After the chaos of the past couple of weeks, Notre Dame has seen its profile rise to the status of Top 5 team and potential College Football Playoff team. Sitting at 7-0, with wins over Michigan, Stanford and Virginia Tech, the Irish’s resume looks good. If they can run the table, the committee would be hard-pressed to leave them out of the final four.
But, going undefeated means Notre Dame will have to pass a couple more rivalry tests in the coming weeks. One of those tests is set for this weekend, when the Irish travel out to San Diego to face the Navy Midshipmen. Navy, on paper, doesn’t seem like much of a challenge for the Irish this season. Ken Niumatalolo’s squad sits at 2-5 and has lost their last four games. But, as CBS Sports play-by-play man Carter Blackburn points out, the rivalry between these two teams tends to lead to close games.
Blackburn, along with Aaron Taylor, is on the call for the game this weekend on CBS, set for an 8 p.m. Eastern time kickoff. We caught up with him to get his thoughts on the game, the rivalry, and, oh yeah, that other big game happening on CBS this weekend. (Editor’s Note: This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity).
CBS Local Sports: As you get ready to call Notre Dame-Navy, what’s the biggest storyline you’re focused on?
Carter Blackburn: I think it’s that Navy tends to play close games against Notre Dame, no matter what. The Irish come in ranked No. 3 in the country and are a favorite at this point to make the College Football Playoff and potentially play for a National Championship. Navy has had a very disappointing season, and they have lost four straight games. If you look at the recent history between these two, four of the last five games have been decided by 10 points or less.
Two years ago in Jacksonville, Navy beat Notre Dame. Even though on paper, Notre Dame should blow out Navy, I think the biggest thing going into this game is the confidence on the Navy side and a little bit of the trepidation of the Notre Dame side. We’re looking at this saying: “Boy, things are going great right now for the Irish, but the Navy games are always different, and, as of late, they have been scary for Notre Dame.”
CBS Local Sports: The Irish enter undefeated, but what’s the biggest question you’re looking to have answered about the Irish in this game?
Carter Blackburn: The number-one thing that Notre Dame has actually proven is that they can play in tough games. Their last two games out, against Virginia Tech on the road, and Pitt at home, were tough. That is probably the biggest thing that Notre Dame has proven since making the change at quarterback and going to Ian Book. They have been terrific since that change.
The question marks that still pop up come with the offensive line. My broadcast partner is Aaron Taylor, the former great lineman for Notre Dame, and he is always keeping an eye on the offensive line at Notre Dame. So, whether we’re covering the Irish or not, I have a bead on the offensive line, and I think there are still some questions there. This is the No. 3 team in the country and a potential national title contender. Is this offensive line going to lead them to that level?
That’s one of the big questions. It may not get answered this week in San Diego on Saturday, but it is a lingering question.
CBS Local Sports: This is a storied rivalry, having been played every year since 1927. What does it mean to you to be on the call for this one?
Carter Blackburn: It’s fantastic. I grew up in Texas, and you would say that doesn’t necessarily prepare you for Notre Dame-Navy. But, I grew up in a family that absolutely loved football and had a tremendous amount of respect for the University of Notre Dame and the United States Naval Academy. You know on both sides that these are fine football programs but also, more importantly, fantastic institutions.
They are represented in college football lore because of the character and class of the places. It’s not just years of tradition, but also players that go there now when you’re talking about the United States Naval Academy. They are young men who sign up to spend a good portion of their young lives in service to the nation. That, in and of itself, makes it a special college football event. Then, you add in all of the years of the rivalry and, in recent years, Navy’s ability to beat Notre Dame and give Notre Dame close games. That makes this game an especially fun, resonant college football game.
CBS Local Sports: You were on the call for one of the season’s biggest upsets, when ODU took down Virginia Tech. Do you think you’re the lucky charm for upsets this season?
Carter Blackburn: The Old Dominion win stands out because it’s one of the biggest upsets we’ve seen in years in college football. But I’ll tell you what, we’ve also had Arizona State losing to San Diego State, so our crew has actually had a few this year. And there’s one common theme for the upset, something that a lot of coaches will tell you, but it is really true. If you’re an underdog, you have to believe you have a chance to win the game. You can say all you want to about ‘we think we can win’ but when you begin to believe it is when there’s the potential.
We just talked to the Navy players and coaches, and for a team that has lost four straight and is going up against the No. 3 team in the country, they’re uncommonly excited about this chance. There’s a belief, including from those past years, that they can in fact play with Notre Dame, no matter the ranking next to their names. I think Navy believes they can be competitive in this game with Notre Dame and then, when you get to the fourth quarter and you have a chance, that’s when all the fun stuff happens.
CBS Local Sports: Finally, in addition to your game on CBS, there’s a huge game in the SEC East, with #9 Florida taking on #7 Georgia in the annual rivalry game in Jacksonville. What do you think is the biggest story to watch there?
Carter Blackburn: The biggest one for me is whether Georgia can come back defensively after LSU really handled them and ran on them, which is uncharacteristic for Georgia. You know that was probably very very salty the last couple of weeks to think about getting run on by LSU and giving up chunks of yards and points to the Tigers. A couple of fumbles did play a factor in that game as well.
But, I think, it comes down to that for Georgia. It’s some of the similar things to Notre Dame, where you’re saying: “Okay, you’re a national championship contender, you have proven that. You have proven you’re a top-5 team but, now that we’re getting to that next stretch of the season, can you shift into that next level of elite?”
The other thing to focus on is, in general, the SEC East. Maybe not a resurgence, but certainly led by Georgia, to have an SEC East that is capable of producing someone who might possibly challenge Alabama in an SEC Championship game or College Football Playoff or National Championship game. I think, if that division can hold up at all against the powerful Alabama and whoever else from the West, all of a sudden you have more balance in the SEC and more balance in college football.