Third-ranked Notre Dame controls its destiny with two games remaining in the regular season.
But the Fighting Irish (10-0) know they cannot afford to relax as they prepare for a game against No. 12 Syracuse (8-2) at Yankee Stadium in New York. It marks one of the highest-stakes meetings in a series that started in 1914.
No one seems to mind that the game will take place at a baseball stadium.
“When I grew up, we grew up playing on the front lawns of junior high schools and high schools, parks, played in the street with cars parked there,” Syracuse coach Dino Babers told reporters this week. “If you get two really good teams that are motivated, they’ll really play anywhere. As long as it’s not concrete and (it’s) grass, I’m OK. I think they’ll be all right.”
Both teams have been better than all right this season.
Notre Dame is coming off a dominant 42-13 win over Florida State in its home finale. The Fighting Irish have scored at least 31 points in six of their past seven contests.
The outburst continued despite a change at quarterback last week. Ian Book could not play because of an injury to his ribs, so ex-starter Brandon Wimbush (whom Book replaced in Week 4) stepped into his old role and led the team to victory.
Book returned to practice this week.
“We’re pretty clear that he’s ready to play,” Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly told reporters.
Of course, coaches have been known to use subterfuge before when discussing players’ injuries. If Kelly is bluffing and Book’s status is not as secure, then the coaching staff has confidence in Wimbush as a senior leader of the offense.
“I just think that everything that he’s done leading up to last week was indicative of who he is,” Kelly said. “So I don’t know that anybody really should be surprised because he’s been really consistent in who he is, in everything that he does, both on and off the field. …
“I just think there’s more to write here (about Wimbush). I don’t think it ends with last week. I think there’s more exciting things coming from Brandon.”
Syracuse also is hoping to write another chapter to its feel-good story this season. The Orange have won four straight games, scoring at least 40 points in each of those contests, to become bowl eligible for the first time since 2013.
Quarterback Eric Dungey paces the Syracuse attack. He is one of only three active quarterbacks with at least 8,000 passing yards (8,665) and 1,000 rushing yards (1,929) in his career. The others are Trace McSorley of Penn State and Mckenzie Milton of Central Florida.
Syracuse also has scored 32 rushing touchdowns this season, twice as many as last year’s total.
Notre Dame hopes to quiet the Orange offense thanks to a stout defensive line, a pesky linebacker corps and a dependable secondary. Linebacker Te’von Coney leads the team with 87 tackles, including 8 1/2 for loss.
Babers said he knows he will have his hands full in preparing for the Notre Dame defense.
“They’re solid,” he said. “I’m looking for a hole, looking for a weakness, looking for a chink, they are extremely solid.”