Optimists are aplenty throughout the landscape of college football until the first set of College Football Playoff rankings are released. Then, a dose of reality is issued to the majority of fanbases. Such is what occurred to the fans of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish on Tuesday night.
Notre Dame College Football Playoff Hopes?
Too Many Unbeatens
The Irish’s No. 8 ranking in the most recent AP Poll had some fans wondering whether, with enough chaos, a top-four spot could be calling their name. That dream is done.
At No. 10, there are simply too many obstacles in Notre Dame’s way.
Firstly, there’s the matter of the Power-5 unbeaten – Georgia, Michigan State, Oklahoma, Wake Forest. All four teams were placed ahead of the Irish, and all four could viably win out. Should they do that, the first three of those teams will almost certainly be in – with Georgia and MSU claiming top-10 victories, and Oklahoma at least beating Oklahoma State (#11) and Baylor (#12) en route to a conference title. Wake Forest is a little more questionable. The schedule is difficult, with three road games, but not ridiculous. They’d pick up just one ranked win in #19 NC State, courtesy of Clemson and UNC struggling.
But, Notre Dame has no ranked opponents left on the schedule. It’s hard to imagine any sequence of four victories great enough to overtake the Demon Deacons. Wake also gets a conference championship – assuming they win out – with an opportunity for another potentially ranked win. So whether Wake winning out is enough for their own playoff hopes is another argument, but they certainly control their destiny more than the Irish.
A Few College Football Playoff Certainties
So let’s talk about certainties.
It’s a certainty that Georgia is in. They’re not losing in the regular season, and an SEC Championship game loss would not derail their season. If they do lose that game, in all likelihood, the SEC gets two spots in the playoff.
It’s almost a certainty that the Big 10 East winner will be in the field. If Michigan State runs the table, they’re in – likely even with a loss in the title game. Michigan winning out could create a crazy three-team tiebreaker, or Ohio State could just beat both the Spartans and Wolverines. Regardless, if one of those three teams wins the conference with one loss, they’ll be into the Playoff. If somehow one of them loses to a lesser Big 10 West opponent. Such a hypothetical is mass chaos, so highly unlikely.
It is also a certainty that if Oklahoma finishes unbeaten, they’ll be in the playoff. The initial #8 ranking may not give off that idea, but the Committee has set up the Sooners. They have ranked games against Oklahoma State and Baylor to wrap up their regular season and likely will have to beat one of them twice. Running the table could involve three top-15 wins, and that is a good enough resume for an unbeaten Power-5 champion.
Who Controls Their Destiny To The College Football Playoff?
This certainly does not apply to the Irish. And that really illustrates how difficult any potential path is. Georgia, Alabama, Michigan State, Oklahoma, Ohio State control their destiny. If Michigan wins out, they could force a three-way tiebreaker in the Big 10 East, so it’s unclear where the Wolverines stand there. Oregon doesn’t because of a lack of ranked opportunities for the rest of their schedule. If one or more of those teams loses, then Cincinnati begins to potentially control their destiny. And if some more chaos happens, then Wake Forest could run the table and crack the field.
All that’s to say, Notre Dame isn’t really in the picture. So much pure chaos and unexpected results are needed for the Irish to even remotely have a say in their own destiny.
One Example Of Pure Chaos
Never say never. Ohio State was ranked 16th in the debut College Football Playoff poll and won the national championship. So, the door isn’t completely slammed shut. But the chaos required is borderline unimaginable.
First, there needs to be Georgia running the table and going unbeaten, thus making the SEC a one-bid league. Then Oklahoma needs to lose – they won’t make it with one loss given their current ranking. After that, the Big 10 needs to absolutely cannibalize itself. This requires a Big 10 East team with one loss to make the championship and lose to a Big 10 West team. This could feasibly eliminate all three teams from contention. Then an Oregon loss would eliminate the Ducks, leaving Georgia, Cincinnati, and Wake Forest as teams ahead of the Irish. A Wake Forest loss is somewhat probable – and then the Irish have a chance.
However, that assumes other things – that a one-loss non-Big 10 finalist sinks below the Irish. Or a two-loss Alabama team drops out. It also assumes Oklahoma State or Baylor don’t run the table and finish as one-loss conference champions, which could let them play spoiler. This combination of events is so incredibly unlikely and still leaves a lot up in the air, so it’s really best not to consider it a likely possibility.
Resetting Expectations For The Irish
Let’s assume – as about 99% of scenarios would lead to – that Notre Dame doesn’t make the College Football Playoff. Rather than hope for the slimmest of possibilities to make itself a reality, Irish fans would be better off resetting their expectations about what could qualify this season as a success.
Running the table is a virtual requirement. 11-1 against a schedule that included four preseason top 15 teams is a pretty respectable result, even with a few teams underperforming. Also losing a second game to one of the remaining opponents would be highly disappointing. Once the Irish secure an 11-1 record, they should be virtually guaranteed a spot in a New Year’s 6 bowl. Winning a major bowl would be the perfect cap to a season that has had some rocky lows but has been trending upwards.
The Ideal Opponent?
Initial projections based on current CFP rankings would have Notre Dame playing Wake Forest. Who the Irish play is out of their control, but there are certain matchups they’d much prefer.
Wake Forest isn’t really an ideal opponent, because there’s a realistic chance they could be 12-0 and nobody will know how good they are. If Notre Dame is to not make the Playoff, they could at least quell some of the narratives about not winning a major bowl game. However, the opponent being a non-traditional powerhouse like the Demon Deacons minimizes that accomplishment. Rather, the Irish could hope for a much better matchup. The ideal game would be a clash with Michigan. This rivalry battle would give Notre Dame a chance to repay the Wolverines for an embarrassing blowout defeat in 2019. It also comes against a traditional rival and blue-blood who by all accounts looks really good this season.
Other great matchups would include Cincinnati (a chance to avenge their only loss), a two-loss Alabama or Auburn team, or a Power-5 champion like Oklahoma or Oregon. Beating a more traditional power in a major bowl game would be a massive recruiting statement for the Irish, and give them a 12-1 season, setting the Irish on the way to bigger goals in 2022.