Notre Dame (7-0) at Oklahoma (5-1) Oct 27, 8:00, ABC
Here's The Deal: At the beginning of the season, this game didn't appear to be anything more than a fun novelty. Notre Dame's schedule appeared to be so nasty and so tough that 7-0 wasn't anything more than a crazy dream. Meanwhile, Oklahoma was expected to be good, but it was supposed to have bigger concerns with this showdown coming in the midst of the Big 12 season.
But now it means everything to the BCS championship race.
Yes, the Big Ten is down, diminishing the importance of some of Notre Dame's early season wins, but there hasn't been a true cupcake or cheap victory in the bunch. The Navy game was played in Ireland, Miami might end up winning the Coastal division of the ACC, Stanford beat USC, and Michigan has an even-money chance of winning the Big Ten title, but there hasn't been a really, really big win to convince a skeptical nation that's not sold on a team with such a mediocre offense.
The slate lightens up in a hurry with home games against Pitt and Wake Forest to go along with a road game against Boston College, so 8-0 almost certainly will mean 11-0 going into the USC game. First, the Irish has to show it can hold down a team that can actually throw, and it has to slow down an Oklahoma team that appears to be hitting its stride at just the right time.
It was a rocky start for the Sooners with the banged up offensive line struggling early and with a -3 turnover margin proving costly in a close loss to Kansas State. Since then, the machine has been flipped on with a better-than-it-looked-at-the-time domination of Texas Tech on the road to go along with the statement blowout over Texas and the two-foot putt against Kansas. The O is averaging 52 points per game over the last three while the D is the best in the Big 12 in several key categories. Kansas State loss aside, Oklahoma is now good enough and respectable enough to make a win by Notre Dame really, really matter, but this isn't going to be the biggest game in the brief history between the two all-time greats.
In 1957, the Irish busted the legendary OU 47-game winning streak with a 7-0 win in Norman. The loss that started the run was to Notre Dame in 1953 to sum up the short history in the series; as good as Oklahoma has been historically, the Irish have been a problem with an 8-1 record. From the early part of 1951 to 1959, the Sooners lost to just one other team – Texas in early 1958.
But for everyone who isn't in retirement age, this is Notre Dame vs. Oklahoma at the highest of possible levels. The two superpowers are relevant at the same time, and no matter how this plays out it's going to be one of the signature games of the 2012 season.
Why Notre Dame Might Win: The Kansas State win over the Sooners provided the exact blueprint that Notre Dame has to follow. The Sooners aren't making a slew of mistakes this year with just eight turnovers, but three of them came against the Wildcats. Kansas State owned the time of possession, only committed three penalties, and rumbled on the ground for 213 yards to keep the Sooner offense off the field. Notre Dame showed last week against BYU what happens when the errors start to come – giving up a touchdown after a turnover and struggling after a few missed field goals – but that might have been an aberration. Stanford was able to stay alive by forcing five fumbles, getting three of them, but OU doesn't get offenses to put the ball on the ground. Overall, Notre Dame has been focused, confident, and doesn't get rattled because it's not screwing up like it did last season. As long as it can control the game from the start, it'll have a chance.
The Irish defensive front could expose an OU line that's starting to jell and starting to play well, but isn't keeping Landry Jones clean. The pass protection has been spotty and the running game has only blown up against the sad, ripping apart Florida A&M, Texas, and late against UTEP. The ground game was mediocre against Texas Tech and didn't work against Kansas or Kansas State. The Irish front four is playing at an elite level and could keep the Sooners from hitting the 100-yard mark. However …
Why Oklahoma Might Win: Can Oklahoma throw on the Irish secondary? Notre Dame has only faced one team this season that can throw a forward pass – Miami – and shut it down, but Oklahoma has a much stronger overall offense and has a lot more firepower. Notre Dame is really good at a lot of things, and it has shown the ability to make the comeback in the clutch, but it hasn't proven that it can keep up in any sort of a firefight. If Landry Jones and the OU offense can come up with a few quick strikes against a still-emerging Irish secondary that has yet to be tested/exposed, all of a sudden the formula changes. OU's secondary has been stellar so far and isn't going to get picked clean by a passing attack that fits what Notre Dame does, but isn't built to bomb away.
Special teams haven't been a huge problem for the Irish, but they've been a major plus for the Sooners. Former Penn State wide receiver Justin Brown is one of the nation's most explosive punt returners, while the kickoff return game has been fantastic averaging a whopping 31.15 yards per pop. Notre Dame has some playmakers who can get the return game moving, but it hasn't happened yet. OU's Mike Hunnicutt is 8-of-9 on field goals this season, while a dinged up and questionable Kyle Brindza has connected on 11-of-15 missing two last week against BYU.
What To Watch Out For: The only way this works for the Irish is if the ground game works. Last week it was Theo Riddick who took control against a tough BYU run defense that hadn't allowed much of anything all year, rushing for 143 yards on 15 carries including a key 55-yarder. The offense also needs Everett Golson to use his legs to take off from time to time to keep the chains moving, but he hasn't been much of a runner this season outside of a few scrambles against Miami and Stanford. Cleared to play after missing last week with a concussion, Golson has to be more careful with the all than he was against the Cardinal and he can't throw the picks he did against Michigan.
Landry Jones is getting hot again. With two straight 300-yard games and with more pop and explosion to the passing game, all of a sudden, everything is starting to click. However, he isn't great under pressure and he struggles against a strong pass rush, and while Texas was able to generate a few pops, there wasn't a steady stream of big plays in the backfield. Notre Dame has to keep him from being able to finding his secondary receiver and he can't give him the time for the deep plays to develop.
What Will Happen: Notre Dame will find a way. The defense will keep the OU running game under wraps and it will make the passing attack dink and dunk instead of bomb away. It's not going to be a pretty day from the offense, but the Irish ground game will move the chains just enough to pull a Kansas State and keep Jones and company on the sidelines. Notre Dame will win, but it won't be nearly convincing enough to convince the skeptics or make Alabama and Oregon worry.
CFN Prediction: Notre Dame 24 … Oklahoma 20
Line: Oklahoma -10 O/U: 48.5
Must Watch Rating (5 – The Girl, 1 – Don't Trust The B In Apt. 23): 5
Notre Dame vs. Oklahoma Fearless Prediction
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