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Notre Dame’s Opponents: A path to the Cotton Bowl, wanted or not

Pro Football Focus breaks down Notre Dame's offensive turnaround and the players who are at the helm of it, including Drew Pyne and Blake Fisher.

Once every three years, Notre Dame’s chances of making a New Year’s Six bowl are greatly diminished by the planned rotation of the College Football Playoff semifinals. This is such a year, though the greater reduction in odds certainly came when the Irish inexplicably lost to Stanford in mid-October.

Rather than rehash the exact struggle every three years, a quick WordPress search three years into the past brings it up quickly, four days shy of exactly three years ago.

“Half the New Year’s Six bowls have conference contracts while the remaining three pull from the rest of the top 12 when not hosting semifinals. The 2019 anomaly, one that will next appear in 2022, is that both the Fiesta Bowl and the Peach Bowl are hosting semifinals, leaving only one true at-large opening available, guaranteed to face the highest-ranked Group of Five team.”

The Big 12 and the ACC may both jump teams over No. 18 Notre Dame (7-3) into the Sugar and Orange Bowls, respectively, if things go as one would expect this season. But there is one exact scenario in which maybe the Irish land in the Cotton Bowl (Jan. 2, 2023), though some may prefer not to face the best of the Group of Five, presumably the AAC champion.

Obviously, Notre Dame needs to beat No. 7 USC to finish the regular season, but let’s clarify that: The Irish need to beat the eventual Pac-12 champion Trojans.

That distinction implies both No. 12 Oregon and No. 10 Utah will end up behind Notre Dame in the final rankings, while also buoying the Irish claim, which will be needed. Upsetting the champion of two Power Five conferences will garner notice, and it is already guaranteed Notre Dame beat the ACC winner.

Secondly, a 12-1 TCU needs to win the Big 12.

That suggests the No. 4 Horned Frogs wil lose either at Baylor or against Iowa State, but then win the Big 12 and claim the bid to the Sugar Bowl. No. 15 Kansas State would fall behind the Irish with certainty.

Those two bold sentences should have Notre Dame in position to reach the Cotton Bowl, naturally jumping No. 17 Washington and No. 14 Mississippi. No. 16 UCLA would fall behind the Irish after losing to USC. If keeping track, No. 13 and No. 11 have not been discussed. The former is North Carolina, which jumps into the Orange Bowl in this template if it loses to No. 9 Clemson in the ACC title game, or vice versa. (The other reaches the Playoff, thanks to TCU, No. 3 Michigan, No. 6 LSU and No. 7 USC all losing.)

Then there is No. 11 Penn State.

That’s why “should” was italicized. The Nittany Lions head to Rugers and face Michigan State; a loss would render this wonder moot. But if Penn State finishes 10-2, despite not having any wins over top-20 teams while Notre Dame would, after winning in Los Angeles, have three, the Nittany Lions could snag that Cotton Bowl bid. Even this very exact scenario would require the selection committee to reconsider a ranking. Otherwise, …

Of course, none of this will matter in three years. By then, the 12-team Playoff will be more likely than not, and the question would be if the Irish could claw their way into those rankings. A win at USC would probably be enough.

Boston College (3-7): The Eagles upset No. 16 North Carolina State last week, even though they rushed for a net of negative-one yard on 23 carries. Rather than continue pointing out how ravaged Boston College’s offensive line is by injuries and once again point out this space’s most-coveted stat, that the unofficial official Notre Dame record for team sacks in a game is nine, last done in Lou Holtz’s final game, let’s delve into another bowl scenario sparked by mentioning North Carolina State.

The Wolfpack is struggling, clearly, without star quarterback Devin Leary. If evaluating a player’s value by how his team struggles without him, Leary should be a hot commodity this offseason.

But for a moment, grant the possibility that North Carolina State could beat North Carolina to end the season. Then, if the Heels upset Clemson in the ACC championship game, there may be another path to the Cotton Bowl for Notre Dame. This is, essentially, the same suggestion as 12-1 Big 12 champion TCU, but instead it is, 11-2 ACC champion North Carolina.

The question would remain, Notre Dame or Penn State?

Anyway, the Eagles head to South Bend (2:30 ET; NBC) as 20.5-point underdogs with a combined point total Over/Under of 44.5, as of midday Wednesday. A 32-11 result, so to speak, would be the first time the Irish have fallen short of 35 points since their last loss, Oct. 15 against Stanford.

