Notre Dame

Oklahoma, Michigan and evaluating Notre Dame's playoff hopes


Oklahoma, Michigan and evaluating Notre Dame's playoff hopes

Notre Dame stayed above the fray on Saturday, beating Wake Forest on a day that saw the nation’s No. 6, No. 7, No. 9 and No. 10 teams all lose.

Regardless of how the Irish actually played, they beat the Demon Deacons by 21, more than by which Clemson, Iowa and Oklahoma State combined to beat their unranked, under-.500 opponents (Syracuse, Minnesota, Iowa State).

That’s the good news. But some of Saturday’s scores definitely could wind up hurting Notre Dame’s playoff push, starting with the night's biggest result from the state of Texas:

No. 12 Oklahoma 44, No. 6 Baylor 34

The prevailing thought after the College Football Playoff selection committee harshly ranked Big 12 teams over the last two weeks was that an 11-1 champion from that conference — which does not play a championship game — could very well be ranked behind Notre Dame on Dec. 6. But Oklahoma’s thoroughly impressive 10-point win in Waco could set up the Sooners to eventually surpass Notre Dame in the playoff rankings.

[MORE: Sloppy Notre Dame will take comfortable win over Wake Forest]

The first point to get out of the way: Notre Dame beat Texas, 38-3, at home to open the season; Oklahoma’s only loss was an embarrassing 24-17 defeat to the Longhorns at the Cotton Bowl last month. The committee may take that common opponent disparity under consideration.

But the selection committee could look at Oklahoma’s overall resume as stronger than Notre Dame’s. Unlike Baylor and Oklahoma State, Oklahoma didn’t play an FCS opponent in its non-conference schedule and, more importantly, rolled into Knoxville and beat Tennessee, 31-24, in Week 2. Tennessee is 6-4 with Mizzou and Vanderbilt left, so they’ll almost certainly finish the season over .500, meaning the committee will look at that win favorably.

And if Oklahoma wins out, it’ll have road wins at Baylor and Oklahoma State, plus a home win over TCU. At least one of Texas Tech and West Virginia probably will finish the season over .500, too. So that's at least two wins over ranked opponents (TCU could be the third), plus three other wins over solid teams. Notre Dame, in its best-case scenario, finishes the year with two or three wins over ranked opponents (Navy, Stanford, USC) plus wins over Pitt and Temple. There wouldn't be much separating those two resumes besides 1) the common opponent and 2) Oklahoma being crowned a conference champion. We'll see what plays out.

An 11-1 Baylor or 11-1 Oklahoma State, even as a conference champion, probably doesn’t get in the playoff over Notre Dame. But there’s a certain possibility an 11-1 Oklahoma side does.

Oregon 38, No. 7 Stanford 36

Stanford’s furious comeback fell a two-point conversion attempt short, and coupled with Utah’s loss to Arizona, effectively eliminated the Pac-12 from the College Football Playoff.

If Notre Dame indeed does beat Stanford Nov. 28, it’ll be a win over a team that’ll probably still be in the top 15 at the time. But part of Notre Dame’s playoff hopes rested on beating a top-10 Stanford team at the end of the season, which now won’t be the case.

[MORE: DeShone Kizer takes the next step toward being a championship QB]

The best-case scenario for Notre Dame is not only does it beat Stanford, but it clobbers the Cardinal — maybe not the same way Ohio State throttled Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship last year, but similar — in an impressive manner. That result would still be a major boost to Notre Dame’s resume, even though Stanford will get dinged for this loss to the Ducks.

South Florida 44, No. 22 Temple 23

Notre Dame’s best-case AAC scenario went up in flames with Temple’s blowout loss in Tampa, as the Owls won’t roll into their conference championship game with just that one loss to Notre Dame (if they make it there at all). Losing to South Florida would’ve knocked Temple out of the top 25 anyway, but a 21-point defeat for a team supposedly built around a strong defense is an awkward way to go out.

Temple now needs to beat both Memphis and UConn to win the AAC East, a tough task for a team that before this weekend looked like one of the better stories in college football this season.

The best outcome for Notre Dame remains having Navy win out — which means having the Mids beat 10-0 Houston on the road a day after Thanksgiving — and earn a New Year’s Six bowl bid (or at least a placeholder, since if Navy wins the AAC, it still has to play Army Dec. 12 to secure a spot in one of those prestigious games).

USC 27, Colorado 24

Under the radar of the west coast’s chaotic weekend is USC, which emerged from a Friday night win at Colorado in control of its own destiny in the Pac-12 South. The Trojans, by virtue of their win over Utah, could win out and play Stanford in the Pac-12 Championship and guarantee Notre Dame a win over a conference champion.

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The problem for USC: Separating them from a berth in the Pac-12 Championship is a trip to Oregon and a home date against UCLA (which lost to Washington State over the weekend, too). If the Trojans win those two games, they’ll very much have earned a spot in the Pac-12 title game — and probably a top-25 ranking from the selection committee, too.

