Just when you thought your holiday week couldn’t get any better, the College Football Playoff committee released their newest rankings, and you suddenly got excited for all the football you’ll be devouring this Saturday while eating your leftover turkey.
Unless you’re a Notre Dame fan.
Surely the Irish faithful will be glued to the TV all day Saturday like every other fan base, but they won’t just be watching, they’ll be praying. After falling from fourth to sixth in the newest playoff rankings after a poor showing against Boston College at Fenway Park, the Irish have some work to do themselves, but they must have additional help to return to the top four.
We hear “they control their own destiny” get thrown around quite a bit in college football, but hardly in the same sentence as Notre Dame. And for good reason. Once the Irish lost to Clemson early in the season, they were at the mercy of everyone else. Though the Irish have not lost since that fateful day in Clemson, this remains true. After being jumped by three teams on Tuesday night (Oklahoma, Iowa, Mich. St.), Notre Dame is dependent on victories by the opponents of these teams, as well as wins by the teams the Irish have already played this season.
As much as they need underdogs to rise up this weekend, the Irish have no control over what happens in the Big 10 or Big 12. They can only control what happens in Palo Alto, California this Saturday when they take on the 13th ranked Stanford Cardinal. Notre Dame couldn’t ask for a better-timed chance to make a statement than in the final week of the regular season against a top-15 opponent. If the Irish are able to shut down the Cardinal’s rushing attack and win by a large margin of say, three touchdowns, it would be hard for the committee to leave Notre Dame out of the top four. Winning by one score or less, however, likely isn’t going to get the Irish into that group – unless the win is accompanied by bedlam across the country (pun intended).
Standing firmly in the way of Notre Dame’s playoff hopes are the Oklahoma Sooners. The third ranked Sooners (who’s only loss came to Texas, who ND beat 38-3) have made quite the statement over the past two weeks by defeating Big 12 foes Baylor and TCU, and look to make another this weekend as they take on number 11 Oklahoma State. After jumping from seventh to third, it is clear that a win over the Cowboys will cement the Sooners into a playoff spot, even without playing in a championship game. An Oklahoma State win, however, would effectively eliminate Oklahoma from playoff contention, and likely would not be enough to vault the Cowboys from eighth to fourth, a win for the Irish.
Oklahoma may pose the biggest threat to Notre Dame’s playoff hopes, but they aren’t the only team that does so. The Irish also must worry about the number four and five teams, Iowa and Michigan State. Odds point to the two meeting in the Big Ten championship game and one of them inevitably being knocked out of the playoff race, but that alone might not be enough to get the Irish into the top four. For this reason, Notre Dame should be pulling for Penn State to upset MSU and/or Nebraska, who has already beaten the Spartans, to beat Iowa. An Oklahoma loss wouldn’t make a collapse by either of these teams necessary, but the more chaos the better for Notre Dame.
There’s no better time to release hate from one’s heart than thanksgiving, right? At least for Notre Dame fans in 2015, this holds true. Without a thirteenth game, Irish fans are forced to root for their opponents to do well and increase the overall strength of Notre Dame’s schedule. Unfortunately, this means rooting for archrival USC. Stanford is already locked into a position in the Pac-12 title game, and a USC victory over UCLA this Saturday would do the same for the Trojans, who the Irish beat 41-31. If the Irish can manage to beat Stanford on Saturday and USC wins, Notre Dame will have defeated a power five conference champion no matter the outcome of the game – a feat not many other teams can claim.
The winner of the Pac-12 might not be the only conference champion that Notre Dame will have beaten by the end of the season. If Temple and Navy both come away victorious this weekend, the two, who were both beaten by Notre Dame, will meet for the American Athletic Conference championship. It may not be a power five conference, but both teams are currently ranked in the top 25, and the matchup would greatly benefit the Irish in the eyes of the committee.
It will certainly be a busy weekend for Notre Dame fans full of cheering, booing, and hoping. The Irish must hope that Oklahoma State can knock off their in-state rival Oklahoma Sooners, and that either Iowa or Michigan State lose this weekend, and the winner lose in the conference championship a week later. None of what goes on around the country matters, however, if Notre Dame can’t survive Heisman finalist Christian McCaffery and the Stanford Cardinal this weekend – and that’s a big if. Notre Dame may be ranked higher than Stanford, but they wont be favored, and for good reason – Notre Dame ranks 69th nationally in rush defense. It is unclear just yet if the Irish defense will be able to overcome injuries and stop the potent Stanford rushing attack – but one thing is certain – Notre Dame’s College Football Playoff ranking slip justifies panic in South Bend.