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Submitted by Jim Hurley on Friday, October 12, 2012 at 12:15 PM

Before the 2012 season started, few were taking the Notre Dame Fighting Irish seriously as any sort of national threat. Sure, they played some very good games last year. But, they were uncertain at quarterback, and the schedule just seemed too tough to deal with. They could actually be very good and have to settle for 9-3. If they struggled a bit…well, a big step backward wasn’t out of the question.

Preseason pollsters had Notre Dame on the outside looking in of the top 25 AP rankings (26th, meaning they were first amongst the “others getting votes”), and barely in the Coach’s Poll (24th). The 2012 gauntlet included these respected opponents with their Preseason AP rankings:

#13 Michigan State

#8 Michigan

#21 Stanford

#32 BYU

#4 Oklahoma

#1 Southern Cal

That’s two top five teams…three top eight teams…and five games against opponents who were supposed to be better than they were. This just wasn’t going to be Notre Dame’s year.

Until:

*Michigan State turned out to be very overrated

*Michigan turned out to be extremely overrated

*Stanford struggled out of the gate before improving to “inconsistent”

*BYU turned out to be overrated

*Oklahoma struggled vs. UTEP and lost to Kansas State

*Southern Cal turned out to be overrated

*NOTRE DAME TURNED OUT TO HAVE A STRONG DEFENSE

So far, only two of those opponents have been vanquished. There’s plenty of work to be done. But, we’re currently looking at a VERY good “rushing and defense” team that still has a lot of upside if the quarterbacks can gain confidence in the air. Michigan State and Michigan were swatted away like flies. There’s currently no game left on the schedule where the Irish are currently overmatched beyond hope.

Something like a 10-2 or 11-1 season is within reach…and a stunning 12-0 board sweep is now more possible than had ever been imagined.

Let’s not forget though that Notre Dame was getting a lot of midseason respect last year at this time before a home game against another Pac 12 school at a similar price range in Vegas. The Irish were a popular pick as home favorites vs. USC, and saw their dreams go up in smoke as they were blown off the point of attack by a Trojans team starting to feel its oats.

Will Saturday’s nationally televised game with Stanford be déjà vu’ all over again…with Notre Dame realizing that being “best in the Midwest” doesn’t mean anything when you step out of the region? Or, is THIS the year Notre Dame finally matters again? With an impressive home win over Stanford setting the stage for a dramatic second half run?

Let’s run the matchup through our gauntlet of key indicators and see what we can find out…

STANFORD at NOTRE DAME (3:30 p.m. on NBC)

Las Vegas Spread: Notre Dame by 8, total of 44.5

The market sees Notre Dame as the better side by 4-5 points on a neutral field (sometimes intersectional games see higher value for home field advantage because of the travel involved). They would be pick-em or a small favorite if the game were being played in Palo Alto. That total might strike you as low if you’ve been watching a lot of the Pac 12 this year. But, Notre Dame’s been playing grinders, suggesting that number might be a bit high if they’re able to enforce their preferred style on the evening (which is something we said when previewing the Michigan game on these pages not too long ago).

CURRENT AP POLL RANKINGS

Stanford: #17

Notre Dame: #7

Stanford arguably played like a top 10 team when upsetting USC, and probably a top 25 team last week when surviving Arizona. But, they also looked awful in a loss to Washington and a win over San Jose State…and didn’t really impress in the boxscore in a deceptively large win over Duke. One of the keys to handicapping Saturday’s game will be figuring out which Stanford team shows up. They’re #17 kind of by default right now because so many teams have been disappointments, and they do have a signature upset on the resume.

HEAD COACHES

Stanford: David Shaw

Notre Dame: Brian Kelly

Kelly has impressed us this year by changing his spots. Instead of trying to shove an aggressive pass-happy attack down his player’s throats, he’s shoving a physical rushing style down opponent’s throats! It’s as if he spent the offseason watching game films from San Francisco 49ers games. He decided turnovers were killing his prior team because of all the risk. Now it’s just smash mouth baby. Of course, Shaw replaced Jim Harbaugh (who went to San Francisco from Stanford), so we’ll have what are currently similar coaching philosophies in play. Interesting.

QUARTERBACKS

Stanford: Josh Nunes

Notre Dame: Everett Golson

Each is capable of making plays, particularly if a defender falls down or covers the wrong guy. If the defense is where it’s supposed to be, neither has been particularly impressive. Both are showing signs of improvement after disappointing starts. This may not be a game where the quarterback position is critical. If it is, that’s because Nunes broke out at just the right time. It’s Golson’s job not to screw up what’s been working for the Irish.

LAST WEEK’S BOXES

STANFORD 54, ARIZONA 48 (in overtime)

Total Yardage: Arizona 617, Stanford 617

Rushing Yards: Arizona 126, Stanford 257

Passing Stats: Arizona 45-69-1-491, Stanford 21-34-0-260

Turnovers: Arizona 1, Stanford 1

Third Downs: Arizona 53%, Stanford 50%

Vegas Line: Stanford by 10, total of 55

We like the balance we see here from Stanford. This was a wild game, with Arizona trying to become the West Virginia of the Pac 12 under Rich Rodriguez. Stanford tends to play to what their opponents are doing. They will be facing a significantly tougher defense this week.

NOTRE DAME 41, MIAMI 3

Total Yardage: Miami 285, Notre Dame 581

Rushing Yards: Miami 84, Notre Dame 376

Passing Stats: Miami 18-35-0-201, Notre Dame 19-26-0-211

Turnovers: Miami 0, Notre Dame 0

Third Downs: Miami 33%, Notre Dame 45%

Vegas Line: Notre Dame by 16, total of 55

Let’s say it again…smash mouth baby! Notre Dame rushed for almost 400 yards on the way to nearly 600 yards of total offense. And, they did that without committing a single turnover. We need to keep our heads on straight because it’s a down year for the ACC this year (they’ve been awful in non-conference action). Stylistically, you can see how Notre Dame has put the risk/reward stuff in their favor.

BEST EXPECTATION

If Notre Dame can stay in bulldozer mode, they can post another big result here against what should be a tired and jet-lagged visitor flying in from across the country. Notre Dame had a virtual bye last week as it turned out, while Stanford was at war in an important conference game. If fatigue is an issue, Stanford has no chance. The only thing preventing a wholesale endorsement of Notre Dame on these pages is the fact that the Irish may just be a “Big Ten power” right now in a down year for the Big Ten. Maybe Michigan and Michigan State are so bad that those results gave false reads. Maybe this is going to be a replay of last year’s disappointment on this field at a respected Vegas price in the USC game.

JIM HURLEY has been working very closely with his sources to get a read on Stanford’s true readiness…and with his statheads to figure out whether or not Notre Dame’s early season schedule strength is creating an illusion. Michigan struggled with an Air Force team that lost to UNLV. Michigan State barely snuck by Indiana last week. There are potential flies in the Irish ointment.

Find out for certain if this game made the cut Saturday morning right here at the website. Saturday’s homepage will alert you to big play bulletins and TV Parlays. It’s a loaded schedule this week. Stanford/Notre Dame might not quite qualify once all the analysis is in the books.

If you have any questions about NETWORK service, call the office at 1-800-323-4453. Be sure to check on how you can add the rest of postseason baseball to your football package.

Back with you Saturday to preview the South Carolina-LSU game set for prime time on ESPN. It’s a GREAT weekend of football ahead. Don’t you dare make a move until you hear what JIM HURLEY has to say!

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