At No. 4 in the College Football Playoff rankings, Notre Dame controls its own destiny in the College Football Playoff race, at least to an extent.
The Irish can beat Wake Forest and Boston College, two sub-.500 ACC programs that won’t count for much in the selection committee’s eyes, to set up a season-ending showdown against a Stanford side that checked in at No. 7 in Tuesday night’s rankings. An 11-1 Notre Dame team probably wouldn’t be left out of the four-team playoff — emphasis on probably.
Notre Dame was “solidly in at No. 4 with the committee this week,” chairman Jeff Long said. But Long also said this:
“Given how many games remain, how many conferences still have their toughest competition ahead, combined with the results of games played to date, we will continue to see teams move up, or down, by quite a bit week to week.”
As things currently stand, the committee doesn’t view the Big 12 as a strong conference. Undefeated Oklahoma State moved up from No. 14 to No. 8 in this week’s rankings after beating TCU, which dropped from No. 8 to No. 15, by 20 in Stillwater. Baylor remained at No. 6, while Oklahoma sits at No. 12.
Of those four top-15 Big 12 teams, only Oklahoma State has played TCU. The Pokes still get Baylor and Oklahoma at home to end the season; Baylor plays Oklahoma this weekend and travels to TCU a day after Thanksgiving (and also plays Texas Dec. 5).
“It makes it difficult for the committee because we look at who they've played and how they've performed in their games, and Baylor in particular doesn't have a win over a team with a winning record yet,” Long said. “They're going to get an opportunity to show us.
“But we still feel like they're a strong team. That's kind of why they held their place. But it's very difficult to move them up until they've played some teams with some strength. And again, as you point out, they've got three straight games against strong teams, so we'll have a clearer picture on Baylor in the future.”
But it appears unlikely a one-loss Big 12 team gets into the playoff, especially over an 11-1 Notre Dame team. There’s no conference championship game in the Big 12, and Oklahoma State doesn’t play a Dec. 5 game that could — as it did last year with Ohio State — vault it over an idle Notre Dame.
If a Big 12 team finishes undefeated, though, it’ll get in the playoff. No. 1 Clemson looks like a lock to get in, as does the SEC champ (Alabama, Florida and LSU, no matter the latter two’s No. 9 and No. 11 ranking, are still in that mix).
The doomsday scenario for Notre Dame is Baylor or Oklahoma State go undefeated, as does the Big Ten champion, whether it’s current No. 3 Ohio State or No. 5 Iowa. But that’s unlikely, since it’d require three undefeated Power Five teams (Clemson as the third), which college football history shows is improbable.
If there’s a best-case scenario for Notre Dame, it’s 1) Stanford winning its final two conference games, then winning the Pac-12 championship game and 2) Michigan beating Ohio State, then defeating Iowa in the Big Ten Championship. That would mean two Power Five conference champions would have two losses, effectively ruling the Pac-12 and Big Ten out of the playoff picture and opening the door for 11-1 Notre Dame no matter what the Big 12 does.
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So it’s not a guarantee that Notre Dame would make the College Football Playoff at 11-1, but in all likelihood, the Irish will head to north Texas or south Florida with wins over Wake Forest, Boston College and Stanford.
“Right now (we’re) in that process, it's kind of like being on the treadmill where you just kind of just keep your eyes in front of you,” coach Brian Kelly said, “and you just keep moving forward and moving forward to the next challenge in front of us. And that challenge is Wake Forest.”