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Notre Dame Opponents: Syracuse letdown at Clemson only sets up Orange this week

Marcus Freeman checks in with Zora Stephenson after Notre Dame’s victory over UNLV to discuss the Irish’s improved execution as well as the areas that can still get better.

The first rankings that have any meaning are still a week away, but looking at the AP Top 25, Notre Dame may have the toughest remaining schedule in the country, facing three top-16 teams. Without going through every team’s schedule, only a pair of Pac-12 teams can match the Irish in that claim.

Cal hosts No. 8 Oregon this weekend before heading to No. 10 USC and ending the season against No. 12 UCLA. Arizona also must face USC and UCLA, slipping in No. 14 Utah between them, quite a gauntlet for the Wildcats’ next three weeks.

There is an obvious irony to these toughest Novembers (and Halloween weekends) coming from an independent and the supposed weakest among the Power Five conferences, but that is a conversation for a different day and would require a hefty disclaimer about both the size and the selective nature of this sample. For now, the focus should simply be on Notre Dame’s next two weeks, the second consecutive regular season the Irish have faced back-to-back top-20 foes (No. 18 Wisconsin followed by No. 7 Cincinnati last year) and fourth time since 2017.

No. 16 Syracuse (6-1): Coming off a deflating 27-21 fall-from-ahead defeat at Clemson, the Orange has to rebound quickly. If it does so, it could still conceivably find its way to a New Year’s Six bowl, but one more loss may doom that hope. This thought presumes the Tigers will reach the College Football Playoff, at which point, the next highest-ranked ACC team would head to the Orange Bowl. Syracuse is currently trailing only No. 10 Wake Forest in that regard, but they face each other the weekend before Thanksgiving.

A loss, though, could knock the Orange behind No. 21 North Carolina, the current clear frontrunner to win the final ACC Coastal title to then lose to Clemson in the conference title game. An 11-2 North Carolina would finish ranked higher than a 10-2 Syracuse.

In other words, Syracuse may have blown a chance last week, but another one remains distinctly in front of Dino Babers’ team, beginning this week against Notre Dame (12 ET; ABC) as 2.5-point favorites, as of midday Wednesday, with a combined points total Over/Under of 47.5.

No. 5 Clemson (8-0): The Tigers get to enjoy a week off after that comeback against Syracuse, a later idle week than most teams enjoy in a season. It will be filled with drama.

Clemson coughed up four turnovers against the Orange, leading to DJ Uiagalelei getting benched for freshman Cade Klubnik. Both of them relied on sophomore running back Will Shipley, who totaled 172 rushing yards on 27 carries, more than making up for a fumble that led to a Syracuse scoop-and-score.

A game-changer a la South Florida at Notre Dame in 2011, USC at Notre Dame in 2011 and Virginia Tech at Notre Dame in 2019, Irish fans should be well aware how that one play can skew the game flow despite one team performing far better than the score suggests.

Clemson outgained Syracuse 450 yards to 291. It converted 7-of-15 third- and fourth-down combinations, compared to 3-of-11 for the Orange.

Now, Tigers head coach Dabo Swinney has to toe the delicate line of a quarterback controversy for two weeks before pulling into South Bend.

RELATED READING: Cade Klubnik’s cool, Shipley’s carries among 5 takeaways from Clemson’s win over SyracuseSyracuse stood toe-to-toe with Clemson. Then came a haunting meltdown, with no late-game heroics

Navy (2-5): The Midshipmen were hardly competitive against Houston, falling 38-20, giving up 441 yards on 6.9 yards per play. For this week, Navy’s problem was its defense more than the offense, which gained 201 yards on 50 rushes.

Temple should not threaten the Midshipmen defense (3:30 ET; CBSSN), not with Navy favored by 13.5 points.

Boston College (2-5): Oh how the Eagles continue to fall. What is more humbling, losing 43-15 to Wake Forest while getting outgained 428 yards to 315, or now heading to Connecticut (12 ET; CBSSN) as only 7.5-point favorites?

No. 10 USC (6-1): The Trojans enjoyed a week off after their last-minute loss at Utah, and now they may as well enjoy a second week off at Arizona (7 ET; Pac-12 Network). Favored by 15.5 points, fully expect USC’s offense to run it up early and often.

No. 2 Ohio State (7-0): Star receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba has yet to cut loose since his week one injury against Notre Dame, but he took 22 snaps this week in the Buckeyes’ 54-10 win against Iowa, a step toward cruise control for Ohio State. All due respect to No. 13 Penn State (12 ET; FOX), but it is difficult to imagine the Nittany Lions keeping the Buckeyes in check, especially as 15.5-point underdogs.

Marshall (4-3): The Herd upset James Madison, 26-12, and is now favored against Coastal Carolina (7 ET; NFL Network), a bit of a tide-turning stretch for Marshall after its valley following that upset in South Bend.

Cal (3-4): Cal did as Cal does under Justin Wilcox, covered as an underdog in a 28-21 loss to Washington, and now it will get the chance to do so again against No. 8 Oregon (3:30 ET; FS1), though now a daunting 17-point underdog.

No. 21 North Carolina (6-1): The lowest-ranked, one-loss Power-Five team, the Heels took a week off and can now begin moving up the polls with a win against Pitt (8 ET; ACCN), though favored by only a field goal.

BYU (4-4): The Cougars have fallen apart quickly, thoroughly embarrassed in a 41-14 loss at Liberty. They may remain field-goal favorites against East Carolina (8 ET on Friday; ESPN2) this week, but a bold soul could see value in the Pirates winning outright.

Stanford (3-4): The Cardinal held off Arizona State in a 15-14 win. Take a guess how many touchdowns Stanford scored. As many as you did.

It will need much greater success to keep up with No. 12 UCLA (10:30 ET; ESPN) as a 16.5-point underdog.

UNLV (4-4): Enjoy a week off, Rebels.

Friday at 8 ET — East Carolina at BYU (ESPN2)
12 ET
— Notre Dame at Syracuse (ABC); Ohio State at Penn State (FOX); Boston College at UConn (CBSSN)
3:30 ET — Temple at Navy (CBSSN); Oregon at Cal (FS1)
7 ET — USC at Arizona (Pac-12 Network); Coastal Carolina at Marshall (NFL Network)
8 ET — Pittsburgh at North Carolina (ACCN)
10:30 ET — Stanford at UCLA (ESPN)

Favorites: Syracuse (-2.5) vs. Notre Dame; Navy (-13.5) vs. Temple; Boston College (-7.5) at UConn; USC (-15.5) at Arizona; Ohio State (-15.5) at Penn State; Marshall (-2.5) vs. Coastal Carolina; North Carolina (-3) vs. Pittsburgh; BYU (-3) vs. East Carolina.
Underdogs: Cal (+17) vs. Oregon; Stanford (+16.5) at UCLA.

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