Stanford returns to Notre Dame Stadium for the first time since 2012's controversial overtime finish in South Bend, from which the Irish came out victorious. That game ultimately ended up deciding one spot in the BCS title game. This time, both teams are contenders for the inaugural College Football Playoff. We answer critical questions ahead of Saturday's kickoff.
David Lombardi (@LombardiESPN): Hogan actually owns the higher completion percentage (71) and quarterback rating by a fairly narrow margin, but a look at more details suggests that Golson is the one playing better right now. Most importantly, as Matt notes in the final answer below, Golson is doing a much better job than Hogan in orchestrating his team's red-zone offense. Stanford coach David Shaw said Golson's play has reminded him of Russell Wilson, and that's a testament to the calm control the Notre Dame quarterback has displayed this year. For Hogan, meanwhile, attaining comfort has seemed more difficult. He ran the ball a career-high 14 times at Washington, and that could be taken as an indication that he wasn't quite settled in the pocket.
2. Notre Dame has been solid offensively so far. But are the Irish prepared for success against Stanford's defense?
Matt Fortuna (@Matt_Fortuna): That's the ultimate question, isn't it? There's no doubt that this a much more dynamic offense with Golson under center, but the best team it has faced is ... Syracuse? The Irish also turned the ball over five times against the Orange, though much of that sloppiness was self-inflicted. Still, Stanford presents a tough matchup for an Irish offense that had to reshuffle its offensive line three games into the season. Notre Dame has been thoroughly mediocre on the ground and would be worse if not for Golson's ability to make plays happen with his feet when all breaks down. Saturday will reveal plenty about the Irish, for better or worse.
3. The 2012 game at South Bend was famously close. If Saturday's contest comes down to special teams, who has the advantage?
Fortuna: Ah, the wonders of FieldTurf. Notre Dame's punt return unit -- a noted atrocity during the Brian Kelly era -- has seen mass improvements this year with Cody Riggs and Greg Bryant in the backfield. Of course, the Irish are only 46th nationally (10.64 yards per return) and the Stanford team coming to town is sixth (21.22). Still, Irish punter/kicker Kyle Brindza said this week he'll try to avoid the dynamic Ty Montgomery. And Brindza -- who, it should be noted, has earned the nickname "Unreturnable" from some people in these parts for his array of touchbacks -- is on pace to break most school field-goal records. He has a knack for late-game situations, too, something the Cardinal learned two years ago. And Jordan Williamson has struggled so far this season. So the advantage here has to go to the Irish.
4. Is there one specific matchup that'll push Stanford to a win?
Lombardi: There are actually two matchups that Stanford really likes. The first involves the Cardinal defense, which has been the best in the country (surrendering 4.7 points per game) so far. Notre Dame has only rushed for over 4 yards per carry in one of its four games so far, and that plays right to Stanford's strength: Lance Anderson's defense is able to pin its ears back and unleash a ferocious pass rush after it's shut down the run.
The second matchup that may really work in Stanford's favor involves the Cardinal's massive receivers and Notre Dame's small cornerbacks. Montgomery (6-2, 225 pounds) and Devon Cajuste (6-4, 227 pounds) own significant strength advantages over starting Irish corners Cody Riggs (5-9, 185 pounds) and Cole Luke (5-11, 190 pounds). Stanford will certainly look to exploit that edge in the passing game, but run blocking on the perimeter is where it may enjoy the biggest leg up.
5. Is there one specific matchup that will push Notre Dame to a win?
Fortuna: In short, quarterback play. If Golson is the Heisman candidate the early oddsmakers have pushed him to be, he will have to show it against the No. 1 defense in the country and carry Notre Dame to a win. To be more specific, though, we'll go to red zone offense. Having a playmaker under center has created so many more opportunities for the Irish than in recent years. The Irish have scored 12 touchdowns in 18 red-zone trips and have come away with points on 17 of those tries. Stanford's offense has struggled inside the 20, coming away empty-handed on seven of 19 tries.