Assessing Notre Dame’s Playoff Chances at Their Bye Week

As Notre Dame heads into their bye week with a 6-1 record, they are just two points away from where they want to be. All that stands between the Fighting Irish and an undefeated record is their failed two-point conversion against Clemson. They may have lost in Death Valley, but Notre Dame’s playoff hopes are far from dead at the season’s halfway point. Their 6-1 record is still impressive, especially considering the seven players who have been lost for the season due to injury.

Assessing Notre Dame’s Playoff Chances at Their Bye Week

More than halfway through their season, Notre Dame is still looking for a signature win, having beaten just one team with a record above .500. Notre Dame overpowered a traditional college football powerhouse in Texas, but the Longhorns have struggled so far this season and are just 2-4. They flirted with disaster against Virginia, another 2-4 team, winning on a Hail Mary pass with under a minute left. The Irish beat then number 14 Georgia Tech in convincing fashion, but the Yellow Jackets have failed to live up to expectations this season and sit at just 2-5. Notre Dame’s only win against a team with a positive record came two weeks ago, against the Navy Midshipmen, who are 4-1.

Though they do not have a season defining win just yet, Notre Dame still has great opportunities to impress the Playoff Committee in the coming weeks – opportunities no one thought they might have a few weeks ago.

Notre Dame’s next two games are both on the road against ranked opponents, the Temple Owls and Pitt Panthers. The Owls are currently ranked 22nd and the Panthers 25th. Yes, you read that correctly. For the first time since 1979, the Temple Owls are ranked. Oh, the parity of college football. The Irish have already taken down some of the biggest brands in college football in Texas and USC, as well as defending Orange Bowl champion Georgia Tech; yet victories over Temple and Pittsburgh would be Notre Dame’s best wins thus far.

If the Irish are able to get past Temple and Pitt, the Stanford Cardinal wait for them in the season finale on November 28th. Currently one spot ahead of Notre Dame in the AP poll (#10), Stanford has done nothing but trend upward since losing to Northwestern in week one. Many people are even putting the Cardinal in their top four teams. Stanford’s punishing rushing attack and stingy defense could present problems for the Irish in late November, but a win over the Cardinal could propel an 11-1 Notre Dame team into the playoff.

If Notre Dame hopes to make the trip to California with a 10-1 record, they must avoid looking past Temple and Pittsburgh in the next few weeks. Temple enters the game with one of the nation’s top statistical defenses. And Pitt, who has been a thorn in Notre Dame’s side in recent years, continues to win even without their All-American running back James Conner. Both of these teams being ranked leads one to think that the Irish will not take either of them lightly, but one thing is certain – Notre Dame will be getting both teams’ best shots.

Notre Dame’s bye week could not come at a more perfect time. The week off gives the team extra time to heal any bumps or bruises, as well as prepare for a daunting second half of the season, which has the Irish playing four of their last five games on the road, three of which are against ranked teams. The Irish have struggled on the road this season, needing a miracle play to beat Virginia and beating themselves against Clemson as they turned the ball over four times. Temple and Pittsburgh may not be as hostile of environments as Virginia and Clemson, but excitement and attendance should increase along with the importance of the games.

Head coach Brian Kelly understands the challenges his team faces when going on the road, and knows that the team still needs to prove itself – “You’ve got to be mentally tough to be disciplined to go on the road and beat somebody. And that’s the next thing that we need to continue to cultivate and develop with this group.” The Irish let the importance of the game influence their play in a negative way against Clemson a few weeks ago. So it will be interesting to see how the team responds to playing two more ranked opponents on the road, especially in back to back weeks.

The Irish are currently faced with a similar situation to one they saw last season. Notre Dame was 6-0 heading into the second half of the 2014 season, which included three games against ranked opponents and four away from home. The Irish collapsed under the pressure, injuries became commonplace, and the team finished 7-5, far from where it seemed they would finish at the halfway point of the season.

Thankfully for Irish fans, though, the identity of this year’s team is visibly different from last year. Injuries were a large part of last season’s collapse. Few second and third string players stepped up in place of starters. Injuries have also been a major storyline this season, but unlike last year, these injuries came at the beginning of the year, and the team has responded well. For example, in the first two weeks of the season, Notre Dame lost their starting running back and quarterback, only for their replacements to emerge as two of the team’s best players. After losing Jarron Jones in the first week of fall camp, many questioned the ability of Notre Dame’s defensive line. His replacement, freshman Jerry Tillery, has helped establish the line as the strength of Notre Dame’s defense.

This change of morale can be credited to two things. First, it can be credited to the upperclassmen leadership of the team. When injuries began to set in again this season, the veteran leaders of the team were not going to witness another collapse. Instead, they took it upon themselves to carry the team to victory. The second thing that changed Notre Dame’s team morale is Kelly’s recruiting abilities. Freshmen such as DeShone Kizer, Jerry Tillery, Alize Jones, and Alex Bars have all filled in nicely for their injured teammates. The players who were forced into starting roles last year certainly benefitted from that experience, but none of them played as well as replacements this season.

Notre Dame’s loss to Clemson means that they do not control their own destiny in the playoff conversation. The Irish will need most teams in front of them to lose, and might even need a two loss team to make the playoff if they are going to get in. Without a thirteenth game, Notre Dame is forced to rely on the teams ranked ahead of them to lose. As many reasons as there are to doubt the Irish, there is still reason for hope.

The second half of Notre Dame’s schedule is surprisingly much more difficult than it looked just two months ago. An 11-1 Notre Dame team with victories over Temple, Pitt, and Stanford will be hard for the committee to keep out of the playoff, especially if Clemson continues on to win the ACC and is Notre Dame’s only loss.

Like so many other teams, the Irish still have questions to answer. There’s only one way to find these answers about Notre Dame’s Playoff chances, and that’s to wait and see. Strap in, Irish fans, its going to get wild.
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