Has Notre Dame Emerged As A Playoff Threat?
Rising in the AP Poll and getting a shot at a national championship requires a combination of luck and winning. This year's Notre Dame team is no different.
The Irish have been able to start the season with a perfect 3-0 record, but have suffered major injuries along the way. Starting running back Tarean Folston was injured Week 1 against Texas, and star quarterback Malik Zaire broke his ankle late in the Week 2 game at Virginia.
Those injuries have allowed senior C.J. Prosise to take over running back duties and sophomore Deshone Kizer to step in at quarterback. Prosise has turned into one of the better running back in the country, finding himself in the top 5 in rushing yards. And Kizer made a name for himself with one of the greatest plays we'll see all season.
In order to rise quickly, Notre Dame also needed teams ranked above them to lose, and they got just that. Four teams ranked above the Irish in the preseason have dropped due to early losses: Auburn, Alabama, Oregon, and Southern Cal.
Notre Dame started off the year ranked 11th with the 33rd hardest schedule in the country, which could hurt them in the long run. So far though, its allowed the Irish to move up the polls. Texas was the first team on the slate, and Notre Dame dominated. Zaire looked like an elite college QB and the Irish defense held the Longhorns to just 163 total yards of offense in a 38-3 home victory. The win looked good to pundits, as they ranked Notre Dame at No. 9, jumping Georgia and Florida State who both beat lesser opponents.
Things looked bleak after Zaire went down with a broken ankle in the third quarter in a close game at Virginia. Notre Dame was up 19-14 when Zaire went down, which left the Irish relying on an inexperienced sophomore in Kizer to run the offense. He held his own and finished 8-for-12 with two touchdowns, one being the game-winning throw with 12 seconds left to receiver Will Fuller. Beating a mediocre Virginia squad isn't going to look good in the long run, but thanks to Auburn's narrow victory over FCS Jacksonville State and Oregon losing to Michigan State, Notre Dame rose one spot to No. 8 in Week 3.
Georgia Tech went into South Bend ranked 14th in the AP Poll and was suppose to pose as a huge test for Notre Dame. Tech's triple-option offense was projected to run havoc on the Irish defense. Coming into the game, the Yellow Jackets averaged 457.5 yards per game on the ground. However, those gaudy numbers came against Alcorn State and Tulane. Notre Dame held Georgia Tech to only 216 yards rushing, 337 total. Prosise lead the way with 198 rushing yards and three touchdowns in a solid 30-22 victory.
Beating a ranked team would have been enough to rise in the polls on its own, but Coach Brian Kelly's team caught a break with the two higher-ranked teams also losing; Alabama to Ole Miss and USC to Stanford. Ole Miss with their big road win jumped over Notre Dame, but the Irish rose two spots to No. 6.
UMass was no contest for the Irish, as they beat the Minutemen 62-27 in Week 4. Pollsters had no reason to lift the Irish higher and they stayed at No. 6 for another week.
Notre Dame could essentially have played anyone and moved up in the polls. Simply winning would propel them at least three spots. The Irish jumped over Georgia and Florida State however, thanks to having one ranked opponent on their schedule, while the others played easier teams thus far.
While the past is promising, what does the future have in store for Notre Dame? It looks like an uphill battle in order to make the playoffs. The Irish have three game against ranked opponents remaining on their schedule. They'll head to No. 12 Clemson on October 3rd, host No. 17 USC two weeks later, and finish the regular season at No. 18 Stanford. Notre Dame needs these teams to stay ranked prior to their meeting, and obviously need to win as well, to have a better shot at breaking into the top-four.
Winning might not be enough though. Georgia Tech dropped out of the Top 25 this week and that hurts Notre Dame in the long run. Other teams also have their toughest schedules ahead of them. No. 8 Georgia has two ranked opponents left, while No. 13 Alabama, No. 9 LSU, and No. 7 UCLA have four ranked opponents left on the season. This could lead to any one of these teams jumping the Irish in the polls and preventing them from becoming contenders for the postseason.
Last season, Notre Dame started off 6-0 and looked to be headed to the inaugural college playoffs. They were ranked 5th before heading into FSU, and suffering their first loss. Notre Dame lost five of their last seven games, and finished unranked with an 8-5 record.
If Notre Dame can run the table and remain undefeated this season, they have a great shot at getting into the College Football Playoffs. They'll need help, but anything is possible with the Luck of the Irish.