Notre Dame has a spot in the ACC Championship Game in their back pocket, but this weekend's contest with Syracuse still has plenty of significance. A win keeps the Fighting Irish on the path to the College Football Playoff and with many believing an unbeaten squad could withstand a loss to a one-loss Clemson in the ACC title game and still make the four-team field, beating the Orange is vital.
As for the Cuse, the 2020 season hasn't been easy. The 1-9 record is bad enough, but the ending to last week's game against NC State, the final one at home this season, was downright embarrassing. Still, head coach Dino Babers has his team playing hard every week and that won't change this Saturday.
The Irish lead the series 6-3, though in 2008 in their last visit to South Bend, the Orange pulled off a 24-23 upset victory.
Syracuse at No. 2 Notre Dame
Kickoff: Saturday, Dec. 5 at 2:30 p.m. ET
Spread: Notre Dame -33.5
When Syracuse Has the Ball
The Orange offense has been a nightmare all season long. Their 250 yards per game ranks only ahead of UMass, who has played just four games, and is more than 100 yards less than Pittsburgh, who has the 14th-ranked offense in the ACC.
Quarterback Rex Culpepper made two huge, well-documented mistakes to close out the NC State loss. But overall, his day wasn't terrible. He completed 23 of 45 pass attempts for 254 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions. That's nothing special, but on a day when the Orange could only manage three rushing yards on 25 attempts, it was a bit of a positive. Running back Sean Tucker has had a solid season for the Cuse, but he did nothing against the Wolfpack. Leading receiver Taj Harris had a monster day with 13 catches for 146 yards. He will get special attention from the Notre Dame defense this week.
About that Notre Dame defense. Coordinator Clark Lea's unit is good. Really, really good. North Carolina went into last week's game averaging 45 points a contest and scored 17, with just three coming after the first two drives. The Tar Heels only had 57 total yards in the entire second half, and that was with star Notre Dame safety Kyle Hamilton on the bench following a targeting violation near the end of the first half. Syracuse has rushed for more than 100 yards just two times in 10 games. Notre Dame has the best rushing defense in the ACC. So the Orange won't be running the ball effectively and if the Irish D knows Culpepper is going to throw, the Syracuse offense will be in a world of trouble.
When Notre Dame Has the Ball
On this side of the ball, Syracuse can make some plays. Their 22 turnovers forced is tied for the most in the nation. Linebacker Mikel Jones is having a fantastic season, leading the team with 67 tackles and chipping in with four interceptions. Four players have five or more tackles for lost yardage, with Stefon Thompson leading the way with 7.5.
The problem with the Syracuse defense is that they get worn down because the offense can't stay on the field. And few teams this season have shown that they can grind an opponent down quite like Notre Dame. The Irish lead the nation in time of possession among those that have played at least six games and their success on third down has led to long, time-consuming drives. The offensive line may have injuries, but they are still a big, talented, experienced group.
The Notre Dame offense has flourished over the second half of the season because of quarterback Ian Book's elevated play. Suddenly, a group that seemed to lack pass-catching playmakers has weapons all over the field. But make no mistake, this team is built around that impressive offensive line and the hard-nosed running of Kyren Williams. Plus, though the numbers have improved in recent weeks, Syracuse does rank last in the ACC against the run.
Notre Dame knows what lies ahead and they are aware of what they have to do. The first step is dispatching Syracuse and earning a date in Charlotte with Clemson or Miami on Dec. 19. The Irish are bigger, stronger, and faster, plus they are the more motivated team. While Syracuse's effort has never been questioned, it would be understandable if focus was an issue this week. The team is 1-9, they're coming off a troubling loss, and the offseason will begin when the final horn sounds. Perhaps Notre Dame takes some time to get going as they sometimes do on Senior Day. But once they start rolling, the Irish will be impossible for the Orange to stop.
Prediction: Notre Dame 38, Syracuse 3
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— Written by Jon Kinne, who has been part of the Athlon Contributor Network for three years, covering the ACC and Notre Dame. Follow him on Twitter @JonRKinne.