No. 7 USC (9-1): The Trojans avoided a lookahead worry by demolishing Colorado, 55-17, on Friday, but the victory cost USC, too. Oregon transfer running back Travis Dye suffered a season-ending injury. He leads the Trojans with 884 yards and nine touchdowns while averaging 6.1 yards per carry.

USC needs to adapt quickly without him, favored by only 1.5 points against UCLA (8 ET; FOX).

No. 2 Ohio State (10-0): The Buckeyes beat up on Tom Allen and Indiana, 56-14, and will now presumably do the same to Maryland (3:30 ET; ABC), favored by only 27.5. The Terrapins have an explosive offense, but that number feels low, given the only teams to stay within four touchdowns of Ohio State this season have been Notre Dame, Penn State and weather-aided Northwestern. Maryland is not going to have the benefit of a region-wide storm.

Marshall (6-4): The Herd beat Appalachian State, 28-21, again underscoring how Marshall should have been in Sun Belt contention this season but struggled with little reason through a midseason lull. To further that sentiment, the Herd is favored by 4.5 at Georgia Southern this week (6 ET; ESPN+). Bluntly, if Marshall had not let Coastal Carolina jump out to a 21-0 first-quarter lead in late October, eventually a 24-13 loss, the Herd would be heading to the Sun Belt title game.

Cal (3-7): Cal fired some assistant coaches after losing at Oregon State, 38-10, the kind of move that suggests Bears head coach Justin Wilcox expects to be back next season, logically, since he signed an extension last offseason.

Please find anything better to do than to watch Stanford at Cal (5:30 ET; P12) this weekend, with the Bears favored by 4.5 points.

No. 13 North Carolina (9-1): The Heels host Georgia Tech this week, favored by three touchdowns (5:30 ET; ESPN2), after just racing by Wake Forest and burgeoning sophomore quarterback Drake Maye’s Heisman candidacy. Running up the score may further those trophy thoughts.

BYU (5-5): The Cougars enjoyed a late idle week and now may as well delight in another, hosting FCS-level Utah Tech. (You may better know Utah Tech by its past name, Dixie State, changed for obvious and good reasons.)

This late reprieve in BYU’s schedule comes as a result of being an independent, a worry the Cougars will not have after this season.

Stanford (3-7): The Cardinal was laughed at by Utah, 42-7, last week, and if there ever was a time to put faith in Cal …

UNLV (4-6): The Rebels lost to Fresno State, 37-30, and will now actually get plenty of eyeballs this week, the visiting team in the Hawaii Test, as late-night college football fans prefer to call it. If you really want to watch (11 ET), with UNLV favored by 11, you need to download the Team1 Sports app on a mobile device or tablet. It is free, but only available via that app. (Then, this scribe typically mirrors his phone on a TV screen.)

Syracuse (6-4): If a team starts the season 6-0 and then is 6-4 and a 10-point underdog at Wake Forest this week (8 ET; ACCN), was it ever genuinely 6-0 to start with? Obviously, things have gone from bad to worse for the Orange, barely a speed bump for Florida State last week, losing 38-3.

No. 9 Clemson (9-1): The Tigers kept their Playoff hopes alive by beating Louisville 31-16, a score made closer by the Cardinals crossing the goal line as time literally expired.

Clemson welcomes the shell of Miami this week, a game ESPN is broadcasting at 2:30 ET solely because of name-brand value, assuredly. The Tigers are favored by 19, so let’s assume the win and then ponder how viable Clemson’s path to the Playoff is.

Beating North Carolina in the ACC championship should jump the Tigers over No. 8 Alabama.If No. 7 USC loses to UCLA, Notre Dame or in the Pac-12 title game, it’ll fall.No. 6 LSU should lose to No. 1 Georgia in the SEC championship game.No. 4 TCU is unlikely to win out, though it could. But if it loses just one of three, it’ll fall behind Clemson.No. 3 Michigan or No. 2 Ohio State is assured a loss, and the committee is more likely to drop the Wolverines a couple extra spots.

All those likelihoods would conceivably have the Tigers as the No. 4 seed facing Georgia.

Could those flawed conference champion thoughts apply to Clemson, as well, to spur Notre Dame into the Cotton Bowl? Yes, but Miami and Georgia Tech do not make it a reality worth discussing.

Navy (3-7): The Midshipmen head to No. 20 Central Florida as 16.5-point underdogs. More notably, few first quarters will be as well-watched as this one, kicking at 11 a.m. ET on ESPN2.

12 ET — TCU (-2.5) at Baylor on FOX3:30 ET — Penn State (-19.0) at Rutgers8 ET — USC (-1.5) at UCLA on FOX

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