Cincinnati vs. Notre Dame Prediction, Over/Under Pick, and Latest Odds
Cincinnati Bearcats vs. Notre Dame Fighting Irish
Spread: Cincinnati -2.5
Game time: Saturday, 2:30 p.m. ET,
How to watch: NBC
Cincinnati vs. Notre Dame Prediction
Notre Dame went to the College Football Playoff last year and is 4-0 to start this one, so it feels awkward to say that it’s not clear whether the Irish are any good. But that’s a reasonable uncertainty a third of the way through the 2021 season, as the Irish have looked varying degrees of unimpressive in each of their four season-opening wins. They needed overtime to beat what’s now an 0-4 Florida State, nearly lost at home to Toledo, struggling for way too long with a drab Purdue, and might have lost to Wisconsin on Saturday if the Badgers had anything even remotely resembling a functional Power 5 quarterback. Alas, 4-0 is 4-0.
Cincinnati, which visits South Bend on Saturday, is in a kind of similar boat. The Bearcats are the reigning best team in the Group of 5 conferences, and they’re 3-0 this year. But the only Power 5 opponent they’ve faced is Indiana, which is a much lesser team than last year and gave the Bearcats a pretty good run anyway. But there’s a limit to the uncertainty around both the Irish and Bearcats. Specifically, we don’t know if their offenses are any good. Defensively, every indication is that both teams are great, which is why I like the under on Saturday.
I don’t think Cincinnati will score a lot on Notre Dame. The last defense this Bearcats offense saw that was around Notre Dame’s level was Georgia’s in last season’s Peach Bowl, when UC scored a season-low 21 points and lost on a buzzer-beating field goal. I would be surprised if the Bearcats got into the upper 20s in this game. As good as their Desmond Ridder-led offense is, they’re facing a different animal than they’re used to seeing on defense. Notre Dame also has what could be a significant advantage in that Cincy’s defensive coordinator from the last four years, Marcus Freeman, now holds that job for the Irish. Freeman won’t know Cincinnati’s calls, but he will bring a deep familiarity with the Bearcats’ personnel.
On the other hand, Cincy’s defense is extremely serious. Just as last year’s Peach Bowl laid bare the Bearcats’ problems moving the ball on a nationally elite defense, it showed their ability to slow down a mega-talented unit that had been playing well over the season’s closing weeks. The current Notre Dame offense is operating at a much lower level than Georgia was in that bowl game, and Cincinnati’s defense is almost completely intact from that game, save Freeman. I think Notre Dame can also be held in the 20s in this game, and perhaps the low 20s.
Stylistically, this game fits an under bet better than an over. Both Notre Dame and Cincinnati throw the ball a good deal, but they aren’t tempo teams that rush to the line and try to cram in a lot of plays. Each offense has come up empty and gone three-and-out plenty often this season. Notre Dame is punting 5.75 times per game -- 24th-most in FBS -- to start the year. They’ve punted seven times each of the last two weeks, against Purdue and Wisconsin. I expect more of that.
These teams also don’t have much in the way of downfield receiving weapons to produce fast points against each other. If the Bearcats struggle to move the ball consistently, they aren’t going to hit home runs over the top to make up for it, though they might try a deep ball or two to their main vertical threat, Alec Pierce. Similarly, I don’t think Notre Dame will spend a lot of time throwing go routes to Kevin Austin. Rather, it’ll be a Kyren Williams and Michael Mayer show, as Jack Coan tries to matriculate the ball downfield with help from his running back and tight end.
Ultimately, this feels like a game that should settle in the 40s. Cincy has a clearly elite defense, but an offense that’s generally been much worse against high-end opponents. Under Luke Fickell, UC’s coach since 2017, the Bearcats have scored a full touchdown less per game in their contests against Power 5 opponents than in their games against G5 peers –– 24.5 points per game against the proverbial big boys, 31 against teams outside the Power 5 club. Notre Dame isn’t used to seeing defenses this good, despite what people might think about Cincinnati because of its lack of power conference affiliation. Expect a slog and not a lot of scoring.