Arkansas 31, No. 9 LSU 14

This game eliminated any slim possibility the SEC earned two bids to the College Football Playoff. Alabama and Florida remain on a collision course, unless Ole Miss wins out and Auburn pulls another kick-six miracle out of the Iron Bowl. Given Alabama is playing like the best team in the country at the moment — a 31-6 stomping of Mississippi State in Starkville was last weekend’s most impressive win — that doesn’t seem likely.

No. 14 Michigan 48, Indiana 41 (2OT)

Michigan’s miraculous overtime win over Indiana matters because it keeps Notre Dame’s best-case Big Ten scenario in play, which is two-loss Michigan winning the conference championship.

[MORE: Josh Adams credits Notre Dame’s O-line for record-breaking run]

Michigan still has a trip to Penn State next weekend before it welcomes Ohio State to Ann Arbor Nov. 28. If Ohio State beats Michigan State this weekend, and then Jim Harbaugh beats Urban Meyer, it’ll send the Wolverines to the Big Ten Championship to almost certainly face undefeated or one-loss Iowa (which has Purdue and a trip to Nebraska left).

And if two-loss Michigan wins the Big Ten Championship, it won’t matter if 11-1 Oklahoma has a better playoff resume than 11-1 Notre Dame. Both teams will get in the playoff without any heartburn or elevated blood pressure (unless there's some associated stress for Notre Dame fans having to root for Michigan down the stretch).

Is Brian Kelly out at Notre Dame if new QB Brandon Wimbush’s rocket arm doesn’t deliver for Irish in 2017?

Is Brian Kelly out at Notre Dame if new QB Brandon Wimbush’s rocket arm doesn’t deliver for Irish in 2017?

A 4-8 season in 2016 has put Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly firmly on the hot seat as he heads into his eighth season with the Fighting Irish.

In response to a tumultuous season, Kelly made major changes to his staff this past offseason by hiring new coordinators on both sides of the ball.

Mike Elko, who previously led Wake Forest to an FBS Top-40 total defense ranking, was hired by Kelly to be Notre Dame's defensive coordinator, and Chip Long — former offensive coordinator at Memphis — will now be in charge of the Fighting Irish offense.

However, the biggest change and arguably the No. 1 factor in Kelly's long-term future in South Bend, will be the person under center in 2017.

Barring an unforeseen circumstance, junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush — a former Rivals four-star recruit — will lead Notre Dame out of the tunnel in Week 1 vs. Temple.

Wimbush has only thrown five passes during his time at Notre Dame, but showed what kind of talent he has with a 58-yard rushing touchdown as a freshman in 2015.

Wimbush was one of the focal points of a recent Rivals story regarding quarterbacks who will be facing pressure in 2017

Earlier this week, Rivals Recruiting Director Mike Farrell gave his scouting report on the Notre Dame quarterback.

I’m a big fan of Wimbush but that hasn’t always been the case. It’s not that I didn’t like him when I first scouted him before his high school career took off, but what I saw way back when was a kid who had a rocket arm and zero touch. But throughout his high school career he improved every time I saw him, showed much more than just a strong arm and flashed impressive poise for his age.

I’ve seen very limited action when it comes to Wimbush in college as he hasn’t played often and his spring game performance had ups and downs, but I believe in this kid’s ability. He can extend the play, has that great arm and just needs to get comfortable in the Notre Dame offense and make sure he doesn’t try to use that cannon to fit the ball into tight spots. I can see him having some growing pains this season, but as he gets more comfortable and learns to take what the defense gives him while keeping defenses off balance with his athletic ability, I think he’ll finish strong.

Will Wimbush's rocket arm be enough to save Kelly from the hot seat?

That's still to be determined.

Two views of Notre Dame's 2017 signing day class

Two views of Notre Dame's 2017 signing day class

After a handful of late additions sent in their national letters of intent to the Guglielmino Athletics Complex, Notre Dame on Wednesday announced its 21-player recruiting class of 2017. There are a couple of ways to view the end of what was a volatile recruiting period for the Irish:

The glass-half-full take:

Two and a half months after wrapping up an embarrassing 4-8 season, Notre Dame's 2017 recruiting class ranks 11th by 247 Sports, 13th by Rivals, 13th by Scout and 16th by ESPN. In fact, Notre Dame actually ranks higher this year in 247 Sports' composite rankings (11th) than it did in 2016 (15th), when the Irish were coming off a 10-win season and a Fiesta Bowl berth. 

Nearly scraping together a top-10 class after going 4-8 and losing four assistant coaches in Mike Sanford, Mike Denbrock, Scott Booker and Keith Gilmore is an impressive feat (Greg Hudson was only an interim defensive coordinator, and Brian VanGorder was far from a reliable recruiter). Plenty of kudos should be extended the way of recruiting coordinator/defensive line coach Mike Elston for heading up the program's efforts to keep what began as a pretty strong class from disintegrating. 

