The 2021 college football season has been quite a successful one so far for No. 9 Notre Dame, and it enjoyed its most impressive win of the season to this point last week with a 41-13 beatdown of Wisconsin. The Fighting Irish are now set to face their toughest test of the season in Week 5, however, as they welcome in No. 7 Cincinnati to South Bend for one of the most-anticipated battles of the young season.
The stakes here do not come from its series history; the two programs have played only once ... 121 years ago. That 58-0 Notre Dame win carries little significance to the Bearcats program now, but facing the Fighting Irish means a reunion with former coach Brian Kelly, who went 34-6 in three full seasons at Cincinnati from 2007-09. During that span, he led the team to Orange Bowl and Sugar Bowl berths, and he currently holds the second-best winning percentage in school history.
But it's not just Kelly among the familiar faces. Fighting Irish defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman left the Bearcats to join Kelly's staff after the 2020 season. On top of it all, there's the knowledge that the winner has a leg up in the College Football Playoff race while the loser will find it tough to get back to a position of contention.
All of these storylines collide Saturday in a top-10 matchup that promises to be among the most significant games of the weekend.
Check out CBS Sports' LIVE coverage of Notre Dame vs. Cincinnati
Notre Dame vs. Cincinnati: Need to know
Cincinnati's CFP chances hang in the balance: The Bearcats started the year in the spotlight as a team that could contend for the playoff and be the first to make the field of four from a Group of Five conference. Cincinnati went undefeated in the 2020 regular season only to finish at No. 8 in the final CFP rankings, but this year, Luke Fickell's team started the season higher in the rankings with nonconference opportunities at both Indiana (a 38-24 win in Week 3) and Notre Dame. The thought is another undefeated season with those two games would make for the best argument the selection committee has seen from a Group of Five team.
Fighting Irish defense winning with pass rush and interceptions: There have been some growing pains in the transition from former defensive coordinator Clark Lea, now the coach at Vanderbilt, to Freeman, but the former Cincinnati assistant does have the Fighting Irish defense off to a fast start when it comes to rushing the passer. Notre Dame has totaled 14 sacks through its first four games, the most since the 2012 group that finished as the national runner-up to Alabama. That pass rush forces opposing quarterbacks to speed up their process, and we've seen Kyle Hamilton and the rest of the Fighting Irish secondary capitalize with an FBS-leading nine interceptions.
Desmond Ridder re-writing the Cincinnati record books: The Bearcats quarterback will go down as one of the program's all-time greats, not just for his statistics accumulated during a lengthy career, but for his role in the ascent of the program as a whole. Ridder's 33-5 record as a starter is the best winning percentage (87%) among active FBS quarterbacks with a minimum amount of games played. His numbers aren't bad, either, as he sits at No. 2 in school history in passing yards (7,653) and touchdowns (64), and he remains a strong contender to repeat as AAC Offensive Player of the Year.
How to watch Notre Dame vs. Cincinnati live
Date: Saturday, Oct. 2 | Time: 2:30 p.m. ET
Location: Notre Dame Stadium -- South Bend, Indiana
TV: NBC | Live stream: fuboTV (Try for free)
Notre Dame vs. Cincinnati prediction, picks
There's just something startling about seeing Cincinnati favored at Notre Dame. The Bearcats are worthy favorites based on all the talent accumulated and the high standard set by Fickell, but I'll take the team that's rolling right now. The Fighting Irish seem to come up with winning plays in close games every week, so if I think it's going to be a close game, I'll take the home dog that's hot. Prediction: Notre Dame (+2)
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