And in that corner… The Florida State Seminoles

31 Comments

The off-field drama can wait. The biggest game of the year awaits.

So while some are interested in the comeuppance of the Florida State athletic department, its enabled and shockingly-behaved quarterback, or a local police force that seems infected with football, the game on the field is here, and it’s the one that’ll determine the goals of Notre Dame’s football team.

On Saturday, the Irish will face their stiffest test of the year. Playing in a hostile environment for the first time this season, Brian Kelly’s team will need to eradicate the string of self-inflicted mistakes that have nearly done them in, all while finding a way to force a team that’s won 22 straight games into making a few of their own.

To get us ready for Saturday’s game, Ben Jones of Warchant.com was kind enough to answer some email questions for me. We cover the health of the team, the performance of the defending national champs, and the on-and-off field behavior of the defending Heisman Trophy winner.

Enjoy.

 

Can you give me a health update on the Seminoles? Just how banged up is this FSU team? Where do the injuries worry you the most?

FSU stayed healthy through the first three games or so but has since taken a few hits. Starting defensive tackle Nile Lawrence-Stample is out for the year. Starting center Austin Barron is out for an extended period with what is believed to be a broken arm. Starting running back Karlos Williams missed the Syracuse game with an ankle sprain and could miss this game as well. Backup quarterback Sean Maguire is out for a while with a broken bone in his hand.

None of those are crippling injuries to FSU, which has built remarkable depth with strong recruiting. But some positions are weaker than others. Other defensive linemen have been banged up as well, and the rush defense has been suspect at times. With Maguire out, Jameis Winston is the only quarterback on the roster to take a snap at the college level.

 

Can you critique the Seminoles at the midpoint of the season? Yes, they’re deservedly the No. 1 team [since voted to No. 2] in the country, but statistically this isn’t necessarily a dominant group.

This was a hard group to peg down at first. The season started with a big neutral site game, followed by a game against an FCS program with a triple option offense, with Winston’s suspension after that. It’s only been the last few games that we’ve gotten a good idea of where FSU stands.

This is still a very good team capable of going undefeated and winning a national championship, but you’re right. This team isn’t dominant like last year’s. After six games, I don’t see FSU morphing into a monster for the second half of the season.

Assign a letter grade to the following units:

Rush Offense: B-

The offense isn’t as balanced as last year, but there’s still talent at running back. The offense will be powered by Winston’s arm but Williams, Mario Pender and Dalvin Cook would all be starters for many major programs.

Passing Offense: A

FSU still doesn’t have a red zone target like it had in 6-foot-6 Kelvin Benjamin last year, but Rashad Greene is one of the best receivers in the country and should hold every school receiving record by the end of the year. Nick O’Leary is an all-American tight end and Bobo Wilson has been a steady No. 2 receiver.

Rush Defense:
 B+

The defense can be gashed at times and missed more than 30 tackles against N.C. State, but for the most part it’s held strong. FSU really tightens up in the red zone, where a lot of opponent drives have stalled.

Passing Defense:
A

The cornerback combo of PJ Williams and Ronald Darby might be the best in the country, while safeties Nate Andrews and Tyler Hunter are both solid behind them. Nickel Jalen Ramsey is a starter and is maybe the best athlete on defense, but his role calls for him to do a great deal. The sophomore hasn’t played poorly but hasn’t been the playmaker most thought he would be in preseason.

Coaching: A

If nothing else, it’s astounding to see how Jimbo Fisher has held the team together this season with so many off-field issues. Some of those are self-inflicted, but FSU just keeps winning. Some fans have grumbled about new defensive coordinator Charles Kelly, but it’s hard to find much fault with a team on a 22-game win streak.

 

Is this team playing with fire or just slow to gel?

This team is simply different from last year’s. Many expected it to pick up where the 2013 squad left off with so many key pieces back, but they also lost some major parts. Expectations have been difficult to manage at times and the off-field issues have made things even rockier, but they’re able to keep winning. Some of those games are ugly, but Florida State has still had a clear talent advantage over every opponent thus far. Saturday’s game against Syracuse was a much quicker start than in previous games, and that’s what they’ll be looking for against Notre Dame.

 

Jameis Winston, the returning Heisman Trophy winner, has had a fairly pedestrian season so far. What have you seen from his on the field that’s surprised you? Is he still a lock to head to the NFL as a top pick?