Additionally, coach Brian Kelly pointed to the work of the 15 verbally-committed players who stuck with their pledges even as Notre Dame sustained a string of confounding losses and significant coaching turnover. 

"We couldn't be where we are today unless we had 15 student-athletes that were committed to Notre Dame from the start to the finish," Kelly said. "Really during a very difficult season, this group of 15 really had to endure the things that would occur out there in recruiting during a very difficult season. Other schools reminding them about a very difficult season that we had. Then there was them sticking together because of why they wanted to come to Notre Dame."

Five of those players enrolled early — tight end Brock Wright, offensive linemen Robert Gainsay and Aaron Banks, running back C.J. Holmes and safety Isaiah Robertson, all of whom 247 sports rated as four-star recruits — and guys like tight end Cole Kmet, quarterback Avery Davis and offensive linemen Joshua Lugg never wavered, too. 

That those players stuck together helped Notre Dame maintain a good base after the NCAA-mandated dead period lifted after the College Football Playoff title game last month, and new coaches Brian Polian, Mike Elko, Clark Lea, Chip Long and DelVaughn Alexander were able to bring in six late additions to the class: safety Jordan Genmark Heath, wide receiver Jafar Armstrong, kicker Jonathan Doerer, defensive lineman Myron Tagovailoa, linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah and defensive lineman Kofi Wardlow. 

Armstrong, Tagovailoa and Wardlow all filled red-line positions of need, while adding more players to increase the pool of talent available to Elko is hardly a bad thing. 

But the optimistic viewpoint here is the deck was stacked against Notre Dame in recruiting, and they actually turned out a pretty good hand thanks to a complete effort from everyone in the athletic department. 

"Every weekend, Jack Swarbrick, our athletic director, met with our recruits," Kelly said. "That's unusual. I don't think that happens everywhere that your athletic director makes himself able to meet with recruits.

"In a lot of instances he had to be there to support our football program and talk to recruits about where this program is and where it's going. There are questions when a family comes on campus. He reminded them about the investment we were making in staff and what we were doing for the present and for the future. So having Jack's involvement in this was absolutely crucial to get to where we are."

Now, for the glass-half-empty take:

Notre Dame had six players decommit, five of whom were at positions of need (defensive line, cornerback, wide receiver). Only four-star defensive end Robert Beal jumped ship before Notre Dame's fall tailspin was underway, and four of those six decommitting players were four-star recruits. 

Notre Dame wound up replacing them with six late commitments, but five of those late-deciding players were three-star recruits and one (Doerner) was a two-star player. That's a good recipe for slipping from having a top-10 class to one on the outside looking in. 

A common lament among fans is that Notre Dame has struggled to sign five-star recruits lately, and while it's true the Irish haven't done that since 2013 — Jaylon Smith and Max Redfield, as rated by 247 Sports — that's not as big an issue as it may seem. Just look at the disparity in college success between Smith and Redfield as a front-and-center example of how a five-star rating doesn't guarantee success in college. Signing more four/five-star recruits than two/three-star ones is far more important (more on that in a bit). 

But the bigger issue with Notre Dame's 2017 class perhaps has more to do with its 2016 class. Notre Dame lost ace recruiters Tony Alford and Kerry Cooks after the 2014 season and re-worked its entire recruiting operation in response, which led to little oomph in a 2016 class that, based on the prior season, should've been much better than it was. 

Last year's group could ultimately build a legacy as a less-heralded crop of recruits that went on to success — the strong debuts of 247 Sports three-stars in cornerback Julian Love and wide receiver Kevin Stepherson were good starts — but there's a long way to go there. 

If 2016 was supposed to be a more transitional recruiting class, though, then 2017 represents a massive missed opportunity. Going 4-8 with all the right recruiting machinations in place is a glaring shortcoming for the future of the program — even a nine-win season could've allowed Notre Dame to hang on to some of those four-star players it lost and earn a top-10 class ranking. 

More importantly than a top-10 class, though, is pulling in more four- and five-star recruits than two and-three star ones. Notre Dame didn't do that in 2017 (10 four-star recruits out of 21) or 2016 (10 four-star recruits out of 23) after hitting that benchmark each of the last three recruiting cycles. That's a worrying trend given the correlation between signing a majority of four- and five-star recruits and winning a championship

The last two recruiting cycles have been, in that context, significant disappointment. While strong classes in 2014 and 2015 could prop up a playoff run as soon as this fall, the future of the program may not be on solid footing even if the Irish engineer a major turnaround in 2017. Next year's class likely will be critical to the long-term success of the program under Kelly, presuming he's still around to usher in the next group of recruits in February of 2018.