Big-Game Hunting: Will Northwestern derail Notre Dame’s ride to the playoff?
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Maybe it’s nothing more than another stepping-stone for an unbeaten contender on a path to the College Football Playoff. Or it might be a coming-out party — an all-out declaration — for an underdog that, despite its suspect season record, has lifted itself into a position of undeniable relevance.
No. 4 Notre Dame (-9½) at Northwestern (6:15 p.m., ESPN) is going to unfold Saturday in Evanston as one of those things. The 8-0 Irish will emerge ever closer to the grandest stage in the college game unless the 5-3 Wildcats — 5-1 in the Big Ten and alone atop the West Division — break from their pursuit of a first-ever appearance in the conference championship game with an upset that demands attention locally and is heard ’round the country.
‘‘Our guys are going to have to play with great energy, a great sense of understanding the moment,’’ Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said. ‘‘Because Northwestern is certainly going to be ready for this football game.’’
An aside: Are we ready for this football game? Is Chicago so geared for pro sports that a game of this magnitude fails to move the needle locally as much as it should?
NU has won 12 of its last 13 Big Ten games. In other parts of the country, that would be cause for a freak-out of the best kind. Kelly is right to call the unranked Wildcats a team that, ‘‘first and foremost, doesn’t get the respect it deserves.’’
Yet there is no question the Irish hold the keys to victory because of — and this is what college football boils down to — their superior talent.
‘‘We’re going to focus on us,’’ NU coach Pat Fitzgerald said. ‘‘That’s what our week is, all week — us getting better. We’re playing an outstanding football team. They’re great in all three phases, they’ve got talent at every position, so anything else? That’s about all. Yeah, that’s the gist.’’
It might be as simple as that. Quarterback against quarterback, give me NU’s Clayton Thorson over Notre Dame’s Ian Book. Everywhere else, though — especially looking at Irish running back Dexter Williams, an elite receiving corps and an explosive defensive front — this matchup screams Notre Dame. It’s 34-20 and on to the next game for a playoff-bound squad.
Five other Saturday matchups that are sticking the aforementioned needle right in my eye:
No. 1 Alabama (-14½) at No. 3 LSU (7 p.m., Ch. 2): Yeah, this one’s kind of a big deal. Fun note: Crimson Tide quarterback Tua Tagovailoa has thrown 25 touchdown passes and zero interceptions, but the Tigers lead the nation with 14 picks.
There’s a narrative out there that the Crimson Tide might lose ‘‘well’’ — say, by a field goal — and still become one of two Southeastern Conference teams to make the playoff. Not going to happen. Tide by 10.
No. 6 Georgia (-9½) at No. 9 Kentucky (2:30 p.m., Ch. 2): Running back Benny Snell, only 65 yards shy of hitting 1,000 on the ground for the third season in a row, is a Wildcats star. His team has made it clear that when it can run the ball, it can beat just about anybody.
The winner of this one gets to 6-1 in SEC play and all but locks up the East. The Bulldogs, who kicked it into high gear last weekend against Florida, take what’s rightfully theirs, 31-20.
No. 16 Iowa (+3) at Purdue (2:30 p.m., ESPN2): Both teams are 3-2 in the Big Ten and nipping at Northwestern’s heels in the West. A Hawkeyes victory would set up a monster game against the Wildcats next Saturday in Iowa City. It’s November. By law, I have to go with the more physical team. Hawkeyes by a touchdown.
No. 13 West Virginia (+2) at No. 17 Texas (2:30 p.m., Fox-32): A couple of months ago, I picked Texas to win the Big 12 this season. Here the Longhorns are, tied for first with the Mountaineers and Oklahoma, but you know what? The Mountaineers are playing better. ‘‘Take me home . . . ’’ with the W.
No. 14 Penn State (+10½) at No. 5 Michigan (2:45 p.m., ESPN): Shea Patterson, meet Trace McSorley. The most-talked-about Big Ten quarterback this season has his match in a guy who’s done the big-game thing plenty of times. Wolverines eke out a victory — it’s their year, isn’t it? — but the number is too big.
My favorite favorite: No. 8 Ohio State (-17) vs. Nebraska (11 a.m., Fox-32): After a bye week in the wake of their humiliating blowout loss to Purdue, you’d better believe the Buckeyes are ready to hit somebody.
My favorite underdog: Texas Tech (+14) vs. No. 7 Oklahoma (7 p.m., Ch. 7): What a thrill it’ll be to watch quarterbacks Patrick Mahomes and Baker Mayfield do battle. Oh, wait, they’re not in school anymore. Both teams can light up the scoreboard, though. Last team with the ball wins? I’m calling the upset.
Last week: 3-5 straight-up, 2-6 against the spread. That’s back-to-back weeks of 2-6 against the spread, for those of you scoring at home. Please stop scoring at home.
Season to date: 42-21 straight-up, 29-33-1 against the spread.
MINNESOTA AT ILLINOIS
The facts: 2:30 p.m., BTN, 670-AM.
The records: Minnesota 4-4, 1-4 Big Ten; Illinois 3-5, 1-4 Big Ten.
The story line: The bad news is the Illini rank 119th in the nation in scoring defense. The good news is they’re 188th in passing defense and all the way up at 112th in rushing defense. Why, again, did defensive coordinator Hardy Nickerson resign earlier this week?
“We’re not satisfied with a lot of things that we’re doing football-wise right now,” coach Lovie Smith said. “Of course, defensively, we haven’t played good defense.”
The defense has been downright offensive, too. Fortunately, the Gophers are, at best, a middle-of-the-road offense in this league. That might keep things from getting as ugly as usual for Smith and company.
The line: Gophers by 9½.
Greenberg’s pick: Minnesota, 34-30.