CFB: Notre Dame Fighting Irish Week 9 Preview

By Stiofán Mac Fhilib

It’s almost certain that Notre Dame’s College Football Playoff hopes have been dashed now they have notched two losses. Now, the focus is on building for the future and securing a prime bowl spot. That all starts on Saturday as Pittsburgh visit South Bend.

Bowl Options

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With no game last weekend to review, let us turn our sights instead to late December and the New Year. Truly the ‘most wonderful time of the year’ – college football bowl season. One of the terms of Notre Dame’s agreement with the ACC is around access to the ACC’s roster of bowl games. With the exception of the Orange Bowl. That is the traditional home of the ACC Champion. Unless, either they are in the CFP, or the Orange Bowl is hosting a CFP semi-final. 

However, before considering the ACC options, ND fans will still hold out hope of securing a spot in a prestigious New Year’s Six bowl game. Given the Irish haven’t won one of these in 30 years, you could be forgiven for wondering why. But, something, something, the law of averages. 

This is actually a good year for Notre Dame’s chances in this regard.  With the CFP semi-finals this year being hosted by the Rose Bowl and Sugar Bowl. Traditionally the home of the Big Ten, PAC 12 and SEC winners, this means there are five at-large spots available between the Cotton, Fiesta and Peach Bowls. The Orange Bowl against an ACC opponent is theoretically possible but unlikely, given ND’s two losses so far. 

Any NY6 hopes rely upon the Irish winning out, with a 10-2 regular season record. It would also be very helpful if there were as many unbeaten conference champions as possible. As well as more two-loss teams and fewer one-loss ones. Of course, bowl games are not primarily about records or the quality of teams per se. It is  a system that prioritises TV eyeballs. Meaning Notre Dame will benefit, fairly or otherwise.

Failing an NY6 bid, the Irish would be slated into one of the ACC’s better bowl slots. The Reliaquest Bowl in Tampa (v SEC), Pop-Tarts Bowl in Orlando (v Big 12), and even the Holiday Bowl in San Diego (v PAC 12) would be the most likely destinations. Of course, this raises the fascinating possibility of an LSU-ND game in Tampa on New Year’s Day.

The week ahead

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Pitt Panthers (Notre Dame Stadium); 3.30pm EDT; 8.30pm IST/BST

After a much-needed bye week, which saw Notre Dame rise one spot to #14 in the AP Poll, the Irish return to Notre Dame Stadium. They face old foes, Pittsburgh, for the 72nd time. The Panthers have struggled so far this season. Ironically, their only FBS victory came over a Louisville team that handed ND their second loss just a week earlier. The joys of college football and emotional ups and downs of 18-22-year-old players. That said, ten of the last 13 matchups between the sides have been one-score games. If Pitt can turn Saturday’s game into a dour defensive struggle, that pattern could continue. 

If you had told ND fans back in the summer that perhaps the Panthers’ biggest threat on offense would be a former Irish player, the assumption would have been that that was a reference to transfer QB, Phil Jurkovic.  As events transpire, it’s actually RB, C’Bo Flemister. He leads Pitt in rushing yards and may pose ND the biggest threat. Jurkovic has been superseded at QB by Christian Veilleux and has even changed position.

Last season, on the day of his Boston College Eagles’ visit to South Bend, Jurkovic went on a bizarre social media rant about cultural appropriation in relation to ND’s choice of pre-game stadium music. That Jurkovic will finally now return to the field at Notre Dame Stadium, home of ‘TEU’, as a Tight End himself, feels surely like the more egregious act of cultural appropriation!

Defensively the Panthers also have a standout former ND player in their ranks. LB, Shayne Simon is their joint leader in sacks. He may need to add to his total on Saturday for his team to have a realistic chance.

Pat Narduzzi, perhaps the most publicly anti-ND coach in the conference, traditionally has stout defences against the run. But, also physical against the pass. Expect him to commit bodies in the box to stop the run.  How well Sam Hartman can find his receivers, and how strictly the officials referee the inevitable repeated pass interference, will go a long way to determining the result.

Irish fans will hope to see a fit Jayden Thomas alongside Jaden Greathouse and Tobias Merriweather.  Getting those three WRs back to full fitness, or close enough would give ND a significant boost in their flagging passing game. They may need it.

Game Prediction

Notre Dame 27-10 Pittsburgh

Pittsburgh will struggle against a superior defense, but will keep the game tight and interesting until into the second half. But I expect Hartman’s deep game to pay dividends enough times to make the margin comfortable before the end.

Where to watch:

Sky Sports NFL (Channel 407 on Sky); coverage starts at 8:30am IST/BST 

NBC (in the USA)

Playoff Picture

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Ohio State were the biggest winners of Week 8 with a crucial home win over Penn State. They remain unbeaten and hand the Nittany Lions their first loss. Florida State took advantage of Riley Leonard’s injury to give Duke their second defeat. And USC lost to Utah for the third time in a year. Effectively ending their playoff hopes. Alabama have the inside track on the SEC West title, with the visit of LSU to Tuscaloosa looming increasingly large.

The World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party in Jacksonville could see Georgia face their sternest test of the season to date. Depending on which Florida side shows up. Oregon-Utah and Duke-Louisville feel like elimination games to see who might be most likely to face Washington and Florida State in their respective conference championship games. And beleaguered Michigan have a week off. Which should give their coaches and analysts time to…well, the jokes write themselves at this stage, so knock yourselves out!