Why Notre Dame can Still Make the College Football Playoff
Even though there are no moral victories in college football, Saturday’s close loss proves Notre Dame is right up there with the college football elites and keeps their playoff hopes alive.
Although victories in games against the college football elites continue to elude the Irish, there’s no reason for Irish fans to be discouraged after Saturday. This statement is something that Irish fans need to keep in mind as the disappointment of that Georgia game remains. I understand the concept of Notre Dame no longer having ‘moral victories’ and that both players and fans should not be satisfied with just competing in these types of games. However, if any fan thinks that Saturday’s loss is a failure because the Irish didn’t win, you need a serious reality check as to how the College Football Playoff committee assesses teams when handing out bids.
Notre Dame went on the road in one of the most hostile environments in college football and had a chance to win in the final minutes. They proved to every college football mind in the nation that they can compete at the highest level. Notre Dame haters claim that being encouraged after a close loss is embarrassing and proves that ND is not elite. Yes, at some point the Irish need to start winning these games against college football’s best, I’ll be the first one to admit that. But that close loss and “moral victory” is the sole reason why ND’s college football playoff hopes remain intact. In a hypothetical scenario of Georgia blowing ND out, the season would essentially be over, and ND would have absolutely no shot of receiving a CFP bid even at 11-1.
Given this obvious fact, how can any ND fan not be extremely encouraged after Saturday? Their defense proved to be national-title-caliber by holding Georgia’s uber-talented offense, led by a future NFL quarterback, to 23 points. While ND still allowed 152 yards on the ground, this was far better than any ‘expert’ predicted, and the rush defense will only improve as these highly inexperienced linebackers see more game reps. I was a bit disappointed by the lack of sacks from the defensive line considering the talent level of Julian Okwara and Khalid Kareem, but that was mainly due to Jake Fromm’s exceptional ability to get rid of the ball quickly and accurately. Fromm is probably the third-best QB in the country and will be the best QB the Irish face all season until the CFP. I thought the obvious strength of ND’s defense was its defensive backfield. Jalen Elliott, Alohi Gilman, and Kyle Hamilton were all over the field. Not only that, every single Irish DB was on the Georgia wideouts like glue all game. There were a couple of back-shoulder fades that were perfectly placed by Fromm, but there’s nothing a DB can do about that in man coverage. ND needed to load up the box to stop the rushing attack, so those plays were bound to happen. Before the game, I was under the impression that the ND DB’s were just as good as any in the country, and I feel the exact same right now.
While there are reasons to be optimistic about the defense, the offense looked a bit outmatched. The only reason ND scored a touchdown before the fourth quarter was due to a Georgia muffed punt. At the tail end of the third quarter, it looked like Georgia might run away with the game, but Notre Dame’s offense showed a lot of poise in the fourth quarter and gave themselves a chance to steal a win in the final two minutes, which was encouraging. Having said this, I do not necessarily blame the slow offensive start on Ian Book. I may be in the minority on this, but I tend to assign more accountability on the Notre Dame wideouts. Just like last season in the CFP against Clemson, the wideouts struggled all game to create separation from their DB counterparts. I mean, why do you think Book targeted Cole Kmet relentlessly all game and seemed to be staring him down in certain situations? It’s because he was the only pass-catcher quicker than his coverage, the Georgia linebackers. It’s also not like Book was tucking and running from the pocket too quickly, as was the case in the Louisville game. He was stepping up in the pocket, extending plays, and keeping his eyes downfield exceptionally well all game long. But due to the lack of explosiveness on the perimeter, he continually had to throw the ball out of bounds or force throws into tight windows to make something happen.
Senior wideout Chase Claypool had a great game and is highly talented, but he’s more of a possession receiver than a speed threat who can run past opposing DB’s. The Irish are really missing that downfield threat and it could be a problem all season. With this said, its not as if Book shouldn’t shoulder some accountability. It was obvious Jake Fromm is a tier above Book when it comes to ranking college football QB’s. There are clearly some things Book needs to work on, such as improving his accuracy on throws downfield. But why do ND fans act like he’s incapable of improving? Jake Fromm came into the game with 32 starts compared to Book’s 14. He has one more year of eligibility after this season and he will absolutely continue to improve as this season progresses.
