For only the second time in 13 years (after Georgia in 2017), a Southeastern Conference football team visits Notre Dame Stadium, as Vanderbilt comes to South Bend on Saturday afternoon for the second time in its history.
Here are some areas to watch when the Commodores square off against the eighth-ranked Irish:
- What did Notre Dame learn from the Ball State game last weekend? Irish head coach Brian Kelly made it clear, simply based on the Irish play a week ago, that the preparation for Ball State was not what it needed to be. Expect a renewed focus this week. Expect a more emotional, energized effort from the Irish. Expect a push for better execution and more intensity across the board. Kelly expects all that to be required in facing an SEC opponent.
- How the Irish run the ball Saturday will be telling. Notre Dame felt like it distinguished itself in the run game against Michigan. It wasn’t as much because of the 132 net rushing yards as it was the quality of the Wolverine defense the Irish were facing. Then last week that net rushing total fell to 117. NCAA stat ratings don’t mean much in mid-September, but reality says Notre Dame this week ranks 104th nationally in rushing offense (of 128 teams). That presumably does not sit well with many in the Irish locker room. Expect a response in that area Saturday.
- Where will Vanderbilt have success on Saturday? Some of the narrative from Nashville this week recalls the 2017 season when the Commodores started 3-0, only to lose 59-0 the next week to Alabama. That presumably did not sit well with most everyone in the Vanderbilt locker room. Expect Derek Mason’s squad to show up in South Bend with something to prove. Quarterback Kyle Shurmur is more than capable, he already has 10 completions to one receiver (Kalija Lipscomb), the Commodores have SEC-caliber speed – and the Vandy defense under a new coordinator has been improved. As usual, Notre Dame will try to be the more physical team, and the Commodores will need to find a way to keep Brandon Wimbush off-balance.
- How have SEC teams done in South Bend? The Irish have never actually lost to an unranked SEC team in Notre Dame Stadium. Notre Dame owns an 11-7 mark at home against SEC opponents — 4-5 vs. ranked teams, 3-1 vs. top-10 teams and 7-2 against unranked teams (except the two losses are from 1972 and 1978 to a Missouri program that was a Big 8 member at the time). The wins over ranked opponents are against Alabama (1976 and 1987), LSU (1970) and Texas A&M (2000). The wins over unranked SEC teams are against LSU (1981, in Gerry Faust’s first game at Notre Dame, and 1998), Ole Miss (1985), South Carolina (1979), Tennessee (1978 and 2005) and Vanderbilt (1995).
- What’s the Vanderbilt track record? The Commodores have never beaten a top-10-rated non-SEC opponent in their history. In fact, the last time they faced one was 22 years ago when sixth-ranked Notre Dame came to Nashville and won 14-7. The other six Vanderbilt losses in that category came at No. 8 Baylor (1953: lost 47-6), at No. 10 Baylor (1954: lost 25-19), vs. No. 8 Clemson (1958: lost 12-7), vs. No. 5 Oklahoma (1976: lost 24-3), at No. 1 Oklahoma (1977: lost 25-23) and at No. 2 Arkansas (1978: lost 48-17).
While the Commodores play in Notre Dame Stadium this weekend, Virginia and Ohio will meet Saturday at Vanderbilt Stadium in Nashville. That game, originally slated to be played in Charlottesville, has been moved due to Hurricane Florence.
John Heisler, senior associate athletics director at the University of Notre Dame, has been part of the Fighting Irish athletics communications team since 1978. A South Bend, Indiana, native, he is a graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism and a member of the College Sports Information Directors of America Hall of Fame. He is editor of the award-winning “Strong of Heart” series.