This is the test we have all been waiting to see: how Notre Dame measures up with a truly elite team.
The Irish have faced three ranked teams so far this season, beating current No. 14 Michigan State while losing to No. 15 Michigan and USC, which is ranked 10th by the Associated Press but is ineligible for the BCS standings.
Stanford, currently sixth in the BCS standings, is truly an elite team, a notch above anything the Irish have seen all season. The Cardinal won a triple-overtime thriller at USC — the best team Notre Dame has faced this season. They are coming off a 12-1, Orange Bowl-winning season and are currently 10-1, in position to notch another BCS-bowl berth.
They boast the likely top NFL draft pick in quarterback Andrew Luck, who is a strong contender for the Heisman Trophy as well. But, perhaps even more imposing, they boast an even better rushing attack, powered by a pair of likely first-round draft picks in left tackle Jonathan Martin and right guard David DeCastro.
Here is where the Irish will really be tested, particularly if they are without versatile defensive lineman Stephon Tuitt, whose status is up in the air after missing last week with an illness. Stanford has the nation's No. 22 rushing attack and the No. 24 passing attack, which equals the 10th-ranked total offense and fourth-ranked scoring offense, averaging 45 points per game.
During its current four-game winning streak, Notre Dame has held three of its opponents below 20 points, with Maryland scoring a late touchdown to finish with 21. The Irish have surrendered just more than 20 points per game this season. The defense has been stout for most of the season, ranking in the top 30 in both total and scoring defense and putting the team on its back in victories over Pitt, Wake Forest and Boston College — when the offense was average, at best.
Most of all, it knows what it is getting against Stanford, a no-nonsense, smash-mouth team that prides itself on punching you in the face early and often. The Cardinal offensive line averages just 1 more pound collectively (305) than the starting line the Irish defense faces every day in practice (304).
In his two seasons at Notre Dame, Brian Kelly has spoken about building toughness and winning in the trenches. This, of course, is coming from a coach who is 6-0 in November games at Notre Dame and has won 16 such games in a row dating back to 2007 (including December regular-season contests).
But the Irish are young on the defensive line, even if Lynch doesn't play. With senior Kapron Lewis-Moore sidelined for the season, senior Ethan Johnson and junior Sean Cwynar are the only veterans who see meaningful snaps. Starting nose guard Louis Nix is a sophomore in his first year playing, starting end Aaron Lynch is a freshman and another freshman, Chase Hounshell, has slowly worked his way into the rotation as well.
The line has matured at a quicker-than-expected rate through 11 games this season, but nothing can prepare it for the test it is about to face Saturday, one that will ultimately decide this game.
Prediction: Stanford 31, Notre Dame 20