He had his most efficient game of the season against Syracuse, and that’s a positive sign. He hasn’t struggled at any point this year, but he hasn’t been as brilliant as last year. I don’t know if it’s surprising, but I think we’re learning just how valuable the receiving weapons he lost last year were. Seeing him back next year — that would be surprising.

My guess is still that he goes to the NFL, but you never know what odd turn his story will take next. With so many off-field issues and an impending student code of conduct investigation, it seems like the best decision for him to leave. He and his father said earlier this year he was planning on returning and while he hasn’t directly refuted that, he’s softened his stance. When asked now, he says things like “I don’t know what the future holds.” I believe the plan was for him to spend four years at FSU when he first signed with the school. I also believe plans can change.

 

Off the field, can you give us an insiders’ view on Winston? For me, the vulgar public comments were the the final datapoint for me to conclude that the kid just doesn’t get it. Jimbo Fisher says he’s a good kid. His actions seem to say something quite to the contrary. Help me understand.

It’s very difficult to understand Jameis Winston even for those of us on the beat. Our limited interactions with him are very tightly controlled. He began the season by giving a weekly press conference and speaking after games, but those have been canceled since his suspension. He now only speaks with the media after games.

He’s always been a charismatic figure on and off the field. Teammates gravitate toward him, he’s always smiling in interview and he controls a room like few players his age can. Jameis has a lot of experience being the center of attention, and it’s clear that he likes it. This is just a guess, but the incident that earned him the suspension seems to show to me that he still feels like he needs to seek out attention. That was probably as far as he was thinking when it happened. I don’t mean this in a positive or a negative way, but he’s one-of-a-kind. It’s hard to understand until you see him in person.

 

The last time Notre Dame faced off with an elite football team, they got run out of the gym in the first quarter of the BCS title game against Alabama. Is this Seminoles team capable of starting fast and delivering a knockout punch?

Tough to say. FSU was down 3-0 in the second quarter against Wake Forest, fell into a 24-7 hole at N.C. State and didn’t score a touchdown until the third quarter against Clemson (albeit with a backup quarterback). This weekend’s game against Syracuse didn’t look like that, but the overall trend is troubling.

The Seminoles have players capable of big plays, like running back Karlos Williams and wide receiver Rashad Greene. But Williams’ speed hasn’t shown up early in games, as he’s been more effective wearing teams down with his 225-pound frame, and Greene’s biggest moments have come with game-saving touchdowns against Oklahoma State and Clemson. Florida State has the players to pounce on an opponent early, but the track record so far doesn’t show it.

 

Is there any player personnel wise on the Notre Dame roster that has Fisher and his staff worried? What matchups do you think the Irish can try and exploit on Saturday night?

Everett Golson’s running ability will be a very interesting matchup. N.C. State’s Jacoby Brissett had success scrambling earlier this year, and he might not be quite as athletic as Golson. Florida State has struggled to generate pressure on quarterbacks at times this year (8 sacks through 6 games) and the defensive line isn’t going to collapse the pocket on the pass rush. If Notre Dame’s offensive linemen can hold their blocks, Golson should have plenty of running lanes.

I’d also look to Ben Koyack and see if he find himself matched up against Ramsey at all. Ramsey is athletic enough to play any position in the secondary, but he’d be outmuscled against Koyack. Ultimately, though, I think Notre Dame and FSU are both strong enough teams that they’ll be more concerned about executing their game plans on offense and defense than trying to pick out one matchup to exploit.

 

Florida State is still prohibitive favorites against Notre Dame, though certainly down from the preseason. How do you see Saturday night playing out?

This is going to be Florida State’s toughest test so far this year. I think Notre Dame is a better opponent than either Oklahoma State or Clemson and it wouldn’t surprise me if either team wins. I’ve been saying since early summer that Florida State would lose a game this year, and while I don’t know if Notre Dame is that game, I think they have a better chance than anyone else.

FSU’s defense won’t shut teams out like it did last year, so this could be race to 40 points. Be warned: if it comes down to field goals, kicker Roberto Aguayo won the Groza Award last year and has only missed one kick in his career. For now, I’ll say FSU wins 42-38. But I may change my mind at some point this week. Things can change fast at Florida State.

