College Sports

Big Game Hunting: Is the Sandman coming for Notre Dame in Blacksburg?

I might as well have hung them on a banner outside my front door, or worn them on a sandwich board up and down Michigan Ave. Or at least posted them in my social-media bios.

“Notre Dame will be in the playoff at season’s end.”

The words have been impossible to get away from since I wrote them after last weekend’s lopsided Irish victory over Stanford. Readers have lined up to call me dimwitted, confirming my long-held suspicion. More than that, though, I’ve spent the ensuing days becoming increasingly concerned about the Irish’s next game.

So, please allow the following edit: The unbeaten Irish will be in the playoff at season’s end unless No. 6 Notre Dame (-6) at No. 24 Virginia Tech (7 p.m., Ch. 7) turns into the sort of Blacksburg bum rush that, well, certainly could unfold.

Notre Dame has it all going on right now. (AP/Carlos Osorio)

When the one-loss Hokies are right, their home turf — with Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” blasting through the public-address system — can be a scary place. That’s especially the case at night.

“Our job is to handle the environment and go in and play really good football,” coach Brian Kelly said. “If we do that and handle the environment, handle ourselves and our preparation, we’ll be in pretty good shape. If we can’t handle the environment — and we can’t prepare the right way [and] we’re distracted because everybody’s telling us how great we are — then we’ll be in big trouble.”

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The Hokies were impressive, especially on the defensive side of the ball, in a season-opening 24-3 victory at Florida State. Buoyed by quarterback Ryan Willis in his first career start, they looked like an even more complete team last weekend in a 31-14 romp at Duke. Of course, this is the same team — the same defense — that got run over in a shocking Week 4 upset at Old Dominion.

The Irish would like to think it’s all about themselves. The balanced, formidable offense that did whatever it wanted to do against Stanford is capable of achieving success anywhere. The fast, furious defense that manhandled the Cardinal ought to travel well, too. At least in theory.

College football is a funny game. Upsets happen all the time, part of a relentless winnowing of the list of true title contenders. Many a high-end squad has fallen victim to the Blacksburg bum rush before, but this time? Get me that sandwich board, dang it — Irish by 10.

Three other Saturday games of major intrigue:

No. 7 Oklahoma (-7½) vs. No. 19 Texas (11 a.m., Fox-32): Baker who? Sooners quarterback Kyler Murray has stepped into Heisman Trophy winner Baker Mayfield’s shoes and been spectacular. That’s why the question everyone’s asking heading into this neutral-field game at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas is if the resurgent Longhorns can light up the scoreboard enough to even keep it close.

It’s the wrong question. The right one is: Can the Longhorns’ defense, which has been lights-out three games in a row, carry the day? Hook ’Em in a Red River upset.

Florida State (+13½) at No. 17 Miami (2:30 p.m., Ch. 7). The Hurricanes haven’t won at home against the Seminoles since 2004. If they fail to do so this time, it’ll be colossally disappointing given FSU’s struggles getting off the ground this season. But don’t discount the significance of FSU’s comeback victory last weekend at Louisville. It was just the shot in the arm new coach Willie Taggart’s program needed. Miami, 31-24.

No. 5 LSU (-2½) at No. 22 Florida (2:30 p.m., Ch. 2): It isn’t the second coming of Alabama vs. Georgia, but these teams are set up to make all kinds of noise in the SEC this season. Speaking of Alabama and Georgia, the upstart Tigers (2018 schedule strength: obscene) face both powerhouses in the next few weeks. They’d better not let their collective guard down against the Gators. LSU walks it off with a field goal.

My favorite favorite: No. 8
Auburn
(-3½) at Mississippi State (6:30 p.m., ESPN2). Are the Bulldogs going to be as consistently dangerous, particularly in Starkville, under first-year coach Joe Moorhead, as they were under Dan Mullen? Both defenses are good, but Auburn’s is better.

