Wake Forest embarks on likely the hardest two game stretch for any team this season. First, the Deacs travel to No. 4 Notre Dame on their Senior Day. A week later, the Demon Deacons get the luxury to play in Death Valley versus No. 1 Clemson.
Dave Clawson has spoke at length about how great of an opportunity this is to play the best. He is absolutely correct. The only way to learn to be the best is to play the best.
For us to learn about the Fighting Irish, we brought in Keith Arnold, who writes the great "Inside the Irish" column on NBC Sports, can be followed HERE. Arnold gave us some great insight about the dominant Irish offense, the volatile defense and their chances in the CFP below.
All appeared bleak in the Virginia game when Malik Zaire went down for the year until DeShone Kizer lifted the Irish to a miraculous victory. Since then, the sophomore has performed remarkably. What makes Kizer so dangerous and what is the best way to keep him uncomfortable?
Physically, Kizer lacks nothing. He's close to 6-foot-5 and 240 pounds. He has an arm that's managed to overthrow Will Fuller a few times deep and legs that outran Temple's defense. But what's been most impressive about Kizer is the poise he's shown. He's been clutch when needed. He's never looked rattled. And he seems like a veteran player, not a guy who has started seven games.
This spring, Kizer was so bad he wondered if he was playing the right sport (he was an excellent high school pitcher with a mid-90s fastball). Walk-on QB Montgomery VanGorder played better in the annual spring game. Last Saturday, Kizer had one of the most prolific offensive days in Notre Dame history, and it felt pretty easy. That's because his support cast is elite and his knowledge base is rapidly expanding. If any Notre Dame fan told you they saw this coming, they're lying to you. Most expected true freshman Brandon Wimbush to be the star-in-the-making, not Kizer. The Irish will have a nice problem this spring when Zaire is healthy.
Most Wake fans likely know about stud running back CJ Prosise (975 yards and 11 TDs) and future first round pick Will Fuller. Who is another player on the offensive side that you expect to make a big impact on Saturday?
Get ready to see a lot of freshman running back Josh Adams. Last week he came in after Prosise was hurt in the first quarter and ran for 147 yards against a tough Pitt defense. Adams is averaging 7.4 yards per carry. He's got great speed and surprising power. And he's shown himself to be a pretty good receiver as well.
Adams is another interesting story in that he was a Notre Dame offer and commitment as a recruit even with a major knee injury. He was far from a highly-touted recruit, but the Irish staff had him to a summer camp when he was healthy and trusted their evaluation of him. That's paid off big time, especially with a running back depth chart essentially on their third and fourth option since spring football. (Starter Tarean Folston tore his ACL on his third carry of the season. Back-up Greg Bryant was suspended for four games before he was ruled academically ineligible after summer school. He's resumed his football career elsewhere.)
I'd actually be surprised if Prosise plays this weekend. He's going through concussion protocol, he's also been nursing a banged up shoulder and it might make sense to let him get healthy for a week, especially with the workload he's taken on this season. I actually think Wake Forest plays pretty great defense. But whoever runs behind Notre Dame's talented offensive line should have a nice day. I expect it to be Adams.
Notre Dame has let up at least 20 points in every game since Week 1. While they have size up front, the Irish have given up their share of points. What is the best way for Dave Clawson & Co to attack and exploit this Fighting Irish defense?
This defense has been really inconsistent. They are one of the top units in the country in forcing three-and-outs, but they give up way too many big plays. Pitt made eight plays of 20 yards or more against Notre Dame. Entering the game, they had 32 on the season. If I'm Dave Clawson, I empty the trick play folder. For a school filled with smart kids, Notre Dame's defense has fallen for a ton of tricks—multiple teams have scored touchdowns on throw backs, laterals, and just about anything else you could draw up.
The big worry for Clawson should be slowing down Sheldon Day at the point of attack. Jaylon Smith gets most of the headlines, but Day has been one of college football's most disruptive defensive tackles. I know Wake Forest has had some struggles on the offensive line and Day will likely make them pay.
With Wake Forest followed by Boston College, it's safe to say that Notre Dame will take the next two games. Is it fair to say that the Nov. 28th game @Stanford is a do-or-die game to receive a bid into the College Football Playoff? Is there any scenario where Notre Dame wins out and doesn't make the CFP?
I think everybody has been looking at it that way since the Irish managed to beat USC. Most aren't sure that 11-1 with a two-point loss to Clemson will be enough to get invited to the party. But after opening at No. 5 in the committee's rankings and currently having the No. 1 strength-of-schedule in the country, I think it should be good enough.
Of course, last year Ohio State bumped off TCU and Baylor in the final rankings. And there are still a ton of big games to be played, especially in the Big 12 and Big 10. It'll be very interesting. Iowa and Ohio State are still both unbeaten. You have to assume that the SEC champion will get in. Then it'll come down to Clemson continuing to win and the Pac-12 getting someone through that gauntlet with just one-loss and a conference championship.
I like Brian Kelly's attitude. Worry about what you can control. But after it felt like the Irish gave away that game to Clemson in the rain, the team feels very good about where they stand with just three games remaining—especially with the amount of injuries they've faced this season.
We all understand the Notre Dame's independence allows them to complete an NBC deal and improve its national viewership. On the contrary, conferences provide instant credibility and a pathway to the CFP via a conference championship. As the dynamics of college sports change and the Power 5 conferences continue to bulk up in size and territory- and already a pseudo ACC member- has Notre Dame's take on joining a conference changed? Where does the fanbase stand on this issue?
Notre Dame won't back away from their independence in football unless they are forced to do so. That's been clear from jump street, and athletic director Jack Swarbrick continues to make that clear. It's also priority one for the fans. You've got to credit Swarbrick for navigating these tricky waters throughout the realignment era, and also being the lead architect for the College Football Playoff, something he spearheaded with former SEC commissioner Mike Slive.
Independence is a tricky subject. There are certainly pros and cons to both side. It's worth pointing out that it didn't used to be just Notre Dame on this island, but the money and consolidation have forced just about everybody to join a conference, if only to take advantage of the ridiculous cash coming to conferences by networks like ESPN. Obviously, NBC has allowed Notre Dame to participate in that windfall, a unique broadcaster-university relationship that's been the main reason the Irish could stay solo all these years.
It's been funny to see coaches—and everybody else—weigh in on the issue of Notre Dame joining a conference. The arguments that they don't play a 13th game get rather silly when you look at some of the cupcakes that end up on certain schedules. But if the committee starts skipping by the Irish because they don't play a conference title game, maybe Notre Dame will do something. And if they do, a full-membership in the ACC seems to be the only move they'd entertain, though even that would be a last resort.
Finally, Notre Dame is favored 27 points. What do you expect to take place on Saturday in South Bend and what's the final score?
I don't make predictions, but I think this spread feels about right. Wake Forest will be facing an Irish team that'll be emotionally charged, the seniors playing their final home game in Notre Dame Stadium. The Deacs ran into a similar buzzsaw in 2012 on Senior Day, the Irish lighting it up offensively and winning 38-0.
The Irish are a much better team at home. They'll have a pretty significant advantage in the trenches. And it feels like Wake Forest is still in the middle of a reclamation project that's showing some signs of life, but still has a ways to go. Would it surprise me if this game was close? Kinda. But this is the time of year where crazy Saturdays come out of nowhere. But Brian Kelly's team understands that there's a beauty pageant element to all of this as well.
Thanks again Keith for taking the time to talk with us.