So You’re Telling Me There’s a Chance

A good one.

This Saturday, a game that could have pitted two Top-10, 1-loss teams arrives. *sigh* But still, not much changes other than how much money ND can make in a bowl, and some public perception of whether ND is ‘back’ or not. No matter what, this game is the second big test of the season to see where Notre Dame Football stands in 2011. While I believe Stanford is still ranked a bit too high based on the love for Andrew Luck, they are a legit Top 10-15 team and this game is a measuring stick for the Irish.

Season to Date and Competition

Stanford comes into the game 9-1 with its only loss to a quality Oregon squad. Outside of the thrilling triple OT win over USC, the Oregon loss and last week’s nail-biter vs Cal, Stanford rolled through the rest of their (very light) schedule. Scores like 37-10 were the norm for the Cardinal this year, and they have 7 games where they scored over 40 points.

Upon closer inspection, this isn’t quite as impressive as it first appears to be, though. Stanford’s Sagarin SOS is only 48 (compared to ND’s 36, which some call ‘weak’), and that’s heavily impacted by the USC and Oregon games. Outside of those two, the Pac-12 was extremely weak this year and Stanford’s OOC schedule included lowly San Jose State and Duke. Not exactly a challenge.

I’m not saying Stanford isn’t good. I’m just saying that their only really impressive W to date was USC, and that took triple OT to get there.

Oregon and USC rank 5th and 15th respectively in Sagarin’s rankings. The rest of their schedule, all W’s, came against competition ranked as follows:
38th: Cal, 48th: Washington, 52nd: UCLA, 69th: Arizona, 76th: Washington State, 82nd: Oregon State, 99th: San Jose State, 105th: Duke, 114th: Colorado.

So, yeah, Stanford has essentially played 3 tough games in Oregon, USC and Cal, and went 2-1 with one W in Triple OT and the other W going to the wire. They’ve handily beaten a bunch of teams ranked 48th or lower, with 5 of those ranked 76th or lower.

The point? Stanford’s results this season aren’t as impressive as they look on paper when you consider their schedule. They struggled mightily against any team ranked 38th or higher. Notre Dame is currently ranked 25th by Sagarin.

In other words, I’m telling you there’s a chance.

An 8-3 ND team that’s played the 36th most difficult schedule with a few very close calls vs a 9-1 Stanford team that’s played the 48th most difficult schedule with a few very close calls. It’s a fairly even match-up, folks.

Adjusted Stats

Poot loves to push the use of Adjusted Stats, and I have to say that I have become a true believer. Football Outsiders’ FEI efficiency ratings help us understand how a team performs on a level playing field vs others by adjusting for level of competition and removing non-impact plays (e.g. end of half kneeling), and a comparison of the production of two squads can help us better gauge how a team stands vs another before they step out onto the field. To compare, I use the FEI ratings from Football outsiders which can be found heeeyah.

I think everyone would point to Stanford’s QB and their amazing point production and consider Stanford the superior O. But once adjusted for competition, and when we ignore the insane amount of Turnovers for ND earlier in the season, ND actually comes out ahead. ND’s offense ranks 14th in FEI adjusted stats, and Stanford ranks 25th. What’s more, ND’s defense is essentially tied with Stanford at 15 vs 14, respectively.

I don’t think a lot of people would look at the two team’s resumes to date and conclude that Notre Dame has an offense that is more efficient at moving the ball down the field. But points and competition level hide a lot of things, and ND actually matches up well against Stanford in these key statistical areas. This doesn’t mean that point production doesn’t matter (obviously) and ND will have to execute in the red zone on Saturday, but these rankings indicate that ND should, at the least, have good opportunities to put points on the board.

Note: Both teams are mediocre to bad on STs, with Stanford ranked 58th and ND 69th.

So?

ND has a shot at an upset in this game, and it’s not some pipe dream. While playing Away will certainly have an impact, this isn’t a game that ND cannot win. To me, there are 2 critical areas that will determine ND’s ultimate chances: health and turnovers.

