Auburn hasn’t been given too much of a chance to land coveted receiver Christian Kirk, but the Tigers’ chances are better than most think. Plus, Michigan lost a key defensive recruit, and don’t be surprised if more are to follow.

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Heather Dinich and Toni Collins look at the surprises and lingering question marks after the first month of the college football season, plus a look ahead to a big weekend of games.
Brian Kelly was greeted in the locker room after Saturday's game by the surest sign his voice was getting through.

Notre Dame turned the ball over five times in a sloppy performance against Syracuse. The Irish's decorated quarterback, Everett Golson, was responsible for four of those giveaways. They still won anyway, 31-15, to improve to 4-0.

So when Kelly met his players afterward, the environment was considerably toned down, for his players knew that their performance was not up to par.

[+] EnlargeBrian Kelly
Rich Barnes/USA TODAY SportsBrian Kelly and Notre Dame will have to overcome Stanford's stellar defense on Saturday in order to remain unbeaten.
"Well, it's what you build your program on is a level of expectation that you know that you don't have to go in and deliver the message that's already pretty clear," the fifth-year Irish coach said Sunday. "If they were in there giddy and happy, I'd be a little bit concerned. I want them to enjoy the win, but I also want them to know that there's better football that needs to be played, and they knew that."

Especially this Saturday, when they get their first true measuring stick of the season. No. 14 Stanford is coming to town, a program that has served as somewhat of a measuring stick for No. 9 Notre Dame in the Kelly era. The Irish know that they cannot perform anywhere near the way they did against the Orange and expect to beat the Cardinal, who have one loss to their name.

Football teams play bad games, even the best ones. Especially at the college level. That Notre Dame got its stinker out of the way against a Syracuse team seemingly with zero interest in taking advantage of Irish miscues is a tremendous burden off the program's shoulders, and one it can waste little time thinking about this week.

"They're a very tunedin group to my message," Kelly said. "I always start with, 'You need to be excited about winning.' It's hard to win in college football, especially when you're playing Power 5 teams. Winning is difficult. Just look across the landscape of college football. We start always with that premise because if you can't enjoy winning, it doesn't mean as much.

"Then we get to the heart of it, is that you can't win consistently by turning the football over. You can't win consistently if you don't compete for the ball in the air. And we know that. That was a given. That conversation took place, but I know that when I walked in that locker room, those kids had already had that passing through their mind."

So they move on to Stanford, which enters Notre Dame Stadium with the nation's No. 1 overall defense, No. 1 scoring defense and No. 1 passing defense. Two years ago, in a somewhat similar scenario, an undefeated Irish team stopped a one-loss Cardinal team in an overtime goal-line stand very much symbolic of how far the program had come in three short years under this regime.

This year's team took four games to figure out its offensive line situation, another area Notre Dame can be glad it sorted out against Syracuse, before Stanford. It would help if the fate of the Irish's five suspended players — and whatever other micro and macro fallouts come from that — is decided as well.

MetLife Stadium marked the finale of an early-season slate that Kelly had deemed before the season as "manageable." When it was all said and done in New Jersey, getting out of this stretch alive was, in some ways, as relieving as it was exhilarating.

"You know, five years into your program, I think you walk in the locker room and you expect the kind of locker room that I got," Kelly said. "In the first year you don't know what to expect, and so you have to make sure that that message is heard loud and clear. I was not shocked about the way our kids handled themselves after the game."

The players received Kelly's message without him having to deliver it. All that awaits now is the season's biggest test.

ACC morning links

September, 29, 2014
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So much of Virginia Tech's production has come from its freshmen. Just look at Saturday's 35-17 win over Western Michigan.

All four Hokies touchdowns were scored by first-year players. Fifteen of the team's 19 touchdowns on the season have been scored by freshmen.

So the news that came down Sunday about freshman running back Shai McKenzie had to be discouraging. McKenzie suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee, as our Jared Shanker wrote. This is the same knee that McKenzie injured in September of his senior year of high school last season. He had enrolled at Virginia Tech in the winter to help rehabilitate the knee.

McKenzie rushed for 87 yards Saturday before suffering the injury, helping a Hokies rushing attack as good as any in the last four years: Their 308 rushing yards were the most in a game since 2010, when they rushed for 317 yards against N.C. State.

