SOUTH BEND, Ind. — All the hand-wringing and Twitter rage over Notre Dame’s two-spot drop in the College Football Playoff rankings will be rendered pointless unless the Irish can beat No. 9 Stanford on Saturday in Palo Alto.
This is Notre Dame’s final shot at convincing the College Football Playoff selection committee it’s worthy of a spot in the second edition of the four-team tournament. After back-to-back unimpressive wins over Wake Forest and Boston College — which are a combined 6-16 — Notre Dame was sent behind No. 3 Oklahoma, No. 4 Iowa and No. 5 Michigan State in Tuesday’s rankings.
With Clemson and Alabama relatively safe bets to make the College Football Playoff — though we’ve seen stranger upsets in past seasons — and the Big Ten likely sending either Iowa or Michigan State, there’s only one spot up for grabs between Notre Dame and Oklahoma, which travels to Stillwater to play No. 11 Oklahoma State on Saturday.
“I think when you look at, from the start of the year to the end of the year, the kind of teams we've played, certainly Stanford is going to be a great test for us,” coach Brian Kelly said before Tuesday’s rankings were unveiled. “I think if you look at the teams across the board, we've played, from the start, in September, all the way through November, we've played a very good schedule.”
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Part of the problem for Notre Dame is what’s been out of its control — specifically, Texas and Georgia Tech failing to reach bowl eligibility and, to date, its two best wins being over AAC sides in Temple and Navy (which was blown out by Houston on Friday and will not play in next week’s AAC Championship Game).
For Notre Dame to cement its strength of schedule, it’ll have to find a way to either muffle Cardinal running back Christian McCaffrey or out-score an incredibly efficient Stanford offense.
McCaffrey has 1,546 yards on 260 carries this year to power Stanford’s offense to an average of 36.8 points per game. The only team to keep this offense under 30 points was Northwestern, and that was in Week 1.
The Cardinal are converting a shade under half of their third-down tries, and when running the ball on third/fourth down with two or fewer yards to go, Stanford picks up the necessary yardage 86 percent of the time (fourth in the FBS level).
“You definitely have to wrap up and rally to the ball,” defensive tackle Sheldon Day said when asked how to stop McCaffrey, “and definitely make sure you make him feel every hit, and hopefully by the fourth quarter he won’t want to play anymore.”
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But few teams have actually had success stopping McCaffrey — he’s had over 100 rushing yards in nine consecutive games. Notre Dame’s best bet, then, might be to try to keep him from racking up yards on kick returns.
Stanford’s average starting field position on offense is the 33.3-yard line, the 11th-highest average among FBS teams. McCaffrey is the impetus for that success, averaging 31.3 yards per kick return (third in FBS), so keeping the ball out of his hands on special teams will be key for Notre Dame.
“He breaks a lot of tackles,” safety and special teams ace Matthias Farley said. “What makes him a great kick returner and running back is he has great patience, great vision. He’s explosive and he sees the whole field.”
In all likelihood, McCaffrey is going to get his yards. So that means Notre Dame’s offense will have to forget back-to-back sluggish and sloppy showings and play like the group that last month hung 41 on both Navy and USC.
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But if Notre Dame is looking for style points, it might be looking in the wrong place. Each of the last three Notre Dame-Stanford games have been decided by no more than a touchdown, and the last time Stanford lost a home game by more than three points was against Oregon in 2011.
“A win is a win,” wide receiver Chris Brown said.
The College Football Playoff selection committee is unpredictable, and that might be Notre Dame’s most favorable outlook on its current predicament. A win over Stanford would put the Irish in position to either get bumped back up in the rankings or benefit from an upset. That’s all this team can ask for as it heads to Palo Alto on Saturday.
“We can’t really do anything right now,” Day said. “All we can do is try to get a win against Stanford and, I guess, hopefully the committee changes their mind.”