On a weekend when a few teams will be unofficially eliminated from postseason contention, No.4 Notre Dame and No.13 Stanford will meet in a virtual “must-win” game on Saturday at Stanford Stadium. The loser will end the season in a high-profile bowl game, but the winner will take one step closer towards making the College Football Playoff.
After improving their record to 10-1 with a win over Boston College, Notre Dame is No.4 in the CFP rankings. At No.11 in the CFP rankings, Stanford is in the best position of any team with two losses.
Stanford is a 3.5-point favorite, according to vegasinsider.com, and the over/under is 55 points. Notre Dame opened as a two-point favorite.
Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey has been the team’s best player this season, while Notre Dame running back C.J. Prosise is one of the biggest reasons why the Fighting Irish are in the playoff picture. But Prosise is doubtful with a high ankle sprain, and Stanford’s edge in the running game could be what ultimately puts them over the top on Saturday.
Even discounting his impact in the return game, McCaffrey is a top Heisman candidate. His 1,546 rushing yards are the second-most in the country, and he’s been an incredibly consistent performer. The sophomore hasn’t rushed for fewer than 107 yards in any of his last nine games, he’s caught 34 passes for 416 yards and three scores. He should have a big night against Notre Dame’s run defense, which ranks 68th in the nation. The Fighting Irish are allowing opposing rushers to average 4.6 yards per carry, which is 89th among 128 FBS teams.
Even if Prosise plays, he might not be very effective. Notre Dame has struggled when he’s had trouble running the ball, suffering their only loss when Prosise totaled 50 yards on 15 attempts. Prosise ran for just 57 yards as the team scored 19 points last week, and he ran the ball 14 times for 25 yards when Notre Dame barely squeaked by Temple, 24-20.
DeShone Kizer had led the Irish to an 8-1 record as the starting quarterback, but he’s struggled in recent weeks. Coming off his worst two games of the season, Notre Dame needs Kizer to bounce back if they want to win in Stanford.
A closer look at the numbers indicates that Kizer could be due to bounce back on Saturday. He was intercepted three times against Boston College, and he threw for just 111 yards in the previous week. But Boston College has the No.1-ranked defense in college football, and Kizer has taken advantage of weak defenses. Kizer has led Notre Dame to their three lowest scoring games against the nation's No.1, No.5, and No.27 defenses. Stanford, though, ranks 43rd defensively, and they are even worse against the pass, ranking 74th.
Kizer has nine interceptions this season, but Stanford ranks 95th in the country with just seven picks. Against pass defenses that rank 50th or worse, Kizer has thrown 13 touchdowns and four interceptions. He’s thrown five touchdown passes and five picks against top-49 pass defenses.
Both Notre Dame and Stanford have a chance to make the College Football Playoff, but a loss for either team would likely eliminate them from contention. The Irish might need some help, even if they win on Saturday, and the Cardinal need two straight wins to have a chance to compete for the national championship.
With just one win over a team that’s currently in the AP Top 25 Poll, Notre Dame won’t make the playoffs with two losses. Losses for Oklahoma and Michigan State would also help their cause.
Ten teams with one or no losses are ahead of Stanford in the CFP rankings, but the Cardinal still has championship hopes with impressive wins over the likes of Northwestern, UCLA and Washington State. They’ll have another chance to get a big win in the Pac-12 Championship Game, and that could be enough to get them in the playoffs if a few one-loss teams are defeated.
Stanford has proven themselves against a few good teams, while Notre Dame has taken advantage of a weaker schedule, barely avoiding multiple bad losses. The Irish could have a much more difficult time scoring without a healthy Prosise, while the Cardinal offense has scored at least 30 points in 10 straight games. It could be a close game for most of the way, but at home, Stanford has a chance to pull away in the fourth quarter.
Stanford over Notre Dame, 37-27