Earlier in our 15 for '15 series, we went over why this year is the biggest one yet for coach Brian Kelly. In this installment, we'll go over the Irish's path to the playoff. What's Notre Dame's best chance to reach the Cotton or Orange Bowl semifinals? Let's break it down Q&A style:
So, Notre Dame is in with a 12-0 record, right?
Yes. There will always be a certain wing-nut portion of college football that would probably root for ISIS if they faced Notre Dame, and this group would still likely make cases for any one-loss team they could find on the basis of their conference championship games. If there's a Marshall or a Boise State that goes unbeaten, they'll probably push for them too.
The fact of the matter, though, is that no selection committee is going to be radical enough to keep out an unbeaten team playing a Power 5 schedule. (Even though the Irish are not in a conference in football, they play nine Power 5 teams this year, the same number as most playoff competitors will in a 12-game schedule.) Maybe if all four Power 5 conferences that play a championship game turn out a 13-0 team, we'd have reason to sweat with a 12-0 record. However, this is darn near impossible, so we'll throw it out.
What about 11-1?
The answer to this question could correctly answer pretty much any other question in the world — "It depends".
On basically everything. Who the major conference champs are and what their records are. How Notre Dame's schedule turns out, difficulty-wise. How the Irish got to these hypothetical 11 wins would matter. Who they lost to would matter and who they beat would matter, as well as how those results came to be and how close they were. Really, there aren't a ton of games played down the stretch whose results wouldn't matter.
Since I could write for literally days about what other teams could do to help and hurt ND, though, let's focus only on ND's task for purposes of the article.
OK, fine, I'll bite. Is there anyone we can't lose to and make the playoff?
There aren't many that would be automatic deal-breakers. Last year, the committee took an Ohio State team that lost at home to 6-6 Virginia Tech. It was unequivocally the worst loss of the three suffered by the Buckeyes, TCU (to Baylor in controversial fashion by 3 points), and Baylor (at 7-5 West Virginia by 14).
The point of going over that is, the committee was making a statement that who you lost to, in a list of factors to look at in choosing between one-loss teams, is pretty close to the least important one. With that in mind, I think ND could, in theory, lose to 7 teams on their schedule and still make the playoff if other things bounce their way. The 5 I think would be deal-breakers pretty much regardless of other factors are as follows, in chronological order.
UMass, Sept. 26 - This is obvious. You can't lose to a MAC team and make the playoff, even if they're a good one, and UMass shows no signs of being a good one. If ND loses this game, you might see ritualistic suicide pacts being executed throughout the country.
@ Temple, Oct. 31 - Same logic applies here, though Temple is obviously far better than UMass. It's really hard to overcome a loss to a Group of Five team in this format. There wouldn't be enough games left for ND to make back the ground they lost if they dropped this one.
Wake Forest, Nov. 14 - Wake Forest was bad the last few years, and they will be bad this year, playing one of the youngest teams in the country. No way the Irish could withstand a loss in this game. Like the previous two, though, any ND team that loses here isn't good enough to play an important postseason game anyway.
Boston College, Nov. 21 and @ Stanford, Nov. 28 - These games are on here not necessarily because a loss in either would be embarrassing (although a BC loss would be pretty awful), but because, regardless of what the committee might say about looking at the resume as a whole, I'll believe they won't keep someone out following a late loss when I see it. There were other factors, but I doubt it was a total coincidence that Ohio State, whose loss was earlier than TCU's or Baylor's, got in over the other two. It's impossible for me to see a scenario where an 11-0 ND loses to Stanford, its final data point for the committee, and gets in anyway, no matter how good Stanford is.
Wait, you're saying we could lose to Navy and get in? Or Virginia?
It's very unlikely, but I think Navy, unlike new American conference mate Temple, has garnered enough respect nationally that if they were good, and ND did its job against everyone else, that they could get in. And UVA is a very early game. Even if they don't turn out to be good — I doubt they will — there would be a lot of time to make up for it. Again, very unlikely, but possible.
If we have to lose a game, who would be the best team to lose to?
I don't know, but I'm going to say something that might be crazy — I don't think it's Clemson or USC (presuming both teams are what they ought to be this year). Like I said, the committee doesn't care who you lost to, unless it's embarrassing, or how, unless it's embarrassing. They want to know who you beat. So, ND would probably be better off beating Clemson and USC and losing to, say, Georgia Tech or Texas, than the reverse. Even if those teams aren't as good. TCU had BY FAR the best loss of any one-loss contender last year, and in retrospect, they never had a chance, because that loss came to another contender.
You saw a little of this firsthand last year, for that brief time between ND's loss to Florida State and when the wheels came off. The committee didn't care that ND had played a fantastic game and come within a disputed flag of a win in Tallahassee. It was about who they'd beaten, and to that point, the answer was 'no one all that great'. Hence, they were ranked lower than the other one-loss teams.
You said how ND got its wins would matter. What do you mean?
Jokes about 'game control' aside, the committee had a point when it talked about a team dominating opponents as being worth noting. TCU and Baylor both had multiple wins last year in which they allowed clearly inferior opponents to hang around. Ohio State had two such wins, but one of them was their opener with Navy — the first game with a new QB, and Navy has repeatedly done that to better teams, including Ohio State in 2009. That was excusable. Outside of that and the overtime game at Penn State, they blew out their lesser foes.
Those blowouts are signs a team can play with the big boys. They're also things ND generally doesn't do enough. In the last 3 seasons, ND's really only blown out 6 teams to the degree that Irish fans were relaxing somewhat early in the second half (2014 - Rice and Michigan, 2013 - Air Force, 2012 - Navy, Miami and Wake Forest). This issue predates Kelly, but it's one that could use fixing if ND is to have some margin for error. Right or wrong, blowouts impress people. Stepping on a few teams' throats when ND has the opportunity would go a long way in perception.
Any chance we get in at 10-2?
No. The only way a two-loss team is ever getting into a four-team playoff is through mass chaos elsewhere, and even then it would probably have to be a 2007 LSU situation, where they just barely lose both games in the best conference. I can say unequivocally that a two-loss team is never getting in without a 13th game. So if ND loses a game, it better be their last loss.
Well, alright. I guess the only question left is: Are we going to make it?
Whoa, whoa, man. It's only July. Pace yourself.