Fellow freshman Marshawn Williams led the effort, tallying 119 yards on just 14 carries. He is also the team's leading rusher on the season, just edging McKenzie, 290-269, so Virginia Tech is not without weapons in the backfield.

Still, you have to feel for McKenzie after all the work he put in, and after all the early success he experienced in Blacksburg.

As for the rest of your ACC links ...

ACC bowl projections: Week 5

September, 28, 2014
Sep 28
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Another week in which the middle of the pack in the ACC took another big step backward but may have actually cleared up the bowl picture a bit. Miami and Clemson are on the rise, while Duke, Pitt and BC are headed in the wrong direction -- but as of now, they’re all still on track to play in a bowl.

College Football Playoff: Florida State
Capital One Orange Bowl: Clemson versus Notre Dame*
Russell Athletic Bowl: Louisville
TaxSlayer Bowl: Georgia Tech
Belk Bowl: Virginia Tech
Hyundai Sun Bowl: Miami
New Era Pinstripe Bowl: NC State
Military Bowl presented By Northrop Grumman: Virginia
Duck Commander Independence Bowl: Duke
Quick Lane Bowl: Pittsburgh
BITCOIN St. Petersburg Bowl: Boston College

* Note: Notre Dame is eligible for a bid to any ACC tie-in game unless it is selected for a New Year’s Six game, which can include playing an ACC team in the Orange Bowl.
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ESPN college football analyst Brad Edwards breaks down what it will take for the Fighting Irish to reach the College Football Playoff.
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ESPN college football reporter Heather Dinich joins Antonietta Collins to break down significant movers in the ESPN power rankings.
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Check out the top plays from Week 4 of college football.

Instant analysis: ND 31, Syracuse 15

September, 28, 2014
Sep 28
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Notre Dame beat Syracuse 31-15 on Saturday night at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey. Here's how the Irish got to 4-0:

How the game was won: Good question. Notre Dame turned the ball over five times but still won by double digits. You don't see that every day, but it speaks to how great this young defense has been in Year 1 under new coordinator Brian VanGorder, as it gave Syracuse nothing offensively. Six of the Orange's points came on a pick-six. They had little else going for them from a scoring standpoint.

Gameball goes to: Everett Golson will get plenty of credit, and he deserves some of it: 32-of-39 passing for 362 yards and four touchdown passes. He completed 25 consecutive passes at one point, one shy of the FBS record. But he also had two picks and two lost fumbles, so we'll give this nod to sophomore Will Fuller, who had the game's first two touchdowns on consecutive plays in the second quarter and finished with six grabs for 119 yards.

What it means: Notre Dame did not play very well on Saturday, but if you turn the ball over five times and still win -- fairly easily, at that -- you have to take the W and not look back. Teams play poorly, and they often suffer consequences for it. The Irish didn't, and they can go into the Stanford game 4-0, with a blank slate and thankful a sloppy performance such as this is in the past and they don't have a blemish to show for it.

Playoff implication: No. 8 Notre Dame is still undefeated, so the Irish are certainly alive in this discussion. We will probably know more about them, however, after they face rival Stanford at home next Saturday. Again, they can be thankful they got this sloppy performance out of the way. But to say this looks like one of the four best teams in the country right now is probably a bit much as we move to October.

What's next: Notre Dame has three games -- Stanford, North Carolina and at Florida State -- before its next bye. Syracuse's upcoming slate is actually less kind: Louisville, FSU, at Wake Forest, at Clemson. The Orange might have had their best opportunity to steal a tough game during this rugged stretch (sorry, Wake Forest) with five takeaways Saturday, but they will have to go back to the drawing board and see what they can get going offensively Friday against a Cardinals team that showed flaws in Saturday's win over Wake Forest.

Video: Notre Dame QB Everett Golson

September, 28, 2014
Sep 28
12:32
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video Everett Golson threw for four touchdowns but also a pair of interceptions in Notre Dame’s win over Syracuse.

Video: Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly

September, 28, 2014
Sep 28
12:31
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Coach Brian Kelly talks about Notre Dame's 31-15 win over Syracuse, but he knows his team needs to clean up the turnovers heading into a showdown with Stanford.
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Durell Eskridge 29 Yd Interception Return (Two-Point Pass Conversion Failed)

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First Month Standouts and Surprises
Heather Dinich and Toni Collins look at the surprises and lingering question marks after the first month of the college football season, plus a look ahead to a big weekend of games.
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