Stanford at Notre Dame (-5.5)
Sat. 9/29, 7:30 p.m. ET
Three things to know before betting on Stanford-Notre Dame:
1. If you haven't watched Notre Dame play since their season-opening 24-17 win over Michigan, get ready to see an entirely new Irish offense on Saturday. That Michigan victory was a best-case scenario for then-starting quarterback Brandon Wimbush, who completed passes deep down the field against a great defense and picked up 59 yards on the ground. But in subsequent weeks, Wimbush's inaccuracy as a passer caught up with Notre Dame in wins over inferior Ball State and Vanderbilt that were way closer than they should have been. Against the spread, the Irish lost those two games by a combined 34 points.
Last week, Fighting Irish head coach Brian Kelly pulled the trigger and made junior Ian Book the starting quarterback over Wimbush in a game against Wake Forest. Notre Dame's offense exploded. Book threw for 325 yards and two touchdowns—and ran for three more—in a 56-27 victory in which Notre Dame covered a six-point spread by 23 points. The running game also got a boost, notching a season-high 6.0 yards per carry.
Things look like they've come together for this unit. Tight end Alize Mack, long thought to be the most underutilized weapon in this offense, caught six passes for a career-best 61 yards against Wake. Now Dexter Williams, Notre Dame's presumed starter at running back before the year, is expected to make his season debut against Stanford. He likely won't draw a heavy workload right away, but he adds critical talent and depth to a rushing attack that struggled early on.
2. Stanford's offense has also defied expectations. Over the past couple seasons, the Cardinal attack struggled to move the ball through the air. That's far from the case this season. Quarterback K.J. Costello is averaging 9.3 yards per attempt, second-best in the Pac-12 and 20th in the country. Last season, Stanford averaged 7.2 yards per pass attempt, which was 71st in the nation.
Costello faced his first major test of 2018 last week at Oregon and proved he was up to the task. Thanks to Costello's 327 yards passing and three touchdowns, two of which came after the start of the fourth quarter, the Cardinal came back from a 24-7 deficit to pull off an improbable 38-31 victory in overtime.
Costello's receivers have stepped up, as well. Wideout Trenton Irwin and tight ends Colby Parkinson and Kaden Smith are all excellent complementary targets, but WR JJ Arcega-Whiteside is undoubtedly the star. The 6'3" senior is a beast going after jump balls, and several of his seven touchdown catches—the most of any Power 5 receiver—have been of that exact nature. When Arcega-Whiteside is facing one-on-one coverage, the smartest thing Costello can do is loft the ball and give him time to box out a cornerback.
3. It's impossible to talk about Stanford without mentioning running back Bryce Love, last year's Heisman runner-up. But Love is far from his Heisman pace this season, rushing for just 254 yards on 4.3 yards per carry through three games. (He sat against FCS UC Davis in Week 3.) Part of that can be attributed to opposing defenses loading the boxes against Love—which has been a catalyst for the successful passing game—but something else hasn't looked right: Stanford's offensive line.
David Shaw has a reputation for fielding dominant O-lines, and the unit returned four starters from last season. But the Cardinal blockers have not looked impressive in the run game, struggling at times against San Diego State and Oregon, and putting forth their best performance against a bad USC run D. A spate of injuries hasn't helped, either. There was a positive sign in the second half against Oregon, when banged-up tackle A.T. Hall's re-entry into the lineup seemed to improve the play of the entire unit.
Stanford's line better be ready from the opening whistle against Notre Dame. The Irish defense will easily be the toughest it's faced to this point. Notre Dame shut down a Michigan offense that exploded in the weeks since and hit Wake Forest quarterback Sam Hartman 21 times before he hobbled off the field for good last week. If the Cardinal linemen don't step up, Costello and Love will be in for a long night.
Pick: Notre Dame -5.5
Confidence Level: High (on a scale of Low/Moderate/High/Very High/Extremely High)