It’s hard to have a better bye week than the one Notre Dame had this past weekend. Not only did the Irish get a chance to rest and recover, but the team’s strength of schedule got a significant, largely unexpected boost as more undefeated teams fell.
Notre Dame Schedule Strength Keeps Playoff Hopes Alive
Heading into 2015, the bulk of the Notre Dame schedule strength was in the first half of it. The first seven games featured matchups against three top fifteen teams and a game against Navy, a team that always gives Notre Dame problems. As the season progressed, however, two of these teams (Georgia Tech, USC) proved to be pretenders rather than contenders, and Notre Dame lost to the only team in the front half of their schedule that is still ranked, the Clemson Tigers.
Georgia Tech and USC fell out of the top twenty-five quickly, which hurt Notre Dame’s strength of schedule, but the Yellow Jackets and Trojans did the Irish a favor this past weekend as they both took down an undefeated, top ten team. Georgia Tech defeated then number nine Florida State on a bizarre last second play, while USC pounded then number three Utah, 42-24. Neither Tech nor USC are currently ranked again, but the fact that Notre Dame was able to handle two teams who beat top ten teams can only make the Irish look better in the eyes of the College Football Playoff Committee.
Not only do these two games make Notre Dame’s strength of schedule look better, but also the elimination of undefeated teams is necessary for the Irish to have a chance at the Playoff. Because Notre Dame does not have the opportunity to play a thirteenth game, the Irish cannot afford for more than two power five teams to finish undefeated if they hope to make the Playoff. The farther into conference play the season goes, more teams will inevitably be eliminated, but there is no guarantee that more than three teams currently ranked ahead of number nine Notre Dame will lose.
The Irish cannot control the results of any games but their own, and are completely dependent on the teams ahead of them to lose. Although the two point loss to Clemson looks about as good as a loss can, it is still a loss; and because of it Notre Dame is no longer in control of their own destiny – or are they?
In the preseason, many people criticized Notre Dame for having a lack of signature opponents late in the season. Games against teams like Temple and Pittsburgh didn’t seem like they could help the Irish make a case for the playoff. However, as the season progressed and the first half of Notre Dame’s schedule got progressively less impressive, the back end of Notre Dame’s schedule unexpectedly became increasingly daunting. In their final five games, Notre Dame will clash with three ranked opponents (Temple, Pitt, Stanford), all of which are on the road. A stretch that most figured the Irish would breeze through in August has suddenly become the team’s best opportunity to make a statement to the Playoff Committee.
Notre Dame’s next opponent, the Temple Owls, are 7-0 for the first time in program history, and enter the game ranked twenty-first in the country. Temple had one of the best defenses in the country last season, but didn’t have an offense that could capitalize on the good defensive play. The defense is still just as stingy this season and the Owls finally have a potent offense to complement, which has propelled them to a 7-0 record and national ranking. College Gameday will be in Philadelphia for the game, so watch for the Owls and their fans to enter with a high energy level with so much excitement around their program. The Owls are surely itching at the chance to get on the field and chase after a goal the program has never been able to realistically set for itself – an undefeated season.
If the Irish are able to move past Temple, another formidable and more familiar opponent awaits them in the Pitt Panthers. Many still question how good of a team Pittsburgh really is. But their 6-1 record is impressive nonetheless, especially considering that they have done it without their All-American running back James Conner, who tore his MCL in week one. The Panthers’ only loss comes at the hands of the undefeated Iowa Hawkeyes, who defeated Pitt 27-24. Notre Dame fans are familiar with their team’s recent struggles with the Panthers. Pitt always seems to give Notre Dame a good scare or even a defeat late in the season, but the circumstances this year are different – the Panthers don’t usually enter the second half of the season ranked so highly. It will be interesting to see how both teams handle the pressure of facing another ranked team down the stretch.
If Notre Dame is able to escape back-to-back road games against ranked teams with two victories, their schedule will lighten up for a few weeks before a showdown with now number eight Stanford. Because of the struggles of the teams that Notre Dame has already played, it is safe to say that the Irish lack a signature win for the Playoff committee to point to. This game against Stanford in the final week of the season provides the Irish with an opportunity to secure that signature win and make a push for the Playoff. Defeating a 10-1 Stanford team that is arguably playing the best football of any team in the country would make it hard for the committee to leave Notre Dame out of the Playoff. But, again, the Irish need the help of the teams in front of them for this situation to become a reality.
It is easy to assume that Notre Dame is out of the Playoff race because of their loss and lack of an opportunity to play a thirteenth regular season game. As many highly ranked teams will face other quality opponents in conference championships, Notre Dame will be at home watching and hoping, as the Irish need most of the teams ahead of them to lose if they wish to make it to the Playoff. However, as the season moves along, Notre Dame’s schedule becomes increasingly difficult and respectable, something that no one could have predicted even a few weeks ago. The team’s best opportunities to make a statement are still ahead of them, so maybe the Irish are not as out of it as everyone thinks. Unfortunately for Notre Dame, though, an increase in strength of schedule might not be enough to vault them over the undefeated teams ahead of them. The Irish are going to need quite a bit of luck down the stretch, but as college football continues to show us, bizarre endings are not so out of the ordinary.