Remember when we thought Clemson-Miami was a big ACC matchup earlier this season? We can almost laugh at that now that we’ve got No. 1 Clemson vs. No. 4 Notre Dame this Saturday.
That still feels like a weird thing to type — Notre Dame is playing in arguably the biggest ACC game since a 2016 top-5 matchup between Deshaun Watson’s Clemson and Lamar Jackson’s Louisville.
Notre Dame’s participation in the ACC has been one of the biggest storylines of the college football season, a necessity given conference-only schedules in a coronavirus-impacted world. Now, the Irish represent Clemson’s biggest threat in the ACC in the past five years — yes, it’s a low bar to clear — as Notre Dame enters the game with a real chance at pulling off the upset after 131 years of conference-free football.
Trevor Lawrence’s absence from this game is going to be a frequent talking point. Brace yourselves for the following takeaways from this game that you shouldn’t put too much stock into: If Notre Dame wins, it will be discredited because of Lawrence’s absence. If it loses, then people will say the Irish are worse than we all thought.
Notre Dame hasn’t played a game with this much at stake in quite some time. Mark Alberti/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images
But Clemson is still one of the most talented teams in the country, as evidenced by D.J. Uiagalelei (a four-star recruit and top pocket passer in his class) stepping in to keep things moving.
Plus, the Tigers still have Travis Etienne — who had 224 scrimmage yards and two touchdowns last week.
The biggest question for this game? How Notre Dame can pull off an upset. The blueprint will likely be pretty traditional — Irish QB Ian Book will have to limit turnovers while the defense will need to make Uiagalelei look like a freshman and contain Etienne. Though the latter statement is more a testament to Etienne’s skill than a knock on Notre Dame’s 8th-ranked SP+ defense.
Historically, Notre Dame hasn’t fared well in these games under head coach Brian Kelly. The Irish are 3-8 against AP Top-10 teams.
The stakes are also higher for Notre Dame than Clemson. It’s unlikely that College Football Playoff voters would punish the Tigers for a loss against a top-five team without Lawrence.
For Notre Dame, this is arguably the biggest home game since the infamous “Bush Push” game against USC in 2005. Aside from winning the conference at the end of the season, a win Saturday would be the biggest accomplishment of the Irish’s brief ACC tenure. To get this done in their lone conference-aligned season would be a trash-talking point for years to come.
October 3, 2015 Clemson survived a huge comeback from Notre Dame. The Fighting Irish and the Tigers face off again in Week 10.
BYU is 7-0 and in the conversation for a playoff berth. That’s certainly not where this season looked like it was heading back in August. We caught up with senior linebacker (and leading tackler) Isaiah Kaufusi to find out how the Cougars are handling their meteoric rise in 2020 and their Saturday showdown with Boise State.
ESPN: When the schedule got upended and the season appeared on the brink in August, did you ever imagine you’d be in this position now?
Kaufusi: Deep down, yes. I’d seen all the hard work we put in and all the ups and downs. And here at BYU, as an independent and with all the protocols, these guys — the teammates and coaches — have been dragged through the mud. Getting our schedule taken away, we got waivers to practice but had no games on our schedule, there’s just been so many ups and downs we faced as a team. But this whole offseason, we prepared and we worked and the team chemistry we have. I knew we had something great and something special.
ESPN: With playoff talk heating up and QB Zach Wilson in the Heisman mix, is this good attention for you or do you try to set it aside?
Kaufusi: It’s helped us in a lot of ways. When you get a lot of publicity like this, it can spin in two directions. It can either help you get better or get to guys’ heads. I think our guys have done a really good job — especially Zach. He’s come on strong, been on a ton of watch lists and the whole Heisman race, he’s stepped up and been able to perform at a higher level. That’s all of us, we’re getting a lot of praise nationally, and we’re letting it fuel us.
ESPN: How realistic do you think that playoff talk is? For teams outside the Power 5, the margin is always going to be razor thin.
