It’s still way too early, but Notre Dame’s path is open to CFB Playoff

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It’s still way too early.

I’ll type it again: It’s still way too early. But with one quarter of Notre Dame’s football season behind them, the Irish’s path to the first ever College Football Playoff looks wide open.

Yes, I know the Irish have to travel to Tallahassee. But pushing that game to the back burner for a few seconds, the promising start for Brian Kelly’s team has them looking capable of winning every remaining game on their schedule — the battle with the defending national champs included.

Again, it’s too early. But just like in 2012, when Notre Dame’s near impossible schedule had people almost disqualifying the Irish from any BCS talk in the preseason, the 2014 slate seems to be getting softer by the week, with Stanford, USC, North Carolina, Northwestern, Louisville and even Florida State looking less impressive than expected.

So while the Irish certainly have work to do on their first bye week of the season, let’s give ourself one peek at what’s ahead and handicap just how possible Notre Dame’s inclusion into a four-team playoff really is.

 

SYRACUSE

Yes, Syracuse just rolled past Central Michigan 40-3, the same Chippewas  team that rolled over Purdue convincingly, leading to the Transative Property Game of the Week next Saturday night in the Meadowlands. But the Orange also went to double-overtime with Villanova, so there’s that datapoint as well.

A crude look at Syracuse presents a team with a defense that should be pretty good and an offense that depends largely on running quarterback Terrel Hunt. So after doing a serviceable job against Rice and dual-threat quarterback Driphus Jackson, the Irish will board a plane for the first time this season and play their first not-quite true away game in front of a crowd that’ll likely be 50-50.

Trending: Looks like we thought it would. A game that’s a must and should-win for the Irish.

 

STANFORD

Looking at the box score and rewatching the game against USC, it’s really rather amazing that Stanford ended up losing this football game. The Cardinal outgained USC 413-291, but lost the turnover battle with two lost fumbles en route to a disappointing loss for David Shaw’s squad, who once again struggled in the red zone trying to get seven when three would have done just fine.

With cupcake wins over UC-Davis and Army, we’ve really got no other game to work from when evaluating Stanford. But the Cardinal’s secondary should give the Irish a stiff test and you’ve got to expect Shaw’s “man ball” running game to do its best to over-power the Irish’s relatively undersized front seven.

Still, the Irish get Stanford at home, returning to the site of their emotional 2012 overtime victory. With Everett Golson a much better quarterback than the one the Cardinal saw then, it’s a tough test, but one that looks a little bit easier after the first three games of the season.

Trending: Still one of the season’s toughest games. But maybe not as scary as previously thought.

 

NORTH CAROLINA

A game with all the makings of a trap, the Tar Heels struggled to hold on for a win against San Diego State last week, and face quite the gauntlet themselves before heading to South Bend with East Carolina, Clemson and Virginia Tech their three opponents before taking on the Irish.

The Tar Heels may have some problems along the offensive line, not a good thing to say when you’re going up against Brian VanGorder’s scheme. They’ve also got some uneven quarterback play, though Marquise Williams leads the Tar Heels as both a runner and a passer.

One thing that’s surprising? A defense that’s given up 28 points a game to the duo of Liberty and San Diego State. Playing against Notre Dame on their home field, it looks like a game where the Irish should be able to score some points.

Trending: Looks like an easier game than it did on paper. And the Tar Heels’ schedule has the looks of one that could go pear-shaped pretty quickly.

 

FLORIDA STATE

Who are we kidding. This game still looks every bit as terrifying as it ever did, even if the Seminoles haven’t played like the world-beaters many expected. Florida State struggled to put away Oklahoma State. Then they only beat Citadel 37-12, a game you expected FSU to hang 70 on the board.

Defending Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston hasn’t looked like the part. In fact, an apples-to-apples comparison of quarterbacks would favor Everett Golson’s stat-line quite favorably. Still, if Notre Dame can handle their business leading into mid-October, this has the makings of an epic showdown, and one that the Irish will still likely be double-digit underdogs in.

Trending: Looks better now. But still doesn’t look good.

 

NAVY

The Midshipmen gave Ohio State all they could handle before the Buckeyes pulled away late in the second half. But two wins against a better than expected Temple and Texas State have Navy looking exactly like the pesky underdogs that you’d expect.

The Irish have a week off after playing Florida State before opening the month of November with the Midshipmen. And while he’s likely the best triggerman to run Navy’s offense since Ricky Dobbs (and a much better passer), quarterback Keenan Reynolds sat out last week with a knee injury, so there’s already some wear on his tires.

This will be Brian VanGorder’s first look at an option offense since disassembling one (literally) in his lone season as head coach at Georgia Southern. That’ll be just one of many plotlines to follow by then.

Trending: It’s Navy. Always a difficult out, especially with an already thin Notre Dame defense.

 

ARIZONA STATE

The complexion of the Sun Devils’ season could have changed dramatically late in their victory over Colorado. That’s when quarterback Taylor Kelly, one of the nation’s most underrated players, suffered what could be a serious injury.

There’s been nothing official out of ASU, but it appears that Kelly has a broken bone in his foot and is expected to miss maybe up to a month. That timeline would put Taylor back in time for Notre Dame, but makes it relatively questionable that he’ll return to his dual-threat ways.

After perhaps Notre Dame’s most impressive win of last season, the Sun Devils will look to get some revenge in a home game that former athletic director Steve Patterson did everything possible to save.

Trending: If Kelly’s not 100 percent, that’s a good thing for Notre Dame.

 

NORTHWESTERN

After looking like one of the young coaching stars in college football, the past 14 months haven’t been kind to Pat Fitzgerald. Coming off a really disappointing 5-7 season, Northwestern lost their opening two non-conference games to Cal and Northern Illinois.

Those were the type of wins that Fitzgerald built his reputation on, getting Ws when they were expected and fighting tough through the Big Ten schedule. But without Venric Mark, who left the program in August after initially being suspended for two games, the ground game has been stuck in neutral and Trevor Siemian has thrown more interceptions than touchdowns.

Trending: Doesn’t look like good things are happening in Evanston.

 

LOUISVILLE

The fighting Bobby Petrinos put the college football world on notice with an early dismantling of Miami. But their loss to Virginia likely exposed a little bit more than the early win proved. While Will Gardner looked great against Miami and Murray State, he threw two interceptions against UVA, and completed just 41 percent of his throws.

There is a ton of talent on the Louisville roster, especially on the edges. But after playing a sloppy football game in just about every phase, it’s clear that the Cardinals are farther from being the dark horse contender than many expected.

Trending: A tough loss to Virginia sets back the Petrino renaissance… for at least one Saturday.

 

USC

Oh boy, not too many people saw Saturday night coming. The Trojans, fresh off a rivalry win and flying across the country, absolutely got steamrolled by Boston College. Yep, Boston College.

That loss once again exposes a USC team that is filled with elite skill players but lacks the cohesiveness that championship programs demand. While pollsters really don’t matter anymore, it’s one more reminder to them that the best teams in college football aren’t built around their stars, but on the rank-and-file that fill the rest of the roster.

Former Irish assistant Steve Addazio’s Eagles ran for 452 yards on USC’s defense, a shocking number. And while Cody Kessler threw for four touchdowns and 317 yards, the Trojans could only manage 20 on the ground, a puzzling number considering their ability to run on Stanford and BC giving up 303 yards on the ground to Pitt the week before.

The Trojan roster is already hovering around 60 scholarship players. So before we know if this is merely a blip on the radar or a sign of things to come, another nine games have to be played.

Trending: A shocking loss knocks the Trojans out of the clouds. We’ll see how they rally after a difficult loss.