My favorite underdog: Minnesota (+7) vs. Iowa (2:30 p.m., BTN). The Gophers are one-dimensional on offense — it’s run the ball or bust — and the Hawkeyes are terrific against the run. At some point, though, the Gophers are going to turn a meaningful corner under P.J. Fleck. Why not now?

Last week: 7-0 straight up; 6-1 against the spread.

Season to date: 25-9 straight-up; 19-14-1 against the spread.

THE LOCALS

ILLINOIS AT RUTGERS

The facts: 11 a.m., BTN, 670-AM.

The records: Illinois 2-2, 0-1 Big Ten; Rutgers 1-4, 0-2 Big Ten.

The story line: Kudos to Illini coach Lovie Smith for acknowledging this is a big game. Maybe not big to the rest of the country, maybe not big to the rest of the conference, maybe not big in any conventional sense of the word — but the Illini have an excellent chance to win a Big Ten football game, and that simply can’t be said often at all. Road favorites? It almost boggles the mind.

The line: Illini by 4½.

Greenberg’s pick: Illinois, 27-21.

NORTHWESTERN AT MICHIGAN STATE

The facts: 11 a.m., FS1, 720-AM.

The records: Northwestern 1-3, 1-1 Big Ten; Michigan State 3-1, 1-0 Big Ten.

The story line: If the Wildcats are going to heat up and surprise the doubters as they did last season, this would be the time and place to start. In order for it to happen, though, an offense seemingly without any answers will have to do a 180 and fall into a dependable rhythm. The Spartans are strong on both sides of the ball and are heavy favorites for a reason, but NU often has been best when overlooked.

The line: Spartans by 10½.

Greenberg’s pick: MSU, 24-20.

NORTHERN ILLINOIS AT BALL STATE

The facts: 2 p.m., ESPN3, 560-AM.

The records: NIU 2-3, 2-0 MAC; BSU 2-3, 1-0 MAC.

The story line: Ball State played Notre Dame pretty tight earlier this season, but was it more an off day for the Irish than anything else? The Huskies have a chance to assert themselves in the conference race by doing what the always do in the Battle for the Bronze Stalk, and that’s win. NIU is going for consecutive victory No. 10 in the series.

The line: Huskies by 3.

Greenberg’s pick: NIU, 23-17.

 

THE LOCALS

ILLINOIS AT RUTGERS

The facts: 11 a.m., BTN, 670-AM.

The records: Illinois 2-2, 0-1 Big Ten; Rutgers 1-4, 0-2 Big Ten.

The storyline: Kudos to Illini coach Lovie Smith for acknowledging this is a big game. Maybe not big to the rest of the country, maybe not big to the rest of the conference, maybe not big in any conventional sense of the word, but the Illini have an excellent chance to win a Big Ten football game, and that simply can’t be said often at all. Road favorites? It almost boggles the mind.

The line: Illini by 4½.

Steve Greenberg’s pick: Illinois, 27-21.

NORTHWESTERN
AT MICHIGAN STATE

The facts: 11 a.m., FS1, 720-AM.

The records: Northwestern 1-3, 1-1 Big Ten; Michigan State 3-1, 1-0 Big Ten.

The storyline: If the Wildcats are going to heat up and surprise the doubters as they did last season, this would be the time and place to start. In order for that to happen, though, an offense seemingly without any answers will have to do a 180 and fall into a dependable rhythm. The Spartans are strong on both sides of the ball and are heavy favorites for a reason, but NU often has been best when overlooked.

The line: Spartans by 10½.

Greenberg’s pick: MSU, 24-20.

NORTHERN ILLINOIS AT BALL STATE

The facts: 2 p.m., ESPN3, 560-AM.

The records: NIU 2-3, 2-0 MAC; Ball State 2-3, 1-0 MAC.

The storyline: Ball State played Notre Dame pretty tight earlier this season, but was it more an off day for the Irish than anything else? The Huskies have a chance to assert themselves in the conference race by doing what they always do in the Battle for the Bronze Stalk, and that’s win. NIU is going for its 10th consecutive victory in the series.

The line: Huskies by 3.

Greenberg’s pick: NIU, 23-17.