Kaufusi: It’s good to think about it and put it out there as a goal. We’ve definitely talked about, this is where we want to end up, this is what we can accomplish, this is our potential. But you can’t get to Point B without going through Point A, and one small slip-up means our goals could vanish. You should see, even in film sessions, after a relatively good practice, we’re finding things we can improve on.
ESPN: Your coach called this a rivalry game against Boise State. Does this feel like a little bit of normalcy, getting this huge showdown game against a familiar opponent, amid a season that’s been anything but typical?
Kaufusi: You’ve got to give Boise their respect and prepare the right way. You’ve got to come prepared, and we’re at a little bit of a disadvantage because it’s a short week both with playing Friday and because of the (off day for) the election. So there’s definitely more urgency because we don’t want to make excuses.
What else is worth watching?
Dan Mullen’s heel turn: Remember when the most interesting thing you could say about Mullen was that he danced like your dad? Well, the Florida coach seems to have embraced the role of bad guy — stirring up controversy over wanting a packed stadium for the (later postponed) LSU game, scrapping with Missouri players after a late hit on his QB that got him fined by the league and then dressing like Darth Vader for his Halloween news conference in a final embrace of the dark side. Of course, this isn’t the first time a nice-guy coach turned villain in this series. It was Mark Richt sending his team to dance in the end zone after a TD that finally ended Georgia’s misery against its rivals in 2007, after all. So, what will Mullen do to enhance his reputation as the sport’s most villainous coach? A Florida Man is always full of surprises.
Dan Mullen has not been shy about creating a little controversy recently. John Raoux/AP Photo
Indiana and Northwestern go for 3-0: It’s 2020, and nothing makes sense anymore, so why not have Indiana and Northwestern as genuine Big Ten power players? The Hoosiers pulled the upset over Penn State in Week 1 and toppled Rutgers last week, and now have a reeling Michigan team at home as they try to reach 3-0 in conference play for the first time since 1988. Northwestern’s strong start came after thumping Maryland and then upending Iowa, and the Wildcats can get to 3-0 in the Big Ten for the first time since 2000 with a win over Nebraska this week. Of course, if Northwestern wins, it will just be because the entire Big Ten is out to get Nebraska. Why is everyone so mean to those poor Cornhuskers? Anyway, if you’re still up, Big 12, shoot Nebraska a text. It’s been thinking about you lately. Would be nice to catch up.
Air Force can lock up the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy: Army is a mild favorite in this one, which makes sense based on the 6-1 record, but Army’s schedule lacks a bit of pizzazz. The Black Knights have wins against three FCS teams and three of the worst FBS squads — MTSU, ULM and UTSA. Air Force presents a far bigger challenge, even if it’s a depleted roster. The Falcons already have a win over Navy, and upending Army in this one would secure its first trophy since 2016. We’re still looking for Space Force on the schedule.
Hello, Pac-12: It was a long time coming, but the Pac-12 is finally playing football this fall. Oregon and USC are currently the two lone ranked teams in the conference, and with a schedule shorter than anybody’s, and the threat of game postponements or cancellations, we may find out quickly whether anybody is going to have a realistic shot at the College Football Playoff. Of course, Pac-12 football is a reason to stay up late (if you’re not on the West Coast) watching football with your friends online. We’ll all be feeling right at home during those late kickoffs.
Let’s learn something about Rutgers: The Scarlet Knights are 1-1 on the season with a win against Michigan State, and therefore a transitive win over Michigan. That doesn’t matter, but you have to admit it’s funny. This week, Rutgers has the pleasure of traveling to Columbus and playing Ohio State, where they have not fared well in the slightest bit since joining the Big Ten. Another Ohio State victory is likely coming, but in Greg Schiano’s first year of his return, it’s worth keeping an eye on how different Rutgers will (or will not) look against Ohio State, where he was the defensive coordinator from 2016 to 2018.
Georgia’s offense vs. Florida: The World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party is this weekend, and both fan bases are understandably nervous. The one matchup that both sides should be watching closely is how Georgia’s offense fares. They didn’t do much of anything in the passing game against Kentucky after a week off from their loss at Alabama, and were largely carried by 136 rushing yards by Zamir White. In a world where even Nick Saban admitted, “Good defense doesn’t beat good offense anymore,” Georgia is going to have to show more this upcoming Saturday against a Florida defense that showed improvement against Missouri.
