SOUTH BEND – Notre Dame has reached the end of the 2020 regular season. During the summer, it felt like a long shot at times that the Irish (or any team) would get here, but here they are, trying to complete not only the regular season, but an undefeated regular season.
This wasn't supposed to be the final game of the season. No. 2 Notre Dame was supposed to play Syracuse today and then travel to Winston-Salem, North Carolina to take on Wake Forest next week. Instead, that game was canceled to ensure a nine-game conference schedule for Notre Dame, Clemson and Miami (the three teams in contention for the ACC Championship at this point in the season) and the Irish were able to clinch a spot in the conference title game without playing a snap this weekend. After today, they'll have two weeks off to prepare for the Tigers or Hurricanes.
On their way to an undefeated campaign in 2018, the Irish added a late-season feather in their cap with a dominant 36-3 victory over a Syracuse team that went on to win 10 games that year. This is not the same Orange team. Two years after that double-digit win campaign, Syracuse is a decimated group, missing more than a third of its roster because of injuries and opt-outs and dressing less than 60 scholarship players for the game today, according to coach Dino Babers. The truth is, the team wasn't even particularly good at full strength. The Orange's only win came against Georgia Tech back in September and they have lost seven straight since then to fall to last place in the ACC standings.
In worse news for the Orange, their weakness, the trenches, is Notre Dame's strength. The Orange are averaging just 2.7 yards per carry, 122nd in the country, while giving up more than 200 rushing yards per game. The Irish are running for nearly 230 yards per contest and their offensive line ranks as the best in the country by Pro Football Focus's analytics, so in theory Notre Dame should be able to push the Orange around to a certain extent. A word of caution, however: Notre Dame is ailing on the offensive line. Starters Jarrett Patterson (foot) and Tommy Kraemer (appendix) are out for the second straight week, putting Zeke Correll in at center and Josh Lugg at right guard. But Correll is also hurt and will be a game-time decision, though it's likely he plays. If he's less than 100%, the Irish could turn to little-used redshirt junior Dillan Gibbons at right guard and move Lugg to center. Kraemer should be back in the ACC Championship Game, but for today the Irish will be short-handed up front.
That could put a little bit more on the shoulders of Notre Dame quarterback Ian Book, who is trying to win his 30th game as Notre Dame's starter. That would make him the all-time winningest quarterback in Irish history, surpassing Brady Quinn, Ron Powlus and Tom Clements. Book is 29-3 as the starter. The fifth-year senior also comes into today with a streak of 237 passes without an interception, the longest streak in Irish history and tied for the longest active streak in the country. He's been nothing short of spectacular since the Pittsburgh game in October and has made more than a few Houdini-like plays in big moments. Notre Dame shouldn't need them this week, but it doesn't hurt to keep a few up your sleeve.
Book will have the advantage of working with wide receiver Braden Lenzy for the first time since Oct. 10. The speedy redshirt sophomore has been bothered by a hamstring injury all season, but coach Brian Kelly said Lenzy was full-speed ahead this week and it wouldn't surprise me if the Irish tried to run a few gadget plays for him or look for him on a deep shot or two, just to get those plays on film for a potential championship game matchup, if nothing else. Targeting Lenzy would also help him regain confidence and Notre Dame would love to have him at full strength as it prepares to face some of the best defenses in the country.
Of course, getting the win today is Notre Dame's most important goal, but some style points wouldn't hurt either. If the Irish happen to lose to Clemson in the ACC Championship Game, the College Football Playoff Selection Committee would have to weigh Notre Dame's resume against that of BYU, Cincinnati and others as it decides whether to give the Irish a spot in the Playoff anyway. A big win over a mostly inept team in the game prior to the championship matchup might give the Irish some marginal advantage they could need.