The biggest challenge for Notre Dame is a test of the next man in philosophy, because the team is missing some key pieces that helped them achieve the current FEI rankings. Guys like Jonas Gray, Braxton Cave, and KLM were key cogs in the machine that produced Top 15 rankings on both sides of the ball. So the question there is: can the next men in step up to fill the void?

And then we have to focus on getting the guys that can play ready to play health-wise. If ND can get some of its key guys ready to go this weekend, ND has a shot to pull off an upset to end the season. This means getting the guys with the flu healed up in time, and getting those guys with nagging injuries going at 100%. Some huge parts of this team are done for the year, so ND is certainly not bringing all firepower to the table. This is material and injuries are too often ignored by the ND fanbase, but to have a shot the team needs to get those guys that can still play as close to 100% as possible.

And then it’s all about playing clean football, which is a tall order for this hot and cold Irish squad. If the Irish turn the ball over, even once, this game will be very difficult to win. ND will need to play flawless football for the most part, something this team has not yet shown. But if ND can come in with the squad firing on all cylinders health-wise, and if the team can refrain from turning the ball over, ND can come out on top. This is a pretty close matchup once you examine the numbers.

Now let’s go do it.

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  • ozzman

    my only concern is that we are a completely different team without Gray as an option.

  • kreyfish34

    Without Gray, it’s going to be an up hill slog. But, it can be done. 60 minutes of flawless football…they owe themselves that. And speaking of “next man in”, that should also mean giving Hendrix some pt, if only to give ND some offensive options. We’ll need to through everything we’ve got at them. Would also like to see the youngsters in the RB spot to help Wood out. Leave NOTHING on the field, boys.

    Go Irish!!

    • kreyfish34

      Err…that should be “throw”…mea culpa.

    • TBone

      CBK has hinted at Riddick switching to the back field. This could be a great move.
      Wouldn’t it be a major coup if Marshall committed?!

  • terry

    This is a turn-the-corner game.

    South Florida, Syracuse, Connecticut, Tulsa (TULSA?), etc. – in the rear view mirror and (hopefully) fading.

    They have gotten to the point where they beat teams they are supposed to beat. To turn the corner they have to beat a team – ON THE ROAD – that they are NOT supposed to beat.

    Stanford fills the bill to perfection. Let me count the ways

    1) Last year they ran up the score on ND at ND stadium – The House That Rockne Built. Their coach ass-biscuit stood on the sideline smiling and egging them on – This calls for PAYBACK. I know he’s not there anymore and the guy is an excellent coach, he is also a world-class jerk, or ass-biscuit if you prefer. I prefer both.

    2) I’ve seen a few posts around the internet that Luck needs to pad his stats to get back into serious heisman contention.

    3) Stanford is still in contention to play for the National Championship. It would take some seriously unlikely happenings to make it so, but they are in contention.

    4) When they win the game, they will have earned the right to look at a beaten opponent and utter those ever so sweet words – “We’re Notre Dame, and you’re not!”

  • http://www.footballoutsiders.com Whiskeyjack

    FO’s other two opponent-adjusted rankings are even more favorable for ND.

    F/+:
    Overall- ND (9) > Stanford (11)
    Offense- Stanford (10) > ND (15)
    Defense- ND (16) > Stanford (35)
    ST- Stanford (35) > ND (36)

    S&P:
    Overall- ND (8) > Stanford (13)
    Offense- ND (9) > Stanford (10)
    Defense- ND (15) > Stanford (29)

  • trey

    why is biscuit an ass?

  • SDI

    A chance, yes, anything is possible. “A good one”–no. Stanford is good but not great, but they are perfectly designed to beat ND. Physical, disciplined, well coached defense. Strong offensive line and running game and a very good QB who will pick ND apart. I have not been this confident of an ND loss since the 2008 USC game. I hope I’m wrong. My best homey went to Stanford and I would love nothing more than to talk a little post game smack, but it’s not going to happen. In fact I think this game will look very similar to the USC game this year. Stanford will jump out to a lead, leave the door slightly ajar for an ND rally, then slam it closed in the 3rd quarter. Stanford 35 ND 16.