***

Thanks to Ben for working this into a week that’s been understandably chaotic from the start. For more from him, you can check out his work at Warchant or follow him on Twitter @WarchantBen.

No. 15 Notre Dame vs No. 6 USC: TV, Time, Preview & Prediction

11 Comments

Every so often, Marcus Freeman’s honesty emphasizes how young he is. It is not just that the first-time head coach was only at Notre Dame as its defensive coordinator for one season before being promoted, but he is also just 36 years old.

Freeman has assuredly watched a few Notre Dame vs. USC games, but he was a sophomore at Ohio State when the most famous game of Freeman’s life occurred, the Trojans topping the Irish courtesy of the infamous Bush Push in 2005. The Buckeyes were wrapping up a win against Michigan State as this rivalry kicked off, coming back from an early 10-0 deficit.

So Freeman turned to a Notre Dame expert this week for some insights into this rivalry. 

“I spent some time [Monday] morning actually talking to [Irish offensive coordinator Tommy] Rees,” Freeman said. “He’s been out there twice, once or twice as a player and then once as a coach. I know he was out there in 2018.

“I played out there in 2008 when I was at Ohio State, but to be a part of this rivalry for the last game of the year, and there’s a lot on the line for both teams.”

Rees has, in fact, enjoyed two trips to the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum capping unbeaten regular seasons, not to mention a win out west in his third career start in 2010. If ever there were moments for USC to stymie Notre Dame dreams, it was in 2012 or 2018. Instead, the Irish clinched championship chances on the road, certainly a sweeter venue to do so at than Stanford’s Farm.

All of which brings us to today, when No. 15 Notre Dame (8-3) can do what USC did not on those occasions, upset the No. 6 Trojans (10-1) and halt their Playoff hopes.

TV: ABC has the broadcast tonight with its top booth on the call, Chris Fowler and Kirk Herbstreit. The latter will fly out from the College GameDay set in Columbus, Ohio, a bit of an irony given Notre Dame started its season with that booth and that set in Columbus, Ohio.

TIME: 7:30 ET, with the West Coast’s sunset coming only minutes after kickoff tonight.

PREVIEW: The Irish have played some talented quarterbacks this season, most notably Heisman frontrunner CJ Stroud to open the season and North Carolina sophomore sensation Drake Maye later in September. Notre Dame kept them both in check.

But neither was playing as well as Trojans star Caleb Williams of late.

“He is a talented quarterback,” Freeman said, sounding nearly exasperated. “We have faced some really good quarterbacks this season, and he is one of the best I’ve seen. His arm strength is one thing. His decision-making is another, his ability to extend plays.

“He’s one of the few guys I’ve seen just continuously break tackles. Yeah, he can make people miss, but he breaks tackles. Guys have their hands on him and he continues to stay up and that can be devastating to a defense. That can make you try to do something outside of what your responsibility is on defense. I want to make a play, I’m going to try to rush around this guy instead of staying in my lane. You have to stay in your rush lanes, but you can’t play cautious.”

If any Notre Dame unit should be disciplined enough to toe that line, it is the Irish defensive front-seven. With the exception of junior defensive end Rylie Mills, every starter up front for Notre Dame is a senior, and Mills may not even technically start. Among the linebacker rotation, the only action from a non-senior may be sophomore Prine Kollie’s limited snaps.

But in the secondary, the Irish may have a concern.

“We got to cover those wideouts and continue to mix up the coverage we play against [Williams],” Freeman said. “Continue to do your job, stay in your rush lanes. If you have an opportunity to bring him down, bring him down and bring your feet and don’t dive.”

Notre Dame will not have senior cornerback Cam Hart tonight, dealing with yet another shoulder injury. Northwestern safety transfer Brandon Joseph should be back from a high-ankle sprain, but losing Hart against the Trojans’ bounty of receiving weapons may leave freshman Jaden Mickey and/or junior Clarence Lewis in uncomfortable depths.

In that respect, it could be reminiscent of the last time the Irish visited Los Angeles, something only the fifth- and sixth-year players have done. Then a freshman, cornerback Tariq Bracy was repeatedly targeted by USC quarterback JT Daniels. It got to a point that the entire press box would point to Bracy before the snap whenever he was in single coverage.

Of course, Notre Dame won, anyway, sealing a Playoff berth, not what is at stake for the Irish tonight but instead now a Trojans hope.

