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At No. 6 in the Playoff rankings, Notre Dame’s hopes continue to hinge on Big upsets

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 20 Georgia Tech at Notre Dame

SOUTH BEND, IN - NOVEMBER 20: Notre Dame Fighting Irish defensive lineman Justin Ademilola (9) and linebacker JD Bertrand (27) in action during a game between the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets on November 20, 2021 at Notre Dame Stadium, in South Bend, IN. (Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Notre Dame’s surge in the second half of the season has given this final week some Irish intrigue. Notre Dame rose to No. 6 in the latest rankings from the College Football Playoff selection committee on Tuesday evening, with two teams ahead of it guaranteed to lose in coming weeks in head-to-head matchups.

“Notre Dame has been building momentum all year,” committee chairman Gary Barta said to ESPN. “They play terrific defense, their offense has a lot of weapons, a lot of experience there.”

The Irish (10-1) still have no control over their Playoff hopes, as beating Stanford (3-8) will not impress the committee much no matter the margin of victory, but the Playoff remains a vague possibility (8 ET; FOX).

No. 2 Ohio State (10-1) heads to No. 5 Michigan (10-1) this weekend (12 ET; FOX), meaning one of them will have two losses and presumably fall behind Notre Dame in next week’s rankings. No. 1 Georgia (11-0) and No. 3 Alabama (10-1) will meet in the SEC championship game on Dec. 4, but the Bulldogs would certainly not fall behind the Irish even with a loss. If the Tide fell, however, there would be a debate between 11-2 Alabama and 11-1 Notre Dame.

In the current rankings, the Tide has beaten No. 9 Mississippi and No. 24 Arkansas, but it also boasts better wins throughout the schedule than the Irish slate provided, which includes only one presently-ranked victory in No. 14 Wisconsin.

“In the last few weeks, they beat Georgia Tech handily, Georgia TEch didn’t look very good,” Barta said. “They’ve played Navy.

“They’ve played some teams that maybe haven’t helped their strength of schedule, but a terrific team. Notre Dame is highly thought of by the committee.”

To use just one metric to illustrate that schedule discrepancy, a metric widely accepted and at least pondered by the selection committee, North Carolina at No. 30 is the third-highest ranked Notre Dame opponent in the latest SP+ rankings — an analytically-driven predictive model. Wisconsin ranks No. 6 in the SP+, and the lone victor against the Irish, Cincinnati, at No. 7.

Six Alabama opponents rank ahead of the Tar Heels, including Saturday’s foe, Auburn at No. 29 (3:30 ET; CBS) and the sole victor against the Tide, Texas A&M, at No. 5.

Looming behind the Irish in the Playoff rankings, and behind Alabama, for that matter, are Big 12 leaders Oklahoma State (10-1) and Oklahoma (10-1) at No. 7 and No. 10, respectively. They meet Saturday (7:30, ABC) and could again in the Big 12 championship game on Dec. 4. If either wins each of the next two weeks, it would add a pair of top-10 wins to its résumé, which would conceivably leapfrog it over Notre Dame and its lack of any top-10 wins. Furthermore, the Cowboys have already beaten No. 8 Baylor. Oklahoma State may not be a traditional power in college football, but its 2021 work speaks for itself.

To boil that all down into what would be the clearest path to the Playoff for the Irish ...
— No. 4 Cincinnati loses either against East Carolina on Friday (3:30 ET; ABC) or in the AAC championship game against No. 24 Houston.
— Oklahoma and Oklahoma State split the next two weeks.— Wisconsin wins both this weekend at Minnesota (4 ET; FOX) and in the Big Ten championship game against the winner of Ohio State at Michigan.

If two of those three happen, then Notre Dame should breathe easily with anticipation of a Playoff bid. If only one occurs, though, then the Irish will need to hope that Alabama not only loses in the SEC championship game, but also fares so poorly that the committee turns its favor toward South Bend rather than Tuscaloosa.

The Irish could not control how their opponents fared overall this season, but they could control their own surge to close this season, the crux of head coach Brian Kelly’s argument for inclusion in the Playoff.

“Consistency and growth as a football team, playing well at the end of the season, the balance of both offense and defense,” Kelly said Monday when asked what he would tout to the committee. “Shutouts at the end of the season, playing well. That should mean a lot in terms of the overall record.

“Winning [nine] games against Power Five football teams across the board. Look, at the end of the day, we’re going to be right here at the end and you know how this is going to play out. We have to beat Stanford. Regardless of what that looks like, it’s not going to be played as, ‘Oh, that was a signature win.’ ... We’re going to have to go beat Stanford, play well, and then rely on what happens in front of us. We lost that control when we lost to Cincinnati. But we’ve done everything else and we’ll have to do that when we play a really good Stanford team. We’re going to have to beat them.”

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