  • Jeremy

    I get that we might be somewhat close on adjusted paper, but don’t forget we got handled by a team that took Stanford to the wire. Our big games this year were Michigan, MSU, and USC. We are 1-2. We still have a very strong propensity to turn the ball over, and BK has shown no willingness to let Hendrix run a few plays the last few weeks as a warm-up or change of pace or anything, regardless of his many reasons. Missing our starting center and our power back for a road game makes this even worse. This is a good analysis, and like the added feeling of a little hope, but there is no way what we have seen from this team to date makes this a win on Saturday. They are headed in the right direction, but they are not there yet.

    That said, I would obviously love for them to win this game. But if we do, it should be celebrated as truly winning a game we should not win based on what we have seen in big games this year and possibly turning the corner to a great next season. But if we don’t (and as long as it is not a pummeling), we should alos recognize that we just aren’t there yet, though hopefully we will be soon.

    • The Biscuit

      I saw USC handle us for a quarter and then saw us battle back to almost tie it, and then fumble it away. 1 play and that’s a different game. We are closer than you think (at least we were when healthy)

  • Dave88

    Sure, ND has a chance but let’s not forget they’ve only defeated two teams with winning records on their slate. USC waxed ND in South Bend while Stanford defeated USC in the Coliseum. This will be the most prolific offense ND has faceda and a stiff challenge for the ND defense.

    Anything is possible but on paper I think this one goes to the cardinal especially if ND continues to hurt themselves with inopportune penalties and turnovers.

    • http://www.herloyalsons.com Matt Q. (DMQ)

      So many clichés I could throw at this, but…

      Anyway, let’s not discount thumping MSU by 18 too much. In the world of CFB parity insanity, that’s a really good win. At best you can argue that USC “handled” ND, but ND tripped all over itself to lose a game against Michigan that it was winning handily.

      • Jeremy

        Solid point on MSU. So how does MSU compare to Stanford? They both have good rushing defenses, but what about offensive lines? We owned MSU; will we be able to get pressure on Luck?

        My biggest concern is that since Stanford last year, a rush 3 drop 8 defensive scheme has shown it can really confuse our QBs, especially when they have no intention of running. Will BK finally have a game plan that prevents Rees from being baited into switching to a bad play or that takes advantage of whatever our best counter to that type of defense is?

  • bjc378

    I’m hoping ND gets the ball first. At times the first drive has looked flawless and unstoppable. What ND does not need to start the game is an easy Stanford touchdown and a defense coming out flat. I believe setting a positive tone early on offense and a cushion for the D would be huge.

  • tlndma

    I’m concerned that Stanford will play a defense similar to BC last week. If we only score 16 vs. Stanford, we lose by 12. If Stanford drops 8&9 into coverage, we have to find a way to be effective offensively.

    • cjgunnz

      Stanford used that coverage against ND last year with Crist as QB. Normally on 3rd down or in obvious passing situations. We need to either pass on 1st down (when they wont be dropping 8), or have an extremely effective ground game to stay out of 3rd and long. Maybe Riddick could be a game-changer at RB to make the difference. I think its becoming obvious that it was a mistake to move him to WR as Toma is more effective in the slot.

  • The Biscuit

    I am very sure that BK is planning something to deal with the D that has been effective against us. Stanford last year, Pitt, BC. If not, he isn’t trying. Not sure it’ll work, but I hope so.

  • canuck75

    This is a great chance for our Coach to show us a wrinkle. Maybe Hendrix at an earlier drive.Maybe a different blitz package to throw Luck off.
    I have a good feeling. Last week Floyd and TJ should have made those two catchesfor tds. This week they make them!
    Go Irish!

  • GB

    Anything can hqppen but I presume Stanford will load the box like the other teams and Rees will be deemed impotent. If ND loses I don not think they improve from last year. I hope they show me wrong. The D is definitely better but the O was better last year minus the O line. I thought the passing game was better last year.

  • http://www.herloyalsons.com The Biscuit

    GB we are better in almost all offensive stats this year, except red zone conversion.

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