SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Three years ago, Notre Dame faced a situation similar to the one currently ahead of it: Heading into its senior day game against Wake Forest, it needed some help to get into the BCS Championship.
A few hours after stomping the Demon Deacons, 38-0, players and coaches watched as No. 1 Kansas State was throttled by Baylor, 52-24. Then, late into the night, Stanford kicker Jordan Williamson’s 37-yard field goal dealt No. 2 Oregon its first loss of the season.
When the BCS rankings were unveiled after that chaotic weekend, Notre Dame was No. 1 and controlled its own destiny.
“We were lucky, we were fortunate that year that pieces fell in the correct manner,” graduate student linebacker Jarrett Grace said. “But at the same time, if we didn’t handle (our) business, none of that would’ve been possible.”
So No. 4 Notre Dame heads into this year’s senior day game against Wake Forest with a familiar mantra to only focus on what it can control. There’s no need to worry about if Baylor will finish the year with a better resume, or if — in a cruel, ironic twist for fans — rooting for Michigan will become a necessity. That stuff usually takes care of itself.
What matters for Notre Dame is beating Wake Forest on Saturday, then beating Boston College at Fenway Park next week, then beating a probable top-10 Stanford team in Palo Alto to finish the season 11-1.
“There’s going to be teams out there, they’ll fall apart at the end of the year,” Grace said. “Whatever it may be, a lot of times they’ll get consumed with so much going on and they’ll lose focus on their own objective. For us, that’s beating Wake Forest on Saturday. We just have to be the best team in the stadium we’re playing in on that day. It doesn’t matter about anything else.”
Wake Forest, by just about every account, shouldn't present much of a challenge. Dave Clawson’s Demon Deacons are 3-6, with those wins coming over Elon, Army, Boston College — the latter of which was by a final score of 3-0. Football Outsiders’ F/+ ranks Wake Forest 93rd, which is the sixth-lowest ranking among Power Five programs. SB Nation’s Bill Connelly gives Notre Dame a 96 percent chance of winning on Saturday, with a projected score of about 44-14.
Still, in a November playoff race, Notre Dame isn’t viewing the Demon Deacons as an easy hurdle to clear with an eye trained on that season-ending trip to the Bay Area.
“Our focus is all on Wake Forest, and that's the only game that matters right now,” graduate student linebacker and captain Joe Schmidt said. “So the rest of the conversation, it really is just conversation for people that want to talk about it.”
[SHOP: Get your Notre Dame gear]
But before, during and after Notre Dame plays Wake Forest, there could be seismic changes to the College Football Playoff landscape. Maybe Illinois gives Ohio State a game in Champaign (probably not, though). Maybe a stronger-than-expected Mississippi State side — ranked No. 17 — upsets No. 2 Alabama. Maybe Iowa State reprises its role of ruining Oklahoma State’s season in Ames, as it did in 2011. Maybe Oklahoma muddles the Big 12 race by beating Baylor in Waco. Or maybe there’s an off-the-radar loss coming that throws everything into chaos.
Notre Dame needs to stay above the fray, with no margin for error against a pair of sub-.500 ACC teams.
“Things happen in crazy ways,” safety Elijah Shumate said. “With the Clemson loss, we always knew like, alright, we’re going to come back from that and use that loss as motivation. But when things just started taking place, it allowed us to move back up in the rankings, we were like wow, we’re about to have this opportunity to show the world that we were not supposed to lose that game.”