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Notre Dame’s Opponents: Wisconsin, North Carolina losses change the optics of Irish challenges

Penn State v Wisconsin

MADISON, WISCONSIN - SEPTEMBER 04: Graham Mertz #5 of the Wisconsin Badgers is hit by Arnold Ebiketie #17 of the Penn State Nittany Lions during the first quarter at Camp Randall Stadium on September 04, 2021 in Madison, Wisconsin. (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)

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Brian Kelly was not taking a direct shot at any of Notre Dame’s opponents after the 41-38 Irish overtime victory at Florida State on Sunday. He was instead stating a fact … and somewhat taking a shot at programs across the country, including a few who ended up on the wrong ends of the situation he described.

“Playing in this environment, on the road, we’re not playing a 1-AA team here,” Kelly said of the Seminoles. “We’re playing a team that presented many challenges.”

Forgiving the outdated nomenclature of 1-AA — known as the FCS since 2005, which was admittedly 22 years into Kelly’s coaching career and two years after he had permanently moved into coaching in the FBS (1-A) ranks — Kelly’s jab was mostly meant as a compliment of Florida State. Even if considered a struggling program these days, the Seminoles’ talent level is many notches above schools like South Dakota State (beat Colorado State last week), Holy Cross (beat Connecticut), Montana (beat then-No. 20 Washington) and Eastern Tennessee State (beat Clark Lea’s Vanderbilt).

The day may come when the Irish face an FCS foe, but it has not yet, and it will not in the foreseeable future. Only two Notre Dame opponents did so a week ago, but three more will this week, including Florida State …

Florida State (0-1): The Seminoles will look to bounce back against FCS-level Jacksonville State (8 ET; ACCN), and while the instinct may be to take Kelly’s message and write off this game entirely, it can still serve as a bit of a measuring stick for Florida State.

If the Seminoles have no trouble with this low-level opponent, that would be a welcome change for the program.

Toledo (1-0): The Rockets face the Irish (2:30 ET; Peacock) as 17-point underdogs with a combined point total over/under of 55.5 points, suggesting a final score akin to 36-20.

Notre Dame actually opened as a 20-point favorite against Toledo, but that was before the Irish had even played Sunday night. The field-goal drop comes both as a reflection of the fourth quarter in Tallahassee and as a testament to wagerers’ respect for the Rockets.

That respect was not burgeoned by the 49-10 win against FCS-level Norfolk State, because of that adjective Kelly referenced, but to Toledo’s credit, it did what a few other teams could not, winning the game it was supposed to win.

Now go subscribe to Peacock and install it on your phone, your tablet and/or your smart TV, wherever you plan to watch the game this weekend. Do it before Saturday’s kickoff, when your own procrastination creates unnecessary frustration. Do it because back in the days when Notre Dame and NBC first partnered together, Norm Peterson could say he could “still hear the TV tubes cooling” as a means of insulting a New York Yankees fan. He didn’t have the luxuries of streaming technology. You do.

(“Cheers,” season 1, episode 3.)

Purdue (1-0): The Boilermakers beat Oregon State 30-21 in a game that was both closer and less entertaining than that score implies. Purdue will not find much entertainment against UConn this weekend (3 ET; CBSSN), and the game will not be close. The Huskies have parted ways with head coach Randy Edsall and as 34-point underdogs, clearly, there are few expectations for them at the moment.

No. 18 Wisconsin (0-1): Badgers quarterback Graham Mertz threw two interceptions in a 16-10 loss to Penn State. Mertz’s miscues went beyond those two picks, though, as he botched a few handoffs, drew multiple intentional grounding penalties and ran into sacks rather than away from them.

His rough day naturally drew comparisons to Notre Dame quarterback Jack Coan’s 366 yards and four touchdowns on Sunday, making it easy for Wisconsinites to think the wrong quarterback left town.

“If Mertz thinks he’s hungry, he should sit at a dinner table with UW fans,” a Wisconsin State-Journal column ended. “They’re starving right now for a quarterback to reach his potential.”

Mertz can begin to overcome those judgments against Eastern Michigan (7 ET; FS1), but with the Badgers favored by 26 points, any grandiose stats may feel empty.

