huskies held Stanford to 100 passing yards and the Cardinal’s only sub-190 rushing game of the season. If Notre Dame has a chance against this team, it’ll need to replicate what nearly worked for Washington.
Against Notre Dame? Simply put, Stanford will be the best team Notre Dame plays this year. After last year’s memorable goal line stand, Stanford will be more than happy to be the team that disrupts Notre Dame’s path back to a BCS bowl. This game goes to the Cardinal, and the Irish finish the year 9-3.