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USC-Notre Dame outcome could make or break Pac-12

Brent Musburger
VSiN managing editor

LAS VEGAS — It isn’t often that 11 of the Pac-12 teams stand together and cheer for USC to win a football game. But Saturday night at South Bend against Notre Dame is an exception for good reason.

Along with being a season-defining game for the Trojans, it will either stamp the Pac-12 as a serious contender for college football’s final four or put it on the road to being eliminated.
 
This is a very solid Notre Dame team that is favored by 3½ with an over-under total of 65½. The Irish are 5-1 straight up and ATS. The Trojans’ only loss came at the hands of Washington State at Pullman, but they have been a money burner here in Nevada – 1-6 ATS.
 
One piece of good news for the Trojans is that they are used to winning lately in this rivalry. This is their 89th meeting with Notre Dame, and while the Irish hold a 46-37-5 edge, USC has won 11 of the last 15 games. A year ago the Trojans blew out the Irish 45-27 at the Coliseum.
 
Quarterback play will be huge in this game with Notre Dame welcoming back Brandon Wimbush. He missed last week’s win at North Carolina with an injured foot. Clearly, the Irish were getting him healthy for USC.
 
The key to a Trojan repeat – and Pac-12 victory – will be Sam Darnold. His giveaways – both fumbles and interceptions – are alarming. He has thrown nine picks, and last week in the first half against Utah he was charged with three fumbles, one of which was returned for a Utah touchdown. That was the bad Sam Darnold. The good Sam Darnold came back in the second half and led the Trojans on scoring drives of 98, 88 and 93 yards.
 
The Irish have forced 14 turnovers and have a plus-1.17 takeaway margin, which puts them in the top 10 nationally. They also have 13 sacks and are allowing opponents to convert only 35 percent on third down. They have given up just 16.8 points a game, which puts them in the nation’s top 15. In other words, Darnold and the Trojans are going up against a solid Notre Dame defense that has been on the losing side only once in six games – and that was a narrow, 20-19 loss at the hands of Georgia.
 
Coach Brian Kelly rejuvenated his offense by bringing in coordinator Chip Long from Memphis. Long replaced DeShone Kizer and Malik Zaire with Wimbush. He is not going to beat you passing the ball, throwing for only six touchdowns. But more important Wimbush is not going to beat the Irish; he has only two interceptions. Where the Trojans really have to be on guard is the ground game, because Wimbush is always a threat to run. He has rushed for 403 yards (5.9 yards per carry) and eight touchdowns, including a 207-yard, four-touchdown performance at Boston College.
 
For both these teams this basically is a loser-out game from the final four, because no team has yet made it to the playoff with two losses. That is just one reason that NBC wisely scheduled this game for prime time.
 
I favor the home side, because the Trojans just have not been good at protecting the football, and you are not giving a lot of points. The Pac-12 will not want to hear this, but I like the Irish.
 
(Warning: I have covered enough of these games that I know you do get some wacky contests between these two. It should be great fun.)
 
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This weekend should be a win-win for NBC. On the heels of the Trojans and Irish will be a Super Bowl rematch on Sunday Night Football between the New England Patriots and the Atlanta Falcons.
 
New England is a 3½-point, home favorite with a total of 55½. This comes only 8½ months after we were treated to the Patriots’ incredible, 34-28 comeback win in the first overtime game in Super Bowl history.
 
Clearly, these are not the same two powerful teams from last season. New England went 16-2 straight up a year ago with a record of 15-3 ATS. Now the Patriots are 4-2 but only 2-4 ATS. Atlanta is struggling at 3-2 SU and 2-3 ATS.
 
Many of us last winter were spending our Falcon dollars with a 28-9 lead entering the fourth quarter – and again when Atlanta got down to the 22-yard line with an eight-point lead and only 4:40 to go. If not for a sack, a holding penalty and some curious decisions to throw instead of run ... well, you know the rest.
 
This reminds me how oddsmakers in Las Vegas love the Super Bowl because they can put up all kinds of props. Yes, they will have some on Sunday night, but not like we see in February. For instance, Chris Andrews at the South Point had a yes-no on the Super Bowl going overtime with the “yes” winning at 525. If you had done nothing else but walked in and put a grand on OT, you would have walked out with $5,250 of house money. That would have been a real good day. (Why wasn’t I that smart?)
 
But back to Sunday night. The Falcons clearly cannot erase the memory of that night no matter what happens this weekend in Foxboro, but they can certainly turn this season around. They have lost back-to-back games to Buffalo and Miami and did not score more than 17 points in either one. For those who buy into the Super Bowl hangover, those were two home games, and the Falcons didn’t look anything like the team that took New England to the brink.
 
Patriots coach Bill Belichick insists it is unrealistic to think that a team that went through what they did a year ago would suddenly come back in September and immediately repeat the magic all over again. This New England team has lost two home games already – on opening night to Kansas City 42-27 and three weeks later at the hands of Carolina 33-30. But they put two-game winning streaks on either side of both losses.
 
The one player that the Patriots miss more than any other – and you’ll never get Belichick to mention it – is Julian Edelman. Often overlooked, this go-to guy was hurt in the preseason. He was Tom Brady’s good-luck charm, and despite all of us saying that this receiver or that receiver would replace Edelman, it has not happened.
 
The Falcons offense, having stalled out the last two weeks, needs to re-energize itself and give us a regular-season game for the ages like we had at Houston last February. The missing part of the Falcons has been Julio Jones dancing into the end zone. If they are going to stick with the Patriots on Sunday night, they need the receiver with the golden hands to catch 10 or 12 passes and at least score his first touchdown of the season.
 
So far we have been treated to mediocre prime-time games in the NFL, but this one at least on paper should be terrific with great memories, whether you cashed a Patriot ticket or lost on the Falcons in the Super Bowl.
 
Good things happen to the Patriots. Last weekend they benefitted straight up from a bad call that mysteriously turned a Jets touchdown into a touchback. Still, that did not change the outcome ATS, and that’s what counts, right? Fortunately, New England is not laying as big a number this week.
 
It is rare when you can back the Patriots at home giving less than a touchdown. To me you have two choices. You either back Brady and Belichick, or you stay away from the game. The Falcons have not shown us that they have found a remedy for that Super Bowl hangover. As my VSiN partner Ron Flatter would say, I wouldn’t touch Atlanta with a sequoia.

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