The first of 15 storylines as we approach the 2015 football season...
The Irish enter 2015 with a likely top-15 preseason ranking, and even with the transfer of Everett Golson expectations have not changed for Notre Dame to contend for a playoff berth. As of June 6th the all-knowing books in Vegas have Malik Zaire and the Irish tied with Baylor for the seventh best odds to win the national title at 20/1.
ESPN's Football Power Index (FPI) has Notre Dame ranked #7 in their preseason rankings, and for what it's worth all three of their top preseason teams last season made the playoff. The other side of that coin? The teams ranked #4-7 were UCLA, Auburn, Stanford, and South Carolina, who combined to go 33-19.
Regardless of whether the expectations are warranted or realistic, the playoff is the clear goal for Brian Kelly and his team. Year one of the College Football Playoff era was heavily scrutinized with each weekly ranking and press conference put out by the committee - our Eric Bens summarized a few of these nicely here. The most important point may be that we're working with a sample size of one season, so nothing is a certainty, but there are a few directional points that appeared to be of heightened importance last season.
If the Irish are successful this season, with each playoff ranking the questions will begin - where are the signature wins on Notre Dames resume? Is the schedule tough enough? Will it hurt to not have a 13th game and to be off during conference championship week?
What will it take for the Irish to be celebrating on December 6?
An undefeated season
The clear-cut path: finish 12-0. Employ the "just keep winning" strategy of 2012 and everything will be alright - at least until the playoff.
This is the Florida State blueprint from last season - it doesn't have to be pretty. The Seminoles won seven games by a touchdown or less, including their last four games, and trailed in the 4th quarter of four games. There may be more emphasis in the playoff on the quality of wins versus avoiding a loss, but going undefeated with the name Florida State or Notre Dame next to your record should be a virtual guarantee of being one of the four playoff teams.
One loss, and:
A primetime beat-down
The Irish won't have the same opportunity to capitalize on this during a conference championship like Ohio State, but if they can pull off a near-perfect game against a marquee opponent in primetime it could cement a playoff berth. Notre Dame hasn't had a win like this in a long, long time - the goodbye Michigan romp last year was close, but against an opponent that proved to be pretty terrible.
Even in 2012 the marquee wins were mostly close contents - the overtime win in the rain against Stanford and the win by 17 at Oklahoma that, while impressive, was closer to a nail-biter than blowout.
The best candidate? Stanford. The final game of the regular season is the right time of year, and a rout of David Shaw's program would turn heads, provided the Cardinal have a fairly strong regular season. I believe Stanford should be pretty solid in 2015, but their schedule is brutal. Still, if Stanford is a two or three-loss team this is the best/most likely opportunity - if Notre Dame can get up early, the Cardinal aren't a team that love to play from behind and air it out.
That said, a blowout doesn't seem particularly likely looking at this Irish team in its present state. Notre Dame just isn't that much more talented (if at all) than the big names on the schedule - it will take a combination of turnovers, great performance by the Irish, and a collapse by the opponent. The only other non-Stanford opponents where a blowout would really resonate are USC and Clemson, and I think every fan would settle for a victory by the slimmest of margins in those games.
Control the game
The hottest new catchphrase the playoff committee introduced was "game control". How it may be calculated by ESPN seems extremely subjective, but the idea is straightforward - get early leads and maintain them. Lead at halftime and then leave now doubt.
Putting this into practice? Not Notre Dame's forte in recent years. Not to dredge up bad memories, but 2014 featured:
- Failing to maintain or build an 11-point fourth quarter lead against Northwestern
- Falling behind 14-0 at home versus North Carolina, and never pulling away
- Blowing a 28-7 lead over Navy
- Falling behind 34-3 at Arizona State, which is actually giving the other team full game control
As a fan I can't count the number of times over the past decade that I've shaken my head and actually wondered out loud "Why can't it ever be easy?" Far fewer of these moments in 2015 will be both a good sign for Notre Dame's progress and how the playoff committee judges the team.
Every point will matter as Notre Dame is measured against other one-loss teams - margin of victory, how quickly the Irish establish a lead, and how many games are firmly in hand in the fourth quarter. If they lose, in that loss they can't be annihilated from start to finish like USC last year.
The schedule steps up
Given their recent history it seems unlikely that the Irish will destroy a big-name opponent, or control many more contests relative to other playoff contenders. If not, the toughest opponents on Notre Dame's schedule will need to perform well in their other contests to give the Irish marquee wins on their resume.
