The Notre Dame Fighting Irish remain squarely in contention for a College Football Playoff berth, a case they'll look to bolster when they head west to close the regular season and take on the Stanford Cardinal on Saturday night. The Cardinal, on the other hand — regardless of Saturday's result — will miss out on the postseason for the second time in as many full seasons (excluding the condensed 2020 season). Stanford's losing records in 2019 and 2021 will mark the Cardinal's first consecutive pair of sub-.500 full seasons since a stretch of seven such seasons from 2002 to 2008.
An Oct. 2 home loss to fellow CFP contender Cincinnati remains the lone blemish on an otherwise sparkling résumé for Notre Dame (10-1). After opening the campaign with three of their first five wins coming by just a field goal, the Fighting Irish have won each of their next five by double digits, including 28-point and 25-point victories to open the month of November and a 55-0 rout of Georgia Tech last week. That win over the Yellow Jackets clinched the Irish's 10th win of the 2021 season and 53rd since the start of 2017, marking the first time in program history that Notre Dame has posted five consecutive seasons of 10 or more wins and tying the program record for wins in a five-year span.
Stanford (3-8, 2-7 Pac-12), meanwhile, won three of its first five to begin the season — two of which came in Los Angeles and Nashville in consecutive weeks — but that's about where the positive momentum peaked. The Cardinal have proceeded to drop each of their next six, driven by halftime deficits in all six and being held to 14 or fewer points in five of the six.
Saturday's prime-time matchup will be the 35th all-time meeting between the two prestigious institutions, the 10th with head coaches Brian Kelly and David Shaw at the helm. Notre Dame has won each of the last two (2018, 2019) by 21 points apiece, boosting the Irish to a seven-game edge in the series (eight-game advantage, including a vacated win in 2012). Those two victories in fairly convincing fashion helped turn the tide away from a nine-year run of seven Stanford wins from 2009 to 2017, which likewise halted a seven-year stretch from 2002 to 2008 that saw Notre Dame come out on top in all seven meetings.
A neat detail woven into these programs' storied history can be found in a certain head coach who is all too familiar with this cross-country rivalry. Ty Willingham spent seven years leading the Cardinal from 1995 to 2001 and came out on top of the Fighting Irish in three of the five meetings during that span, only to join Notre Dame for the 2002 season and win all three matchups in 2002, 2003, and 2004.
Where is Willingham now? Occupying one of the 13 seats on the College Football Playoff selection committee, a role in which Irish fans hope he offers a significantly more positive result than when he was at the helm in South Bend.
No. 6 Notre Dame at Stanford
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 27 at 8 p.m. ET
Spread: Notre Dame -19
When Notre Dame Has the Ball
Strong starts have certainly been the name of the games for the Fighting Irish in 2021. Notre Dame has led at halftime in nine of its 10 wins this season, with its 32-29 win over Toledo in Week 2 (16-14 at halftime) the only exception. Saturday against Georgia Tech was no different, as the Irish posted their highest first-quarter (24) and first-half (45) point totals since 2017 against Miami (Ohio) when they tallied 28 first-quarter points en route to an identical 45 points at halftime.
The performance was also an extremely dominant showing by a number of Notre Dame's key contributors on offense. Jack Coan's 285 passing yards marked his highest total since the season-opening overtime win at Florida State, and he managed to get sacked just twice for his seventh straight game with two or fewer sacks. One of Coan's two touchdowns found Michael Mayer for a 52-yard strike in the first quarter — a career-long touchdown for Mayer and his fifth score of the season — which brought him even further up the ranks among Notre Dame's extensive list of prolific tight ends. Among tight ends in school history, Mayer enters Week 13 second for most receptions in a single season (55), fourth for most receiving yards (663) in a single season, and third for most career receiving yards (1,113).
Not to be outdone, the rushing attack notched three of the offense's five total touchdowns. Kyren Williams rushed 11 times for 56 yards and a pair of touchdowns, bringing his streak of consecutive games with a rushing touchdown to seven. Those trips to the end zone also raised his total to 15 touchdowns (12 rushing, 3 receiving) and moved the St. Louis native into a tie for seventh all-time in Notre Dame history for most total touchdowns in a single season. True freshman Logan Diggs likewise tallied a pair of first-half touchdowns, opening the second quarter with a five-yard scamper before catching his only pass of the day three minutes later for a 20-yard catch-and-run.
