Notre Dame & USC
The Fighting Irish
Notre Dame lost some outstanding talent to the NFL this offseason, from linebacker Jaylon Smith to offensive lineman Nick Martin and Ronnie Stanley to game-breaking wide receiver Will Fuller. Those four players leave a team that won 10 games this season, yet if you want to be optimistic about the Fighting Irish in 2016, you have to bet them to again win 10 with the players that remain. The Over/Under for Notre Dame wins is 9.5, though you do get a little (+110) push to take the Over.
Where comes the confidence that Notre Dame can replicate last season's win total? It starts with tremendous confidence in the coach/QB combo. Brian Kelly has clearly established he knows what he's doing in South Bend and he has two terrific quarterbacks to choose from. Malik Zaire returns from injury and he'll have to beat out DeShone Kizer, who proved himself an able replacement throughout 2015. As long as Kelly doesn't make the same mistake Urban Meyer did in Ohio State last year, and stretch this out too long, Notre Dame is guaranteed to be in good shape at the quarterback spot.
There's also confidence in defensive coordinator Brian Van Gorder, now in his third year and who produced a unit that was tied for 39th in points allowed last season. That isn't going to get anyone talking national championship, but given some of the weak defenses the Irish have produced in recent years it's a good step forward. And in spite of the departures of Martin & Stanley on the offensive front, sources close to the program love the replacement talent, along with the returning left side of Mike McGlinchey and Quentin Nelson. Running back Tarean Folston, another injury returnee is a good athletic talent in his own right and there's a strong belief he'll have the holes he needs.
Now let's get down to the schedule? Where is Notre Dame going to find those ten victories? We'll start with the good news and it's that the only road game the Irish are highly likely to be an underdog in is the season finale at USC. For purposes of this discussion, we'll try and find those ten wins outside of this game, but that one is certainly not unwinnable.
There's three victories you can lock in--home games with Nevada and Syracuse and a neutral-site game with Army in San Antonio. There's three more that aren't that easy, but it would be highly disappointing if the Irish lost any of the following---home with Duke and Virginia Tech, and a neutral-site game with Navy in Jacksonville. The latter will be the toughest test, but with a sweep, Notre Dame is up to six wins.
We need four more to get to the magic number and there's three tough home games with Michigan State, Stanford and Miami. The Spartans and Cardinal don't look quite as formidable as years past, and while the Hurricanes do look pretty good, Notre Dame would still be a home favorite as things stand right now. The two tough road games are N.C. State and Texas. Again, both winnable games. Of these five games overall, Notre Dame would have a loss to give and still reach the finale with USC at 10-1. And if all else fails, they could still go 9-3 and get the 10th win in what would be a winnable bowl game.
If there's skepticism out there about Notre Dame's chances we understand--it seems to defy reason that you could lose Fuller, Smith, Stanley and Martin and not at least get one fewer win. But Stanford, who beat Notre Dame last year, isn't as good. A road trip to N.C. State is not the same as a road trip to Clemson, where the Irish lost last year. There's still a good chance for the Irish to post a 10-win season...and there's a (+110) reward out there for those who go for it.
USC has disappointed its backers more than a few times since the Pete Carroll era ended in Los Angeles seven years ago. The Trojans have not reached a major bowl game in that time period, much less seriously competed for a national championship. USC has become known for its soap operas regarding head coaches (Lane Kiffin's airport firing, Steve Sarkisian's struggles with drinking going public) than it has for winning football games.
With the loss of quarterback Cody Kessler and head coach Clay Helton being an unproven commodity, this might not seem like an opportune time to invest in the Trojans. But this is a talented football team and there are some attractive numbers on the betting market.
USC might have the best offensive line in the country. All five starters return and a running game that only ranked 70th in the nation last season is a virtual lock to improve significantly. That alone is going to take the pressure off the new quarterback, be it Max Browne or incoming freshman Sam Darnold.
Wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster is another elite talent. Therefore, the USC quarterback is going to be well-supported by the running game, be protected in the pocket and have at least one great target. That sounds like a pretty good formula for moving the football and putting points on the board.
The defense is more of a question mark, with most of the front seven needing to be replaced. But the secondary looks in very good shape, with three starters back and a top recruit in Jack Jones on the way. The defense may also be the beneficiary of the makeover in the coaching staff. Helton was elevated to the top job midway through last year after Sarkisian's fall and he brought in a new defensive coordinator in Clancy Pendergast. Given how much the Trojans struggled defensively in big games last year (Notre Dame, Oregon and twice against Stanford), any kind of change has to be seen as a positive.
We're not blind to the problems USC faces. If Helton can't coach, if the defense is soft up front and if the quarterback situation doesn't work itself out, then the Trojans are obviously going to struggle. But the betting numbers make the risk worthwhile.
Let's start with the Over/Under for wins, a modest 7.5. Part of this is due to a non-conference schedule that includes Alabama and Notre Dame, but USC won eight regular season games last year. Is there a reason they couldn't do it again, or at least get to 7-5 and win a bowl game for #8?
The Trojans are also a 5-1 bet to win the Pac-12 title, only fourth-best in the league. This is a wide-open year in the conference. The Pac-12 South that USC plays in has always been ruled by parity, and now North powers Oregon and Stanford are rebuilding. And while we don't want to get carried away, even the national championship price of 35-1 is attractive. It's tougher for longshots to win it all in college football, but at the very least this is a program with the pedigree and recruiting base to make it possible. The price makes a small investment worthwhile.
There's risk with USC, but across the board there's potential reward for bettors as well.
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