Preview: Notre Dame at Stanford

There's a flicker of hope on the Farm this week, after last week's upsets wreaked havoc on the BCS landscape. If Stanford gets some help, it could be hosting the Pac-12 Championship Game next week, becoming a near-lock for the Rose Bowl. It also retains a chance at the BCS title game.

Even if Oregon beats Oregon State in the Civil War to claim the Pac-12 North, the No. 6 Cardinal are likely to be selected for an at-large spot in a BCS bowl, most likely the Fiesta Bowl. However, all of that won't matter if Stanford can't take care of business against Notre Dame on Saturday. The Fighting Irish sport a No. 22 ranking in the BCS standings and some of the country's top individual talents on both sides of the ball.

The Bootleg has you covered for this weekend's matchup, which kicks off at 5 p.m. on Saturday at Stanford Stadium. Read on for our top storylines heading into Saturday, and check back on the forums during the game, when I'll be posting short recaps at the end of each quarter.

Last time out: Stanford enters the game with a 10-1 overall record, and finished 8-1 in Pac-12 play, the lone loss coming on Nov. 12 to visiting Oregon. The Card retained the Axe last week after eking out a 31-28 win over a surprisingly competitive California squad. Notre Dame's record stands at 8-3, but the Fighting Irish have won their last four games since losing to USC on Oct. 22 in South Bend, Ind. Notre Dame defeated Boston College last weekend by a thin margin, 16-14.

Seniors set for final game: Barring a monumental upset in the Civil War, Saturday is the last time many of the team's seniors and draft-eligible underclassmen will play at Stanford Stadium. Of course, most prominent among those players is Andrew Luck, but a few other big names might make the jump to the next level, such as offensive guard David DeCastro (who said this week he was undecided about the draft), offensive tackle Jonathan Martin and linebacker Chase Thomas. All four of those players will be honored as fourth-year seniors, but each redshirted and has a year of eligibility remaining.

Subpar field condition: It's somewhat annoying that the poor quality of the playing surface is one of the major storylines heading into this game, but that's where we stand after two wet games filled with players slipping and sliding. Though the schedule favors Stanford in giving the team three straight home games to close the season, it doesn't help the stadium's groundskeepers, who I'm sure have been keeping busy this week. With no rain currently forecast for Saturday, it should not be as much of an issue against Notre Dame as it was in the Cal and Oregon games, but the field could still be pretty degraded.

Defensive backfield finally clicks: Despite giving up 28 points to a relatively weak Cal offense, it seemed as though Stanford's defensive backs found a rhythm against the Golden Bears. Cal's top weapon, wide receiver Keenan Allen, caught nary a pass after the first quarter, and the defense didn't allow the big plays Oregon seemed to reel off effortlessly. The unit will have to play just as well this week, as the Fighting Irish bring another potent pass-catch duo in quarterback Tommy Rees and wide receiver Michael Floyd. Containing Floyd will be the top priority for Stanford's defensive backs, as the 6-foot-3 receiver has the same type of big-play ability as Allen or USC's Robert Woods, who gave the Card a lot of trouble earlier this year.

Te'o presents challenge: Though it's difficult to nail down who is the best defensive player in college football, Notre Dame linebacker and former Stanford recruit Manti Te'o has to be included in the conversation. To put it simply, Te'o is a beast, with 103 tackles so far this season, including 4.5 sacks and 11.5 tackles for loss. Though he can't singlehandedly best Stanford's offensive line, Te'o will certainly make it a tough afternoon for Stepfan Taylor and the rest of Stanford's running back quartet. I have no doubt that Pep Hamilton and the rest of Stanford's offensive coaching brain trust have a plan to keep Te'o away from the Cardinal's playmakers, but his ability to get to the ball carrier is nearly unrivaled.

Injured players returning: Stanford has been dealing with some pretty significant injuries, with four key players—Delano Howell, Chris Owusu, Zach Ertz and Jordan Williamson—out or limited over the past few games. After suffering a concussion against Oregon State, Owusu won't be back this weekend and may not play in Stanford's bowl game either, depriving Andrew Luck of his only true deep threat at receiver. However, the prognosis is rosier for the other three players. Howell played against Cal with a cast on his right wrist; though he is making progress, the cast will remain against Notre Dame. Williamson, who went 1-for-2 on field goals last week, is also on the mend, although head coach David Shaw said it was likely Williamson would only kick field goals against the Fighting Irish, with Ben Rhyne handling the kickoffs. Ertz started practicing again this week, but he may stay out against Notre Dame—however, it is a near certainty that he will be back for the bowl game.

Showcase game for voters: In his various statements to the media on Tuesday, Shaw expressed incredulity at the workings of both Heisman voters and the BCS standings. For the Heisman, Shaw said that he believed Luck's skills as a game manager and other intangibles outshone any statistical advantages other candidates might have over him; on the BCS, he said that he didn't understand how one-loss Oklahoma State, who lost to an unranked team, and Virginia Tech, which plays in the weaker ACC, were ranked above the Cardinal. Fortunately for Shaw, and for Luck's Heisman hopes, Stanford will get an opportunity to play on primetime national television, in the coveted 8 p.m. Eastern slot. A strong showing by Luck could re-establish his Heisman lead, while a win over the Irish would boost Stanford's computer ranking, with a convincing win improving the Card's standing in the eyes of the poll voters.

Prediction: Sure, Notre Dame is 8-3, but it got there by loading up its schedule with weaker teams, with the exception of an early season win over then-No. 15 Michigan State. The Irish got beat by USC at home, while Stanford went on the road and defeated the Trojans in the Coliseum. Even discounting the superiority of Stanford's talent, I can't see the Cardinal coming out with a lackluster effort like last week's first half against Cal. There's a lot riding on a victory for Stanford, and I believe that the Card will stay focused, take care of business, and stay firmly in the BCS discussion.
Final score: Stanford 35, Notre Dame 21.

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