The latest College Football Playoff rankings aren’t necessarily a death knell for Notre Dame’s hopes of being tabbed for the four-team bracket Dec. 5. But, in all likelihood, the now-No. 6 Irish will not only need to beat No. 9 Stanford, but they’ll also need to get some help.
After two weeks of being described by selection committee chairman Jeff Long as “solidly” No. 4, Notre Dame slipped two spots while Oklahoma rocketed up four spots to No. 3. With the Sooners traveling to Stillwater to face No. 11 Oklahoma State on Saturday, if Notre Dame and Oklahoma both win this weekend, Oklahoma likely will get in no matter how good or bad either team looks in their respective game.
As it turns out, Oklahoma’s loss to Texas — a team Notre Dame beat by five touchdowns in its season opener — wasn’t a deterrent to ranking the Sooners ahead of the Irish.
“I think it's more a function of how Oklahoma has performed since that loss,” Long said. “They have performed at a high level since then, so they've overcome that loss with their play on the field and the success they've had and the wins they've accumulated, with now six wins over teams with .500 or better records. So it's more a function of how they've played and performed that has moved them past that loss to Texas.”
And here’s another problem for Notre Dame: If Oklahoma beats Oklahoma State to win the Big 12 on Saturday, the committee would have to view the Irish as a significantly better team to put them ahead of the Sooners.
“It's clearly different,” Long said when asked about ranking an independent and a conference champion when all things are equal. “They're clearly ahead or they're clearly better than the team they're up against.”
If your question is why Oklahoma was able to significantly jump Notre Dame when it only beat TCU by one over the weekend (it needed a last-minute stop on a two-point conversion to hang on), Long said the way the Sooners played before quarterback Baker Mayfield and running backs Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine (Perine returned, Mixon didn’t) left the game with a suspected head injury carried more weight than how Oklahoma played after that point.
“I think when the quarterback went out, and I think later the running back went out, as well, they were solidly in control of that game in the committee's view,” Long said. “And yes, they held on to win that game against a ranked opponent, but certainly we evaluate that game based on the quarterback being out in the second half, and we believe that had an impact.”
[SHOP: Gear up, Notre Dame fans!]
So that’s the committee’s line of thinking on Oklahoma. Notre Dame isn’t changing it, no matter how well coach Brian Kelly campaigns for his team’s strength of schedule or how angry fans get. Maybe the committee changes its mind after this weekend — it’s not like that didn’t happen last year, when Ohio State went from No. 6 to No. 4 in the final rankings — but most likely, the upshot of Tuesday’s rankings is that Notre Dame needs some help.
The first chance of that would be with some Big 12 chaos. An Oklahoma State win over Oklahoma would solve plenty of problems, as would TCU knocking Baylor out on Friday. Notre Dame almost certainly would be in the playoff over an 11-1 Oklahoma State side, even if the Cowboys are conference champions. Baylor would be trickier, given its Dec. 5 game against Texas and status as conference champion if it wins out and Oklahoma loses.
Another plausible scenario involved some chaos in the Big Ten. If Michigan State loses to Penn State, the winner of the Ohio State-Michigan game will go to the Big Ten Championship. If it’s Ohio State, the winner of the Big Ten title game still gets in; if it’s Michigan and the two-loss Wolverines beat Iowa, the Big Ten probably would be shut out of the playoff.
Less likely is Alabama losing to Auburn this weekend — the game is at Auburn, but Gus Malzahn’s Tigers haven’t shown anything that would indicate they’ll put up a legitimate fight on Saturday. If Alabama does succumb to a massive upset, and Ole Miss beats Mississippi State, the two-loss Rebels would play Florida (which has a tough game against Florida State this weekend) in the SEC Championship. It’s unlikely the SEC will be shut out of the playoff, though if it has a two-loss champion it’d create an interesting conundrum that could benefit Notre Dame.
And then there’s the chance North Carolina upsets Clemson in the ACC Championship Dec. 5. It’s unclear what the committee would do if its undefeated No. 1 team lost in the season’s final week, but there’s the possibility Notre Dame gets in over Clemson even despite its Oct. 3 loss in Death Valley.
All of these scenarios, of course, only matter in South Bend if Notre Dame beats Stanford on Saturday. But for that win to count in the College Football Playoff race, Notre Dame will need some help in Fort Worth, Stillwater, East Lansing, and Ann Arbor.