PREDICTION: Game flow is less an abstract concept than a box score often indicates. It was supposed to be a Notre Dame strength all season, with Rees’ opening game scripts an asset in 2021. Eight of the 13 Irish opening drives last year resulted in quality possessions, but only six of 11 have this season. More notably, that six of 11 trend was an early-season struggle, Notre Dame failing to put together a quality possession on its opening drive in three straight games to end September. Since then, Rees has directed a quality possession to open five of seven games, including each of the last two.

If that streak reaches three, then the Irish may spring the upset tonight as 4.5-point underdogs, as of Saturday morning.

That is an obvious claim: If you score early and possibly take a lead on the scoreboard, you have a better chance at winning.

But the thought goes beyond that. Notre Dame’s greatest strength matches USC’s greatest weakness: a dominant rush game of late meeting the worst rush defense in the country. The Irish want to lean into the ground game just as they did against then-No. 16 Syracuse and then-No. 4 Clemson. To do so, they need to remain in range of Williams’ explosive offense.

Rees’ early-season struggles early in games appear to be behind him. And that is reason enough to think Notre Dame will win yet again in Los Angeles.

Notre Dame 27, USC 24.
(Spread: 2-9; Over/Under: 3-8; Straight-up: 6-5)

INSIDE THE IRISH
Notre Dame’s seniors set a ‘foundation’ for Freeman’s tenure, prove it with Boston College rout
Notre Dame finally adds a QB to its recruiting class of 2023, landing former Pitt commit Kenny Minchey
Notre Dame’s Opponents: Irish hopes of a Cotton Bowl appearance hinge on Tennessee comparison
And In That Corner … Playoff-hopeful USC gives Notre Dame a chance to be spoiler
Things To Learn: Notre Dame’s season of development to be tested, and perhaps proven, on ground at USC

OUTSIDE READING
Can Caleb Williams have another Heisman moment? What to watch for in USC-Notre Dame
Ranking (and picking) this weekend’s spiciest rivalry games
Five current most compelling Notre Dame-vs.-USC recruiting battles
 Notre Dame vs USC Odds, Picks and Predictions: Fighting Irish Keep Caleb and Co. Under Check
Here are 9 chaos CFB scenarios you may (or may not) root for this weekend

Things To Learn: Notre Dame’s season of development to be tested, and perhaps proven, on ground at USC

3 Comments

Notre Dame did not have four-year starting offensive lineman Jarrett Patterson to open the season at Ohio State. Sophomore running back Audric Estimé had never been the lead back for a Saturday afternoon, and he wouldn’t be in that role for another couple weeks. And the Irish special teams had not become a game-wrecking unit just yet in that 21-10 loss.

Patterson has started every game since then, every bit the leader expected as a two-time captain. Estimé has rebounded from a game-costing fumble to Stanford by taking 57 carries for an average of 6.1 yards per rush the last four weeks. And Notre Dame’s punt block unit has gotten to seven boots this year, the rare big-play that almost feels usual by now.

But those signs of progress have not come against an opponent as talented as the Buckeyes. No. 6 USC (10-1) may yet be a few steps behind Ohio State, but it is cut from the same cloth: An explosive aerial offense supplementing a defense in transition. So as No. 15 Notre Dame (8-3) returns to a likely similar gameplan, the Trojans (7:30 ET; ABC) will be the measuring stick of how far the Irish have come.

“We have to continue to prepare, prepare, prepare, and that is what is the answer to the test,” head coach Marcus Freeman said Monday. “I don’t know any other way. It isn’t to come up with trick plays. It isn’t trying to confuse them.

“It’s prepare and continue to get better at the things we do really, really well.”

Run the ball. That’s what Notre Dame does really, really well. And here is the twist this weekend: USC is worse at defending the run than anyone else in the country.

Remember when the Irish found an early lead against Syracuse and then completely and successfully abandoned the pass in the second half in order to just wear down the Orange front? USC is worse against the run than Syracuse.

Teams do not expose that Trojans’ weakness as often because USC’s offense creates a worrisome lead, usually spurred by its defense forcing a couple turnovers. But on a per-rush grade, the Trojans’ rush defense can be considered the worst in the country.