While some fans may think I’m insinuating that ND’s offense has severe limitations this year due to that lack of explosiveness, I’m not at all. It was extremely obvious before the game that ND’s offense would struggle against Georgia, and that’s because they were without two prolific playmakers on the outside due to injuries — starting X Michael Young and starting running back Jafar Armstrong. On top of that, Cole Kmet was playing in his first game since returning from a broken collarbone injury. When these guys return to 100%, especially Michael Young, the explosiveness increases significantly on the Irish perimeter and ND will have a legitimate chance to be a lethal offense.
Other than controlling their own destiny and finishing 11-1, there are certain teams ND needs to lose in order to have a chance at the CFP. Assuming Clemson and Alabama run the table and go undefeated (which is a very reasonable assumption given their recent dominance), two bids remain up for grabs. Outside of Georgia, any other team going undefeated would be catastrophic for ND’s CFP hopes. Teams like Ohio State, Wisconsin, and Oklahoma all have a good chance to run the table. While it’s way too early in the season to scoreboard watch, these are teams that Irish fans should root against every weekend. Wisconsin and Ohio State play head to head on October 26th, so it is imperative that whoever wins that game does not finish the season unscathed. Other teams like Auburn, Florida, and Penn State could theoretically still finish undefeated, but I would be shocked if that happens given their in-conference competition.
Perhaps the most important aspect of the season that must align other than running the table and finishing 11-1 is for Georgia to suffer no more than two losses. The entire foundation of this article relies upon the fact that losing by six points on the road to Georgia is a quality loss. If Georgia were to perform below expectation and not be in contention for a CFP bid come December, ND’s chances of getting back to the CFP plummet even with an impressive 11-1 record. That’s the downfall of not being in a conference. Because ND does not have the opportunity to play in a conference championship game and accumulate another quality win right before the CFP selection, there is zero room for error. In a perfect world, Georgia runs the table and wins the SEC championship, which would make ND look as good as anyone in the country with that close loss on the road.
Given that there’s an infinite number of scenarios that could play out from now until the CFP committee makes their selections, the best approach ND should have right now is to not pay attention to the rest of the country whatsoever. Control your own destiny by putting that loss in the rearview mirror, finish 11-1, and give yourself a shot at getting back to the CFP.
Looking at ND’s remaining schedule, they should be favored in every remaining matchup this season. I have a lot of concerns with this week’s matchup in Virginia. That Georgia game took a lot out of the Irish both mentally and physically. On top of that, Virginia essentially had a bye week playing Old Dominion. They pretty much had a whole extra week to prepare for ND, while ND is coming off a gut-wrenching loss against an extremely physical team. After that, ND’s next tough opponent is Southern California. While many initially thought this would be an easy win after USC’s loss to BYU on September 14th, they shocked everyone and beat #10 Utah last Friday. USC is very talented and has a bye week before they play ND, so they’ll be prepared. Moving along with the schedule, many ND fans are already penciling Michigan as a win given their trainwreck of a performance against Wisconsin last Saturday. I’d tread lightly in predicting that because, although ND will be the favorite and looked significantly better than Michigan this past week, nothing would make Jim Harbaugh’s season a success more so than ending Notre Dame’s CFP hopes at the Big House in late October. A road game against Michigan is always a tough matchup that should not be taken lightly. After that, the schedule eases up considerably considering Stanford is 1-3 and looking to have their worst season in a decade. If ND is 6-1 after Michigan, that would be when it’s reasonable to start scoreboard watching around college football. Until then, the Irish should have tunnel vision and only focus on next week’s opponent. Making the CFP is still very possible, but there is zero room for error.
Featured Photo: Paul Sancya