Notre Dame

What’s the best-case scenario for Notre Dame’s playoff hopes?


What’s the best-case scenario for Notre Dame’s playoff hopes?

With one week left in the regular season, a handful of teams control their playoff destiny. Notre Dame is not one of them.

Clemson and Alabama are in the College Football Playoff if they win out. So is either Iowa or Michigan State, even though the Spartans began the week No. 9 before upsetting Ohio State in Columbus. The only way the Big Ten isn’t getting a team in the playoff, it would appear, is if Penn State chaotically beats Michigan State this weekend and two-loss Michigan knocks off Ohio State, then beats Iowa in the Big Ten Championship.

So the teams in the playoff race that don’t control their destiny: Notre Dame, Oklahoma and Baylor.

Notre Dame’s 19-16 win over 3-8 Boston College left plenty to chance. Had the Irish punched the ball in the end zone two more times instead of turning the ball over five times — three of which came within the Boston College 10-yard line — the margin of victory at Fenway Park would’ve been 16 or 17 points, right in line with Clemson’s against the Eagles earlier this season.

[MORE: Notre Dame leaving plenty to chance after ugly win over BC]

In the Big 12, No. 7 Oklahoma held off No. 18 TCU’s late charge to win, 30-29, in Norman. The Horned Frogs, without star quarterback Trevone Boykin or wide receiver Josh Doctson, went for two with just under a minute left but failed to convert what would’ve been a go-ahead conversion. Concerning to the Sooners is the status of quarterback Baker Mayfield, who left Saturday’s game after taking a shot to the head in the first half. Trevor Knight, the quarterback who led Oklahoma to a Sugar Bowl win over Alabama but hasn't been the same since getting a College Gameday shout-out from Katy Perry, subbed in and completed five of 16 passes to allow TCU to make its comeback.

Down the road in Stillwater, No. 10 Baylor dealt No. 6 Oklahoma State its only loss of the season, 45-35, to stay alive in the Big 12 and playoff race. That result is a good outcome for Notre Dame, given it probably eliminates Oklahoma State from the playoff discussion even if the Cowboys beat Oklahoma and finish 11-1.

And that’s the result Notre Dame will want in Bedlam this weekend — Oklahoma State’s feeble non-conference schedule and consistently unimpressive road showings make it an unlikely candidate to jump the Irish in the playoff rankings. If Oklahoma State beats Oklahoma on Saturday, it’ll mean Baylor would only have to beat a depleted TCU and a downtrodden Texas to win the Big 12.

The worry for Notre Dame still surrounds Oklahoma. Yes, they lost to Texas, a team Notre Dame throttled by 35. But selection committee chairman Jeff Long has teased the Big 12’s impressive strength of schedule down the stretch as potentially altering the rankings, and the Sooners did roll into Knoxville in non-conference play and beat a Tennessee team that’ll finish 8-4 if it beats Vanderbilt this weekend.

Plus, if Oklahoma is the clear-cut Big 12 champion, that could negate Notre Dame’s common opponent advantage. That common opponent vs. conference champion vs. strong finish question is a precedent that has not been set by the committee in only Year 2 of the playoff.

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It’d be in Notre Dame’s best interests if Baylor were to lose one of its final two games, too. The Bears head to Fort Worth to face TCU the day after Thanksgiving, then welcome Texas to Waco Dec. 5. While beating Texas may not count for much, Art Briles could try to run up the score and convince the selection committee his team deserves that last playoff spot over an idle Notre Dame that day (though Baylor’s only a playoff threat if Oklahoma loses to Oklahoma State).

And of course, it’s worth the reminder that none of this matters if Notre Dame doesn’t beat Stanford — which polished off Cal, 35-22, Saturday — in Palo Alto this weekend. Beating a Cardinal team likely to be in the top 10 when Tuesday’s rankings come out would be a nice boost for Notre Dame, especially if Stanford goes on to win the Pac-12 Championship.

USC, even though it lost to Oregon on Saturday, would play Stanford in the Pac-12 title game if it beats UCLA this weekend. That’s a best-case scenario for Notre Dame, as is Navy beating Houston (which was upset by Bob Diaco’s UConn Huskies over the weekend) and playing Temple, which clinched the AAC East with a win over Memphis, in the AAC Championship. Maybe Notre Dame can fend off the Big 12 by holding scalps of two conference champions.

[MORE: Notre Dame CB KeiVarae Russell suffers stress fracture in right leg]

There still are some opportunities for unexpected chaos this weekend, too, with plenty of rivalry games looming. A sputtering Auburn welcomes Alabama to Jordan-Hare Stadium for the Iron Bowl — and beating the Tide would absolutely make the Tigers’ season. Clemson faces a dilapidated South Carolina side that shouldn’t, on paper, give it any trouble. That Iowa-Nebraska game in Lincoln could be tricky as the pressure mounts for Kirk Ferentz’s side.

But Notre Dame will likely need help over the next two weeks to make the playoff, whether it’s from an upset, a strength of schedule boost or the committee unfavorably viewing the Big 12.

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.