“Expected points added” is not a complex version of analytics: When factoring in down, distance, time and score, a team has an expected points total on a possession. Every play changes that total. When teams rush against USC, they add 0.294 points to their expected points total on each snap, on average.

That is last in the country. At 0.134 expected points added per rush against, Syracuse ranks No. 116.

More traditional numbers show the same problem while lessening the Trojans deficit because of their scoreboard-testing offense.

USC: 147.2 rushing yards against per game, No. 67 in the country.
Syracuse: 155.6 rushing yards against per game, No. 77 in the country.

USC: 4.57 yards per rush against, No. 102 in the country.
Syracuse: 3.94 yards per rush against, No. 57 in the country.

Notre Dame’s ground-and-pound approach starred in the second half against the Orange, to the extent that the Irish attempted just five passes after halftime, completing one for 11 yards. And yet, Notre Dame grew its lead. That was an extreme approach, albeit a successful one.

It was less successful in Columbus, the Irish throwing eight passes after halftime, completing just two for 49 yards. That day’s failure sparked some outward existential crisis, but Notre Dame never wavered from this offensive identity.

“The growth in our offense, the growth in me as a head coach from the first game of the year has been tremendous,” Freeman said. “I’m not trying to say that’s a compliment. I’ve grown a lot from that moment, but it’s a compliment to our offense, not for me.

“I think back to that game and all I wanted to do was run the ball and huddle, run the ball and huddle, run the ball and huddle. And we had some success doing it. We didn’t run the ball that game and early in the year as we’re doing now.”

Freeman went on to insist a well-rounded offense will be crucial Saturday, but the reality is less complicated: If Notre Dame’s rushing development is as strong as it has seemed of late, then the Irish should notch a road win against a top-10 team.

That would mean Notre Dame’s plodding offense can match the Trojans’ high-flying one by leaning on Estimé, Logan Diggs and Chris Tyree. They would, in effect, reduce USC’s chances at scoring. Syracuse head coach Dino Babers compared Notre Dame to a triple-option offense in that respect.

It would be a proof of concept Freeman and offensive coordinator Tommy Rees can build on this offseason. One season’s development elevating the Irish from false hope at Ohio State to Playoff spoiler against their biggest rival.

“There’s a different feeling about this one, and I can feel it amongst our program and our players,” Freeman said. “I knew it last year, but this year being at the end of the year at USC, you can really feel it.”

It might be a different feeling, but it should be the same — but better — Irish offense as seen on Labor Day weekend.

And In That Corner … Playoff-hopeful USC gives Notre Dame a chance to be spoiler

4 Comments

The last few years of And In That Corner … previews of Notre Dame’s meeting USC spent extensive time on the job status of former Trojans head coach Clay Helton. Finally, that storyline is far in the past and everything else about No. 6 USC (10-1) is intriguing.

To catch up on all that has changed for the Trojans — maybe the only program in the country that can match the Irish for amounts of drastic changes in the last 52 weeks — let’s chat with Adam Grosbard of the Orange County Register before kickoff on Saturday night at 7:30 ET on ABC.

DF: Brian Kelly’s favorite axiom that Marcus Freeman has leaned into a bit is that “Winning is hard.” It is. And anytime a team has must-win after must-win after must-win, it can wear out the 18- to 23-year-olds. USC may be at that risk, coming off that back-and-forth 48-45 win at UCLA last week and with the Pac-12 title game awaiting in a week. Though only one game into that three-game stretch, do you sense any version of the high-wire act wearing out the Trojans?

AG: Not really, though it would be tough for anyone on the outside to sense that prior to Saturday’s game. USC has had opportunities to overlook games all season. Fresno State before Oregon State, Arizona State before Washington State and Utah, Colorado before UCLA. The Trojans never allowed themselves to get caught looking. It’s hard to look past a rival like No. 15 Notre Dame (8-3), especially when the team understands it’s two wins away from the College Football Playoff. And defensive tackle and captain Tuli Tuipulotu described this season as “the revenge tour” for returning Trojans — they are well aware no player on the roster has ever beaten Notre Dame while at USC.

This whole season has been a high-wire act for USC. It may be 10-1, but four of those wins came by one score, barely escaping at Oregon State and Arizona before that UCLA close call, not to mention giving up 35 points to Cal. Both Arizona and Cal needed late touchdowns to make the scores that close, but even two-possession wins against the bottom half of the Pac 12 should be concerning for a Playoff contender. What has it been about the Trojans that leads to such drama this year?