No. 7 Cincinnati (1-0): The Bearcats had no trouble dispatching Miami (OH) 49-14, and it will be a while before they have trouble with anything. A loss to FCS-level Murray State (3:3o ET; ESPN+) would go down as perhaps the biggest disappointment in program history.

No. 19 Virginia Tech (1-0): The Hokies flipped many preseason expectations with a 17-10 upset of then-No. 10 North Carolina. Rather than dwell on any stats, let’s revel in the return of atmospheres to college football, most notably Virginia Tech’s entrance to “Enter Sandman,” which may as well have served as the unofficial launching point for the entire 2021 college football season.

Middle Tennessee State (2 ET; ACCN) will hear those opening chords this weekend, a 20-point underdog to the Hokies, but Metallica’s notes will not resonate as loudly again until Notre Dame arrives on Oct. 9 — only MTSU, a trip to West Virginia and a visit from FCS-level Richmond stand between Virginia Tech and then.

Beating the Tar Heels vaulted the Hokies from unranked status to No. 19 in the AP poll. That early October tilt suddenly could be a top-15 affair.

No. 14 USC (1-0): The Trojans toyed with San Jose State, winning 30-7 and shutting down a potent passing attack in doing so. USC’s offense has never been doubted, not with junior quarterback Kedon Slovis at the helm, but that defensive showing may raise the Trojans’ ceiling.

It will have an even easier time against another northern California opponent on Saturday, hosting hapless Stanford (10:30 ET; FOX) as 17-point favorites. Few combined point total over/unders raise an eyebrow like thinking this game will reach 52.5 points, which may require USC to score 53 points.

No. 24 North Carolina (0-1): After star junior quarterback Sam Howell threw the first two fourth-quarter interceptions of his career in that loss at Virginia Tech, the Tar Heels will try to steady themselves against Georgia State (7:30 ET), which should be manageable considering Army just ran the Panthers off the field while hardly breaking a sweat, hence North Carolina being favored by 26.

Navy (0-1): The Midshipmen were dominated in every facet by Marshall, 49-7, a game that featured a spread of less than a field goal. Either the world vastly underestimated the Thundering Herd or vastly overestimated Navy. Hint: It was the latter.

The Midshipmen can begin to right that narrative against Air Force (3:30 ET; CBS), though the Falcons are 5.5-point favorites.

However, the emphasis of the day will hardly be football. The 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks elevates this game to a national broadcast in what will assuredly be a poignant moment.

Virginia (1-0): The Cavaliers beat upon William & Mary to the tune of 43-0. Somehow that walloping gave Virginia enough credit to be a 10-point favorite against Illinois (11 a.m. ET; ACCN) in a game somehow slated to kick before noon in the worst time zone.

A whole lot about that defies logic.

Georgia Tech (0-1): When Kelly said Notre Dame at least played a quality opponent in an away game rather than a lower-level foe, he was giving the Yellow Jackets too much credit. (No, he was not thinking of Georgia Tech at the time.)

The Wreck proved itself worthy of that secondary nickname with a 22-21 loss to woeful Northern Illinois. Losing any one player should not have left Georgia Tech that bad off, but losing quarterback Jeff Sims in the first half did not help the cause. Sims is expected to return this week against FCS-level Kennesaw State (12 ET; ESPN+), an opponent that may actually be better than Northern Illinois.

Stanford (0-1): After failing to be competitive against Kansas State, falling 24-7, the Cardinal needs to change some things up, so it is.

11 a.m. ET — Virginia vs. Illinois, ACCN.12 ET — Georgia Tech vs. Kennesaw State, ESPN+.2 ET — Virginia Tech vs. Middle Tennessee State, ACCN.2:30 ET — Toledo at Notre Dame, Peacock.3 ET — Purdue at UConn, CBSSN.3:30 ET — Cincinnati vs. Murray State, ESPN+; Navy vs. Air Force, CBS.7 ET — Wisconsin vs. Eastern Michigan, FS1.7:30 ET — North Carolina vs. Georgia State.8 ET — Florida State vs. Jacksonville State, ACCN.10:30 ET — USC vs. Stanford, FOX.

Favored: Purdue (-34), Wisconsin (-26), Virginia Tech (-20), USC (-17), North Carolina (-26), Virginia (-10).Underdogs: Toledo (+17), Navy (+5.5), Stanford (+17).

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