Player to watch
Lyles: Oregon DE Kayvon Thibodeaux
Thibodeaux came in and immediately made an impact for Oregon last year when he replaced Gus Cumberlander because of injury. He recorded 10.5 of his 14 tackles for loss and 6.5 of his nine sacks in the final six games, and you should expect him to be a force on that defense this season as well. Thibodeaux was the top player in the 2019 ESPN 300, so his production was no surprise. However, there’s no limit to what he can do, and Stanford will find out Saturday.
Hale: Georgia cornerback Tyson Campbell
Can Georgia win a shootout with Florida? The Bulldogs would probably rather not find out. That means there’s going to be a ton of pressure on the UGA secondary to try to corral an immensely talented Gators passing attack, a challenge that gets much bigger without star safety Richard LeCounte. Eric Stokes is one of the country’s best lockdown corners, but in a loss to Alabama last month, Mac Jones and the Tide exploited Campbell to great success, completing five-of-six targets for 148 yards and a touchdown. Given the mismatch issues created by tight end Kyle Pitts and the desire to bring enough pressure to rattle Kyle Trask, the Dawgs need to be able to stick Campbell on an island and have him hold up more consistently than he did against the Tide.
Under-the-radar game of the week
Lyles: West Virginia vs. Texas
Both teams have had their highs and lows this season. The Longhorns are coming off of a big overtime win against Oklahoma State, 41-34, while the Mountaineers topped Kansas State, 37-10. With Texas’ starting running back Keaontay Ingram out with a high ankle sprain, it could be the perfect game for West Virginia to steal on the road in Austin. A key battle to watch in this one is going to be Texas’ run defense (39th in FBS) against Leddie Brown, who is eighth in the country in rushing and seventh in rushing touchdowns. This is one of those matchups that can lose your attention with a bunch of other games going on, but might well be worth your time in the end.
Hale: Liberty at Virginia Tech
It’s not a surprise that this game features one ranked team. It’s a bit of a shocker that the team in question happens to be Liberty. The Flames are 6-0 with their past four wins coming by a combined 92 points. QB Malik Willis is one of the most dynamic dual threats in the country, counting for nine passing TDs and six more on the ground to go with just one pick. But it’s also worth noting that Liberty’s schedule is far from impressive. Its five FBS opponents this year are a combined 4-26. Virginia Tech represents a genuine challenge. The Hokies have scored 40 points in four of six games this season, and running back Khalil Herbert leads the nation in all-purpose yards. If Liberty can pull the upset, it would be a potentially program-defining win, but the Hokies still have sights set on a big season themselves.
Upset of the week
Lyles: Indiana over Michigan
The Hoosiers are ranked higher than the Wolverines, but are three-point dogs at home. After a blowout of Minnesota was followed with a loss to Michigan State, what should we really expect from the Wolverines? The same uncertainty can be said of Indiana, because in all honesty — we’re talking Indiana and football. But this Hoosiers team has been fun, building off a 2019 season that was one of the best in program history. In September, QB Michael Penix Jr. declared that the Hoosiers were going to shock people in 2020, and so far he’s right. I’m banking on his word for Saturday.
Hale: Stanford over Oregon
Consider this the opt-out bowl for 2020. Oregon was hit as hard as anyone with four key players choosing to forego the season, including offensive lineman Penei Sewell. Stanford lost its two best players, too, as Walker Little and Paulson Adebo opted out. So what’s left? Good question. Stanford has its QB set in Davis Mills, who played well when he was healthy last season. Oregon has a bigger question at the most important position on the field, saying the final decision on a starter — Anthony Brown or Tyler Shough — is still up in the air. The Ducks’ D should still be stout, but Stanford was a victim of bad luck and brutal injuries during a down season last year, and we’re thinking the Cardinal has a little bounce-back mojo working for the opener.