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Canceled Wake Forest trip sends Notre Dame to not only the ACC title game, but also the Playoff

Notre Dame Clemson

SOUTH BEND, INDIANA - NOVEMBER 07: Head coach Brian Kelly of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish leads his team out of the tunnel before the game against the Clemson Tigers at Notre Dame Stadium on November 7, 2020 in South Bend, Indiana. (Photo by Matt Cashore-Pool/Getty Images)

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Notre Dame essentially sealed a spot in the Playoff on Tuesday despite not moving from No. 2 in the latest College Football Playoff committee rankings. The Irish (9-0, 8-0 ACC) still need to get by Syracuse this weekend (2:30 ET; NBC), but presuming expectations of a five-touchdown blowout are not off by six touchdowns, Notre Dame has nothing left to worry about between now and a likely rematch with No. 3 Clemson in the ACC title game on Dec. 19.

Wake Forest does not represent the stiffest of challenges in that interim, but the Demon Deacons at least boast a talented offense representing competent football, qualities beyond the Orange’s reach. With the ACC’s decision to cancel the Irish trip to Wake Forest on Dec. 12 to make up what was originally planned to be a September contest, those challenges were wiped off the schedule, and Notre Dame can look ahead to Trevor Lawrence & Co. while pondering hotel reservations for New Year’s.

Go ahead, accuse those two paragraphs of assumptions and overlooking Syracuse. To be fair, this space is overlooking the Orange, although looking forward to a weekend recognizing a senior class that has accomplished more than anyone anticipated and putting a bow on a season that not long ago seemed unlikely to be completed.

But the only assumption is that a number of unlikely events do not all occur. For the Irish to be left out of the Playoff …

— Clemson would need to blow out Notre Dame, to the tune of 35-7 or worse.— No. 6 Florida would need to beat No. 1 Alabama in the SEC title game.— No. 4 Ohio State would need to both reach and win the Big Ten championship.

In that scenario, and only that scenario, the Irish could be boxed out of the Playoff. Only those steps would give four teams a pair of wins comparable, if not better, to two Notre Dame has already notched by beating the No. 3 and No. 17 (North Carolina) teams in the latest rankings.

Only the Tide has two better wins to date, beating No. 5 Texas A&M and No. 8 Georgia.

No. 1 Alabama: Has beaten No. 5 and No. 8, likely to face No. 6 in the SEC title game.No. 2 Notre Dame: Has beaten No. 3 and No. 17, expected to play No. 3 again.No. 3 Clemson: Beat No. 10, should face No. 2.No. 4 Ohio State: Beat No. 12, may face No. 14 in Big Ten championship game.No. 5 Texas A&M: Beat No. 6.No. 6 Florida: Beat No. 8, likely to meet No. 1 on Dec. 19.No. 7 Cincinnati: The Bearcats are inarguably very good, but there is nothing of substance to include in this conversation.No. 10 Miami: Would need a Clemson loss to even think of facing No. 2 in the ACC championship, and would need to beat No. 17 to get there.No. 12 Indiana: Can yet notch wins against No. 16 and No. 14, the latter coming only if Ohio State fails to play two more games.No. 14 Northwestern: Beat No. 16, will get a chance at either No. 4 or No. 12 on Dec. 19.

All other teams in the top 15 have multiple losses, and there is no reasonable chance a 2-loss team would jump the one-loss Irish when their only loss would be to full-strength Clemson.

If Notre Dame and Syracuse take the same football field, the Irish will win. Winning the ACC championship is very much a team goal and the Irish will not downplay their trip to Charlotte, but those stakes will be self-contained. Notre Dame has already sealed a Playoff bid.

Which semifinal the Irish end up in is less consequential in a year when travel and fan attendance are far from the greatest concerns, and there remains plenty of reason to doubt the state of California signs off on the Rose Bowl welcoming hundreds of visitors from out-of-state, but if reading “Rose Bowl” as “not the Sugar Bowl,” then the options are few …

If Alabama wins and Notre Dame wins their conference championships, the Tide will remain No. 1, head to New Orleans and the Irish will head west/elsewhere.If Alabama wins and Notre Dame loses, the Irish will fall all the way to No. 4 to avoid a semifinal rematch with Clemson, setting up a trip to the Sugar Bowl to face the Tide.If Alabama loses and Notre Dame wins, then the committee’s rankings would matter. Presuming rematches are off the table, either Florida or Alabama would need to rank No. 4. Given the immediate result before that decision would favor the Gators, the Tide would likely end up No. 4. To avoid handing the top-seeded Irish a travel disadvantage in New Orleans, the committee would send Notre Dame west/elsewhere.If Alabama loses and Notre Dame loses, Clemson would likely become No. 1, shoehorning the Irish into the other semifinal. The Tigers would head to New Orleans and Notre Dame would go west/elsewhere.

Syracuse (1-9, 1-8): What is worse, losing 30-0 at Louisville as the Orange did two weeks ago or coming within a touchdown of your second win of the season only to give it away by spiking the ball on fourth down? Syracuse continues to find new ways to stoop even lower this season, and now finds itself a 33.5-point underdog heading to northwest Indiana’s snow.

Wake Forest (4-3, 3-3): Notre Dame will now not face the Deacons until 2023, a shame given how enjoyable they can be to watch, scoring 39.3 points per game behind sophomore quarterback Sam Hartman’s 240 passing yards per game and eight touchdowns with no interceptions.

Clemson (8-1, 7-1): The Tigers had no trouble in a 52-17 win against Pittsburgh in Lawrence’s return to action. A 31-0 first quarter showed Clemson has no intentions of taking it easy on anyone as it tries to reclaim its season narrative, and Lawrence’s 403 yards and two touchdowns made it clear he has no rust to shake off after not playing for nearly a month.

Next up on the Tigers’ tour: A trip to Virginia Tech (7:30 ET; ABC) as 22-point favorites. Given the vague sense of unwarranted revenge to Clemson’s play right now, best of luck to Justin Fuente’s struggling Hokies.

Notre Dame: 9-0, 8-0 ACCClemson: 8-1, 7-1Miami: 7-1, 6-1NC State: 7-3, 6-3North Carolina: 6-3, 6-3Boston College: 6-4, 5-4Wake Forest: 4-3, 3-3Virginia Tech: 4-5, 4-4Pittsburgh: 5-5, 4-5Virginia: 4-4, 3-4Georgia Tech: 3-5, 3-4Louisville: 3-7, 2-7Florida State: 2-6, 1-6Duke: 2-7, 1-7Syracuse: 1-9, 1-8

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