Last year the playoff committee talked consistently about wins versus other top teams, with an emphasis on road wins. Teams in particular that will need to perform well when they aren't facing the Irish:
Georgia Tech: It's unfortunate that despite being in different ACC divisions the Yellow Jackets and Clemson are cross-division rivals and play each other every season in conference play. The good news is that Paul Johnson's team gets Florida State, Virginia Tech and Georgia at home this year. Still, there aren't many guaranteed wins with a lot of parity in the Coastal Division - Georgia Tech will need to avoid letdowns against the second-tier opponents like Duke, UNC, and Miami.
Clemson: The majority of the Tigers' big games are also at home in Death Valley this year - Notre Dame, FSU and Georgia Tech. Thursday night road games, like Clemson's third game at Louisville, are terrifying, but that and South Carolina are the only forboding away games. The Tigers may not be the best opponent on Notre Dame's calendar, but they might have the easiest road to winning their conference and looking like the best victory.
USC: The Trojans will have high expectations heading into 2015 but a tough conference schedule - everyone in the Pac-12 South will have a legitimate shot at winning the division besides Colorado. There's a ton of quality opponents here - Stanford, Arizona State, Utah, Arizona, Oregon and UCLA are all contenders to play in the Pac-12 title game. It seems unlikely that the Trojans drop a game to Notre Dame and don't end up with at least a couple more losses on their schedule, which includes massive back-to-back games at Oregon and hosting UCLA to finish the year.
Stanford: Stanford gets major props for their non-conference scheduling - even playing nine conference games they've avoiding cupcakes. They travel to Northwestern (who should not be underestimated, apparently), and play UCF and Notre Dame at home. In the Pac-12 they catch UCLA, Oregon, and Arizona in Palo Alto but travel to USC and Washington State. I mention this only because playing in Pullman on Halloween night has loss written all over it, with Mike Leach donning a pirate costume after the game.
Surprise team: Maybe Charlie Strong goes crazy year two at Texas? Pitt somehow outscores everyone with James Conner and Tyler Boyd? As crazy as it sounds I think Navy is the most likely candidate - they won't get much respect as a win because people will always mock Notre Dame playing the academies, but the Midshipmen will be extremely competitive in the AAC, and have a friendly schedule. Keenan Reynolds should get some national buzz as he starts breaking records, and who knows, maybe they run the table aside from a loss in South Bend.
It's not fair but it is reality - losing late in the year is usually a killer for postseason opportunities. The playoff committee may change that (2014 didn't provide much evidence either way), but Ohio State's example proves that at the very least the committee will value a strong finish and how each team looks heading into January.
For Notre Dame, that means if I have to pick one game to lose, taking into account the quality of competition:
Best timing: vs. Georgia Tech, Sept. 19
Good timing: at Clemson, Oct. 3 (this is the same week Oregon and Alabama lost last year)
Cutting it close: vs. USC, Oct. 17
Too late and too bad a loss: at Temple (Oct. 31), at Pitt (Nov. 7), vs. Boston College (Nov. 21)
Worst timing/You choked: at Stanford (Nov. 28)
The other factor Notre Dame has to consider is the lack of 13th game - while SEC, Pac-12, and Big Ten contenders can build momentum and are assured a quality opponent in a conference title game, the Irish have to sit and eat cheeseburgers. This ended up biting TCU and Baylor last season, and Notre Dame does not have many opportunities late in the schedule to really impress the committee unless Stanford comes through with a very good season.
A little luck
Even for great, championship-winning teams, luck and timing play a role as with every loss they no longer control their own destiny. (Note: Fans of these teams HATE this being referred to as luck, as if history could never have played out any other way). It's a tough lesson that TCU learned last year - sometimes there's more deserving teams than spots, and someone is going to miss out unless you can get a hand from an underdog.
Alabama should have sent thank you flowers in back-to-back years for the 2011 and 2012 titles - to Baylor for taking out Kansas State and to Iowa State for their improbable upset of Oklahoma State. LSU jumped from #7 to #2 in the last BCS rankings in 2007, thanks to and Pitt beating #2 West Virginia in their final games.
The 13th game could also work to Notre Dame's advantage - Ohio State had this work to their disadvantage in 2014, when Michigan State's upset held the Buckeyes out of the final BCS Championship and let Auburn in. Four times a Big 12 team was poised for a national championship berth, only to lose the conference championship and get bumped.
Could this be the year the SEC or Pac-12 have their turn? If so, it could be just the break a team like Notre Dame needs to ensure a playoff bid.
Two losses won't cut it - Notre Dame's schedule just isn't strong enough to put together enough quality wins to offset two losses. Until those two losses though? The door is open and hope is alive, as long as Notre Dame's biggest opponents live up to or exceed their own expectations.