In a word, defense. The unit has generated headlines by creating turnovers, but it also has been extremely shaky at tackling and basic coverage. The defense had the furthest to go after the Clay Helton era, and it’s nowhere near a final product and likely won’t be for at least another year. But USC scores enough and creates enough turnovers to win in spite of its shortcomings.

Obviously, the story at USC is the offense. If quarterback Caleb Williams stars Saturday, he could find himself as the Heisman frontrunner on Sunday. The offseason headlines were about him and Pittsburgh transfer Jordan Addison, but the Trojans pulled in two transfer running backs, as well, in Travis Dye from Oregon and Austin Jones from Stanford. Dye is now out for the season. How much has that changed USC’s offense?

It really hasn’t at all, surprisingly. Dye was a tremendous weapon for USC, but Austin Jones stepped right into his shoes with 25 touches for 177 yards and two touchdowns against UCLA. Jones was a workhorse back at Stanford for a while before falling out of favor. He is a patient veteran back who doesn’t try to do too much. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t areas that USC misses Dye. The senior back was unstoppable in third-and-short, and Jones does not match Dye’s ability as a pass blocker.

Defensively, the Trojans are playing with fire. They force 2.2 turnovers per game, mostly picking off opposing quarterbacks (18 interceptions in 11 games). Let’s set aside the absurd turnover margin of +20, and focus on the defensive chaos. Only Washington State has avoided giving up the ball against USC this season. UCLA can point to four turnovers as to how it lost. What are the Trojans doing to force all these turnovers? There must be more to it than luck, even if 13 of 17 fumbles, including their own, going their way is a bit fortuitous.

I’m honestly not sure this is explicable, because there certainly is luck involved. But I respect defensive coordinator Alex Grinch‘s simple philosophy that the ball doesn’t know that it’s supposed to go to the offense, and the ball doesn’t know about the law of averages.

To me, those may be the two keys this weekend. Can Notre Dame turn USC’s offense one-dimensional — for all Caleb Williams’ deserved hype, any offense that averages 5.34 yards per rush will struggle to adjust if it can no longer rely on the ground game — and avoid gifting the Trojans’ defense a few more turnovers? If yes and yes, then an upset may be brewing. What would you pinpoint as a third key?

Can USC get some tackles for loss? That’s been an under-the-radar part of the USC defense this year, but USC averages more than six tackles for loss per game and just fewer three sacks per game. That’s how the Trojans’ defense has gotten off the field in its better games, by creating third-and-long situations for opposing offenses. Notre Dame conversely has been very good about preventing negative plays, so that will be an area to watch for me.

Before I get to asking you for a prediction, let’s jump back to November and to August. First of all, last November, when Lincoln Riley took the USC job less than 24 hours after the Oklahoma season ended, how shocked were you?

The night before the Riley hire was announced, a leak came out that Matt Campbell was staying at Iowa State. At that point, I was honestly wondering if USC was about to end up with Jack Del Rio as coach. So to say I was shocked when the Riley news dropped would be an understatement.

And in August, what did you expect from the Trojans this season?

In one sense, this team is exactly what I expected: A superb offense that needs to outscore a bad defense. What I did not expect was how quickly the offense would come together, or how many turnovers USC would force. Because without turnovers, you’re probably looking at a respectable 8-3 team right now, which was more in line with my expectations.

Now then, a prediction. USC is favored by 5.5, as of late Wednesday night. How do you see Saturday night playing out?

I’m expecting a lot of points, possibly a game that comes down to who has the ball last. In those games, I usually pick the team with the better quarterback so in this case I’m picking USC and Caleb Williams.

Notre Dame’s Opponents: Irish hopes of a Cotton Bowl appearance hinge on Tennessee comparison

1 Comment

This all depends on No. 15 Notre Dame beating No. 6 USC on Saturday night (7:30 ET; ABC). If the Irish lose, then this entire conditional scenario goes out the window.

It’s conceivable, Notre Dame (8-3) winning. Its current five-game winning streak has been impressive enough to earn back some of the respect the Irish lost with their 3-3 start. The Trojans (10-1) are only 5.5-point favorites, a piece of worthwhile context as we delve into this wonder, can Notre Dame make the Cotton Bowl?

