With one week left in the regular season, a handful of teams control their playoff destiny. Notre Dame is not one of them.
Clemson and Alabama are in the College Football Playoff if they win out. So is either Iowa or Michigan State, even though the Spartans began the week No. 9 before upsetting Ohio State in Columbus. The only way the Big Ten isn’t getting a team in the playoff, it would appear, is if Penn State chaotically beats Michigan State this weekend and two-loss Michigan knocks off Ohio State, then beats Iowa in the Big Ten Championship.
So the teams in the playoff race that don’t control their destiny: Notre Dame, Oklahoma and Baylor.
Notre Dame’s 19-16 win over 3-8 Boston College left plenty to chance. Had the Irish punched the ball in the end zone two more times instead of turning the ball over five times — three of which came within the Boston College 10-yard line — the margin of victory at Fenway Park would’ve been 16 or 17 points, right in line with Clemson’s against the Eagles earlier this season.
In the Big 12, No. 7 Oklahoma held off No. 18 TCU’s late charge to win, 30-29, in Norman. The Horned Frogs, without star quarterback Trevone Boykin or wide receiver Josh Doctson, went for two with just under a minute left but failed to convert what would’ve been a go-ahead conversion. Concerning to the Sooners is the status of quarterback Baker Mayfield, who left Saturday’s game after taking a shot to the head in the first half. Trevor Knight, the quarterback who led Oklahoma to a Sugar Bowl win over Alabama but hasn't been the same since getting a College Gameday shout-out from Katy Perry, subbed in and completed five of 16 passes to allow TCU to make its comeback.
Down the road in Stillwater, No. 10 Baylor dealt No. 6 Oklahoma State its only loss of the season, 45-35, to stay alive in the Big 12 and playoff race. That result is a good outcome for Notre Dame, given it probably eliminates Oklahoma State from the playoff discussion even if the Cowboys beat Oklahoma and finish 11-1.
And that’s the result Notre Dame will want in Bedlam this weekend — Oklahoma State’s feeble non-conference schedule and consistently unimpressive road showings make it an unlikely candidate to jump the Irish in the playoff rankings. If Oklahoma State beats Oklahoma on Saturday, it’ll mean Baylor would only have to beat a depleted TCU and a downtrodden Texas to win the Big 12.
The worry for Notre Dame still surrounds Oklahoma. Yes, they lost to Texas, a team Notre Dame throttled by 35. But selection committee chairman Jeff Long has teased the Big 12’s impressive strength of schedule down the stretch as potentially altering the rankings, and the Sooners did roll into Knoxville in non-conference play and beat a Tennessee team that’ll finish 8-4 if it beats Vanderbilt this weekend.
Plus, if Oklahoma is the clear-cut Big 12 champion, that could negate Notre Dame’s common opponent advantage. That common opponent vs. conference champion vs. strong finish question is a precedent that has not been set by the committee in only Year 2 of the playoff.
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It’d be in Notre Dame’s best interests if Baylor were to lose one of its final two games, too. The Bears head to Fort Worth to face TCU the day after Thanksgiving, then welcome Texas to Waco Dec. 5. While beating Texas may not count for much, Art Briles could try to run up the score and convince the selection committee his team deserves that last playoff spot over an idle Notre Dame that day (though Baylor’s only a playoff threat if Oklahoma loses to Oklahoma State).
And of course, it’s worth the reminder that none of this matters if Notre Dame doesn’t beat Stanford — which polished off Cal, 35-22, Saturday — in Palo Alto this weekend. Beating a Cardinal team likely to be in the top 10 when Tuesday’s rankings come out would be a nice boost for Notre Dame, especially if Stanford goes on to win the Pac-12 Championship.
USC, even though it lost to Oregon on Saturday, would play Stanford in the Pac-12 title game if it beats UCLA this weekend. That’s a best-case scenario for Notre Dame, as is Navy beating Houston (which was upset by Bob Diaco’s UConn Huskies over the weekend) and playing Temple, which clinched the AAC East with a win over Memphis, in the AAC Championship. Maybe Notre Dame can fend off the Big 12 by holding scalps of two conference champions.
There still are some opportunities for unexpected chaos this weekend, too, with plenty of rivalry games looming. A sputtering Auburn welcomes Alabama to Jordan-Hare Stadium for the Iron Bowl — and beating the Tide would absolutely make the Tigers’ season. Clemson faces a dilapidated South Carolina side that shouldn’t, on paper, give it any trouble. That Iowa-Nebraska game in Lincoln could be tricky as the pressure mounts for Kirk Ferentz’s side.
But Notre Dame will likely need help over the next two weeks to make the playoff, whether it’s from an upset, a strength of schedule boost or the committee unfavorably viewing the Big 12.