Now that we have hit the mid-point of the season, it would seem to be a good time to re-evaluate ND's schedule and see which teams are on the rise and which are struggling. From what we know about the new playoff selection committee, it seems like strength of schedule will be an important factor to the committee members and will go a long way in determining whether a 12-0 (or more importantly 11-1) Notre Dame team would be included.
Coming into the season, the Rice game look very good on paper. Coming off a 10 win season that included a Conference USA title, this game was viewed as a high quality test for a young team early in the season. However, there have been a few hiccups in Rice's season. After expected opening losses to Notre Dame and Texas A&M, Rice was defeated on a last second field goal by Old Dominion who has only recently been elevated to FBS. Rice has rebounded nicely with double digit wins over Southern Miss, Hawaii, and Army. A November 15th matchup with currently ranked Marshall will likely tell us definitively how good of a win this was.
Looking back, this game may have been much bigger because of the circumstances surrounding the game rather than the actual on field product. After sandwiching wins over FCS Appalachian State and Miami (OH) around a (very satisfying) 31-0 defeat in South Bend, Michigan proceeded to lose three straight to Utah, Minnesota, and Rutgers with two of those losses coming at home. With winnable games remaining against Indiana, Northwestern, and Maryland, Michigan has a shot at bowl eligibility and making this a somewhat impressive win for the Irish.
If you share my sentiments and thought Purdue was going to be a 2-3 win team, this team has been a relative surprise coming off a 1-11 campaign in 2013. With wins over Western Michigan, Southern Illinois and Illinois and a feisty showing against Michigan State, Purdue has a chance to become bowl eligible if they can pull out wins against Minnesota, Northwestern and Indiana.
This to me is an example of a team that is better than their record would indicate. After wins over Villanova and Central Michigan, the Orange proceeded to drop four straight against Maryland, ND, Louisville and Florida State. Syracuse is likely not going to end up going to a bowl with their remaining schedule but could do ND some good with an upset of Clemson.
Currently, Stanford is the only team that Notre has played with a winning record. However, this is likely going to be a pretty good win on the schedule because Stanford is currently tied for 1st in the PAC-12 North and without any dominant team in the PAC-12, Stanford has as good a shot as any of winning the conference. With games remaining at Arizona State and at Oregon Stanford has a chance to finish strong. Beating the PAC-12 champ would go a loooooong way in impressing the selection committee.
NORTH CAROLINA 2-4
Looking back, this was an incredibly frustrating game to watch as a fan. This North Carolina team squeaked by Liberty and a mediocre San Diego State. Next, they were blown out by East Carolina, Clemson and Virginia Tech. Hopefully, this was just a trap game for ND and isn't representative of their ability because this will likely be the worst blemish on their record outside of a loss.
FLORIDA STATE 6-0
This is likely the single game that will have the most to do with whether or not Notre Dame gets into the playoff. If ND can get out of Tallahassee with a win, they should be favored in the rest of their games and have a good chance of finishing undefeated. Even a close loss to Florida State can work in ND's favor if it is their lone loss and FSU finishes undefeated. After this game and the continuing game of elimination in the SEC west should start to clarify the playoff picture.
Before the season, a lot of prognosticators were wondering if Navy could win 10+ games and make things interesting with Ohio State and ND. At 3-4 Navy hasn't quite lived up to those expectations but some of those struggles can be attributed to QB Keenan Reynolds dealing with a shoulder injury. While they may be under .500 now, with a weak schedule they have the opportunity to finish the season with 6-7 wins.
ARIZONA STATE 4-1
Arizona State is another game that provides Notre Dame with an opportunity to make a statement. IF ND were to suffer a loss at FSU, this would become a must win to potentially make the playoff or a New Year's Day Bowl. ASU seems to have been a feast or famine type team this year. A complete blowout to a disappointing UCLA was followed up with a win against USC. A game against Stanford this weekend will likely determine which of those two teams will be a real contender in the PAC-12.
Northwestern is the third B1G team on the schedule and seems to be the third B1G team that has a chance to hover around the .500 mark for the season. After starting the season 0-2, the Wildcats have rebounded nicely with wins over Penn State and a ranked at the time Wisconsin team. Northwestern has a chance to make themselves a little more respectable with a match-up against Nebraska coming up.
Surprising stat of the day, Northwestern has the 11th ranked defense in points allowed at 17.5 per game.
Louisville is a team that seems to be good enough to beat the bad teams but not good enough to beat good teams. With losses to Clemson and Virginia, their best win is against a 4-3 Miami team at home. Even so, with games left against Boston College, NC State and Kentucky, the Cardinals have a chance to finish with 8 wins and give ND a victory over another bowl team.
USC seems to be a team with talent and an ability to compete but the scholarship restrictions have created issues with depth. After an impressive win over Stanford on the farm, USC got completely steamrolled by Boston College. Then they lost on a last second Hail Mary to Arizona State. After two tough losses such as those, it would be understandable for a team to lose confidence and start to slide. However, to their credit, USC was able to go on the road and get a win against an Arizona team coming off a defeat of Oregon. With Utah being the only ranked team they play from now until the November 29 meeting with the Irish, the Trojans could be 9-2 coming into that game.
Coming into the season, it was known that Notre Dame had a back loaded schedule. That seems to become even more pronounced halfway through the season. Even though some say that ND hasn't played anybody, at the end of the season there could be as many as 10 bowl teams on this schedule which would likely be more than enough to impress the playoff selection committee.