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 weekâ€™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 isnâ€™t quite as impressive as it first appears to be, though. Stanfordâ€™s Sagarin SOS is only 48 (compared to NDâ€™s 36, which some call â€˜weakâ€™), and thatâ€™s heavily impacted by the USC and Oregon games. Outside of those two, the Pac-12 was extremely weak this year and Stanfordâ€™s OOC schedule included lowly San Jose State and Duke. Not exactly a challenge.
Iâ€™m not saying Stanford isnâ€™t good. Iâ€™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 Sagarinâ€™s rankings. The rest of their schedule, all Wâ€™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. Theyâ€™ve handily beaten a bunch of teams ranked 48th or lower, with 5 of those ranked 76th or lower.
The point? Stanfordâ€™s results this season arenâ€™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, Iâ€™m telling you thereâ€™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.
Poot loves to push the use of Adjusted Stats, and I have to say that I have become a true believer. Football Outsidersâ€™ 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 Stanfordâ€™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. NDâ€™s offense ranks 14th in FEI adjusted stats, and Stanford ranks 25th. Whatâ€™s more, NDâ€™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.
ND has a shot at an upset in this game, and itâ€™s not some pipe dream. While playing Away will certainly have an impact, this isnâ€™t a game that ND cannot win. To me, there are 2 critical areas that will determine NDâ€™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 itâ€™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 letâ€™s go do it.