Notre Dame's chances of making the playoff
The College Football Playoff committee clearly thinks highly of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish this season, bumping them into the top four this week following LSU’s loss to Alabama.
The question is, can they stay there? We took a look at factors on both sides of their candidacy:
The case against Notre Dame
Conference championship week
If the 2014 selection process taught us anything, it was the value that is placed on conference championship week, and as an independent, Notre Dame sits that out. It’s not so much that the committee values winning a championship above other exploits, though it does matter, it’s that those conference champions gain a 13th game against an opponent that the committee is likely to rate highly. Winning that gives them momentum that others cannot match — just look at the way Ohio State leap-frogged the Big 12 candidates in 2014.
Notre Dame closes out the season with games against Wake Forest (3-6), Boston College (3-7) and Stanford (8-1). The Cardinal are the only one that allows the Irish to further their cause with the playoff committee. Nothing positive can be gained from the games against Wake Forest and Boston College.
Unfortunately for Notre Dame, the competition have several chances to impress, as both the Big 12 and Big Ten contenders have back-loaded schedules. Ohio State gets to face Michigan State and Michigan; Oklahoma State takes on Baylor and Oklahoma; Baylor plays Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and TCU; while Oklahoma has Baylor, TCU and Oklahoma State on their slate. If Ohio State wins out, and one of the Big 12 teams do the same, it spells trouble for the Irish.
The Cardinal cause Notre Dame two kinds of concern. First, in order for the Irish to get maximum benefit from their marquee end of season game, they need to meet and beat a 10-1 Stanford on the final week of the regular season, and for the Cardinal to go on and win the Pac-12. Should Stanford lose to a resurgent Oregon team, or a 12-1 Utah team emerges as the Pac-12 champion, the value of a victory over Stanford would diminish.
Second, forgetting about the records, Notre Dame needs to beat a strong Stanford team, which won’t be easy. Nine of the 11 Irish front-seven defenders with at least 50 snaps to their credit this season have positive grades in run defense. Their battle with Stanford’s potent ground attack (the Cardinal have one of the nation’s best run-blocking lines and PFF’s third-ranked running back in Christian McCaffrey) will be one of strength against strength — something to savor in a weekend of big games.
The case for Notre Dame
They are winning with their second quarterback
The Irish are 8-1 despite having lost their starting quarterback in the second week of the season, which is hugely impressive. Nor was Malik Zaire just any starter, he began the season with an incredible +7.2 performance against Texas in which just one of his 22 pass attempts was off-target (two were drops). It speaks to the quality of both the coaching and recruiting in South Bend that they have been able to pick up the pieces and move on seamlessly with DeShone Kizer under center.
With a +11.0 overall grade, Kizer has settled in fine. His 59.4 percent accuracy on deep passes (those that travel 20-plus yards downfield before the catch) ranks fourth in the nation. The committee factored Ohio State’s quarterback issues into their decision last year, so they can hardly fail to do the same for Notre Dame.
Body of work
While their November slate isn’t as tough as others face, there can be little questioning Notre Dame’s body of work to this point. The opponents they have played thus far have a combined 47-33 record, 46-25 if you take out the games against Notre Dame. Five of them are already bowl eligible, and two, Temple (7-1) and Navy (6-1), suffered their only defeat to the Irish.
Notre Dame’s one loss came on the road at Clemson, the committee’s top-ranked team, so as defeats go that one is as good as it gets. Win out and they would add a win on the road over Stanford to that résumé.
With much of the committee’s reasoning thus far resting on team quality, or the eye test, it doesn’t hurt that Notre Dame have some outstanding players at their disposal. Eight of their players have graded out in the top 20 at their position among Power-5 schools, with six of them in the top 10. They are RB C.J. Prosise, LT Ronnie Stanley, RT Mike McGlinchey, LG Quenton Nelson, C Nick Martin, WR Will Fuller, DT Sheldon Day and LB Jaylon Smith.
Go 11-1 and they give the committee something to think about. But even then, much of Notre Dame’s fate rests on what has happened elsewhere.