For the second consecutive week, College Football Playoff selection committee chairman Jeff Long described Notre Dame as “solidly” the No. 4 team in the country.
Notre Dame, for now, isn’t challenged for that fourth and final playoff spot by No. 5 Iowa, No. 6 Oklahoma State or No. 7 Oklahoma. Clemson, which Notre Dame lost to by two points in South Carolina last month, remained the No. 1 team; Notre Dame’s final opponent, Stanford, only dropped from No. 7 to No. 11 after losing to Oregon over the weekend.
And while Temple dropped out of the top 25 after getting blown out by South Florida, USC — which Notre Dame beat by 10 in October — debuted at No. 24. Navy moved up four spots to No. 16, rounding out Notre Dame's strong surface-level resume.
But will that resume hold up as the top Big 12 teams — specifically, Oklahoma — improve their strength of schedule over these final two weeks?
Oklahoma finishes its season at home against No. 18 TCU and at No. 6 Oklahoma State, giving it a shot at earning two wins over current top-25 teams. At the least, TCU will have nine wins, and Oklahoma State already has 10 wins and is solidly a top-25 team even if it loses to Baylor and Oklahoma.
The Sooners are probably the biggest threat to Notre Dame out of the Big 12, by virtue of being the only playoff contender from that conference to play a legitimate non-conference opponent. Oklahoma rolled into Knoxville and beat Tennessee — which is 6-4 with Mizzou and Vanderbilt left — in Week 2, while Baylor and Oklahoma State played bottom-feeding FBS/FCS schools.
Stanford being ranked 11th — the highest ranking for a two-loss team — was good news for Notre Dame. As long as the Cardinal beat Cal in the Big Game this weekend, they’ll welcome Notre Dame to Palo Alto with a strong ranking. A win Saturday also guarantees Stanford a spot in the Pac-12 title game a week after playing Notre Dame (in which they would play USC if the Trojans win out against Oregon and UCLA).
Another bit of good news for Notre Dame is Oklahoma also doesn’t play the weekend of Dec. 5 — the only Big 12 team in playoff contention that does is Baylor, which faces Texas — so there won’t be an opportunity for the Sooners to impress the committee on a weekend in which the Irish are off.
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And, perhaps most importantly, that season-opening 38-3 drubbing of Texas becomes a point in Notre Dame’s favor against Oklahoma given the Sooners’ only loss to date was an embarrassing defeat to the Longhorns in the Red River Rivalry last month. That common-opponent discrepancy "absolutely" will not be overlooked by the committee, Long said.
"There's a number of (factors) that we look at," Long said, in comparing the Irish and Sooners. "But certainly we're aware ... (of) the Notre Dame win and the Oklahoma loss.
"... Certainly we're aware of that loss. It factors into the rankings of Oklahoma and will continue to be part of their résumé. It doesn't go away."
But Oklahoma has the stronger schedule down the stretch, beginning with its 10-point win over Baylor last weekend. Even though Notre Dame is solidly No. 4, Long did tease the Big 12 still having some massive games upcoming that could change the rankings.
Plus, if Oklahoma State goes undefeated — it gets Baylor and Oklahoma in Stillwater — this is a moot point. The selection committee almost certainly won’t put 11-1 Notre Dame over 12-0 Oklahoma State, not with the Cowboys having wins over TCU, Baylor and Oklahoma in three of the season’s final four weeks.
The clearest path for Notre Dame to the College Football Playoff, then, continues to run through Ann Arbor. If Ohio State beats Michigan State this weekend, then Michigan beats Ohio State and wins the Big Ten Championship game over Iowa, the two-loss Wolverines will win that conference. And a two-loss team isn’t getting in over one-loss Notre Dame.
North Carolina could still cause some chaos by beating Clemson in the ACC Championship, or a sub-optimal Auburn side could upset bitter rival Alabama in the Iron Bowl. Or the Big 12 could collapse on itself, like if Baylor beats Oklahoma State, and then Oklahoma State beats Oklahoma in that annual Bedlam rivalry game.
What’s clear is if Notre Dame wants to comfortably enter the College Football Playoff, it’ll need some help. Even if the selection committee isn’t hinting at it right now.