Preventing Notre Dame from keeping that momentum going will be a tall task for a Stanford defense that has allowed more than 445 yards (worst in Pac-12) and 31 points (second-worst in Pac-12) per game this season. Each of Stanford's last six opponents has scored at least 20 points against the Cardinal, with four of the last five eclipsing the 30-point mark. They've struggled immensely in stopping the run and in making plays behind the line of scrimmage, allowing nearly 242 yards per game on the ground (fourth-worst in FBS) and just mustering just 3.5 tackles for a per game — the fourth-worst and seventh-worst marks in the FBS, respectively.
When Stanford Has the Ball
Even with as much as the defense has struggled, things haven't been much better on the offensive side of the ball for the Cardinal this year. Stanford has scored just 45 points total across its last four games, with its Week 8 bye halting the Cardinal's middle-of-the-pack start to the season. A major contributor to the overall struggles is Stanford's inability to get much going on the ground: only four teams in the FBS — and just one (Purdue) in the Power 5 — have rushed for fewer yards than Stanford, which enters Week 13 with a shade under 90 per game. That clip wasn't helped at all in the loss to the Golden Bears, as Austin Jones led the way with 10 carries for just 28 yards and the lone touchdown of the day, while Nathaniel Peat, E.J. Smith, and Tanner McKee combined for just 15 yards on 16 carries.
The passing attack, to its credit, has been able to pick up some of the slack, which becomes even more promising upon the realization that a freshman (in eligibility; sophomore academically) is under center. With 239 yards through the air in last week's Big Game loss to Cal, McKee eclipsed 2,000 yards passing for the 2021 season, joining Chad Hutchinson (1996) and Andrew Luck (2009) as the only freshmen in program history to do so.
Another benefit resides in the group's potential to continue to grow together: McKee's top targets — wide receiver Elijah Higgins and tight end Benjamin Yurosek — will have two and three seasons of eligibility, respectively, after the conclusion of the 2021 campaign. Yurosek (57.1) and Higgins (54.3) lead the Cardinal in yards per game, while the lead is reversed in receptions as Higgins paces the team with 53 receptions to Yurosek's 42.
Stanford will need all it can get from its offense on Saturday night to keep pace with Notre Dame, though the Cardinal will have a hard time doing so if the Irish defense can continue its torrent pace. The Irish have collected 38 sacks this season, the program's highest single-season total since 2003 and tied for the fourth-highest total in the FBS. They've also used that pressure on quarterbacks to force ill-advised throws, leading to 15 interceptions and 21 total takeaways — the fifth-highest and 13th-highest marks, respectively, in 2021. With Jack Kiser collecting Notre Dame's first touchdown Saturday via an interception return and Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa bookending the scoring with a 70-yard fumble return, the Irish became the only team in the FBS with two games with multiple defensive touchdowns against Power 5 opponents. Kiser's marked his second defensive pick-six of the year, with Tagovailoa-Amosa joining Drew White (48-yard INT return vs. Wisconsin) with one defensive score apiece.
On the topic of scoring, Notre Dame has held its three most recent opponents out of the end zone — its first time doing so since 2012 — while allowing just 12 total points in that stretch. Saturday marked Notre Dame's second first-half defensive shutout in as many weeks, the first time the Irish have held consecutive opponents scoreless in the first half since 2015 (Wake Forest, Boston College).
Perhaps most intriguing: Notre Dame's defense has outscored opposing teams 12-9 over the three-game span (14 including the fourth-quarter safety in Week 10 against Navy).
Last week's win over Georgia Tech was a necessary statement by Notre Dame, upon which it will look to build in its final opportunity to do so before the College Football Playoff selections are determined. While this kind of a season-ending rivalry game can often go against the grain, the Fighting Irish are 12-1 all-time against the Cardinal when only the Irish are ranked, and Notre Dame's momentum going into the regular-season finale presents a golden opportunity to extend that mark and render itself in prime position for College Football Playoff selection as the chips around them fall like the leaves from the trees around this time of year.
Prediction: Notre Dame 34, Stanford 13
Podcast: Week 13 Preview, Predictions, and Picks Against the Spread
— Written by Juan Jose Rodriguez, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a 2019 graduate of the University of Notre Dame. Rodriguez was an intern for Athlon during summer 2017 and worked for a variety of media outlets on campus, including as the Editor-in-Chief of Scholastic Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @JuanJoseRG02.