Whether it is preferable to play in the Cotton Bowl against the AAC champion or in the Holiday Bowl against a strong Pac-12 opponent, as an example, is a different debate. The fact of the matter is, the Irish would have no say in that debate. Either they finish the season ranked high enough by the Playoff selection committee to be required to play in the Cotton Bowl or they don’t.

That ranking will come down to how Notre Dame compares to the current Nos. 9-14 after Tuesday night’s poll update.

Map out a Playoff scenario any way you’d like — “If LSU beats Georgia …,” “If TCU loses …,” — the conclusion remains rather consistent: Beating USC may not be enough for the Irish; to jump all six teams directly in front of them, the Irish may need to dominate the Trojans.

Some of those scenarios include Kansas State in the Sugar Bowl (with TCU in the Playoff) and some slide Tennessee into the Orange Bowl (requiring two SEC teams in the Playoff), but otherwise, the question is how Notre Dame compares to Oregon, Tennessee, Penn State, Kansas State, Washington and Utah.

If this thought process has changed drastically in a week, thank the Volunteers’ blowout loss at South Carolina. Suddenly, it is not a sure thing Tennessee would remain ahead of the Irish no matter what they do this week. That opens up the board.

Yet, the Volunteers may still be the hurdle the Irish cannot clear.

No. 9 Oregon — at Oregon State (3:30 ET; ABC) — Good wins: vs. UCLA, vs. Utah — Bad losses: None.
No. 10 Tennessee — at Vanderbilt (7:30 ET; SECN) — Good wins: at LSU, vs. Alabama — Bad losses: at South Carolina.
No. 11 Penn State — vs. Michigan State (4 ET; FS1) — Good wins: None — Bad losses: None
No. 12 Kansas State — vs. Kansas (8 ET; FOX) — Good wins: vs. Oklahoma State — Bad losses: vs. Tulane.
No. 13 Washington — at Washington State (10:30 ET; ESPN) — Good wins: at Oregon — Bad losses: at Arizona State.
No. 14 Utah — at Colorado (4 ET; P12N) — Good wins: vs. USC  — Bad losses: None.
No. 15 Notre Dame — at USC (7:30 ET; ABC) — Good wins: vs. Clemson, hypothetically at USC — Bad losses: vs. Marshall, vs Stanford.

Note: Oregon and Kansas State are likely to play in conference title games. Kansas State beating TCU would adversely impact the Irish chances, unless the Horned Frogs still landed in the Playoff. Oregon beating USC would not matter, as that would be the Trojans second straight loss, likely knocking them out of the top-12, regardless.

So Notre Dame needs to beat USC, have TCU win the Big 12 and … trust the committee to ignore September.

Beating Clemson and USC would be a better pair of wins than any of those six teams can claim, but for Tennessee (9-2). Losing at home to Marshall and Stanford looks far worse than the Volunteers’ losses at Georgia and at South Carolina.

Thus, it is hard to see the Irish reaching a New Year’s Six Bowl unless they outright devastate the Trojans, a la their 35-13 win against Clemson and 44-0 shutout of Boston College this month.

Of course, Tennessee is now without star quarterback Hendon Hooker. Maybe the Volunteers lose to former Notre Dame defensive coordinator and current Vanderbilt head coach Clark Lea. The two Irish defensive coordinators since Lea’s departure would greatly appreciate that, if they can get by USC at the same time.

Any losses among those other six teams will help the Notre Dame claim.

Oregon: Favored by 3, as of midday Wednesday, at Oregon State (3:30 ET; ABC).
Tennessee: Favored by 14 at Vanderbilt (7:30 ET; SECN).
Penn State: Favored by 18.5 vs. Michigan State (4 ET; FS1).
Kansas State: Favored by 11.5 vs. Kansas (8 ET; FOX).
Washington: Favored by 2 at Washington State (10:30 ET; ESPN).
Utah: Favored by 30 at Colorado (4 ET; P12N).
Notre Dame: A 5.5-point underdog at USC (7:30 ET; ABC).

If not the Cotton Bowl, the Irish will find themself somewhere in the first tier of ACC bowl tie-ins. That becomes more a subjective exercise, but the more notable half of that tier includes …

The Holiday Bowl in San Diego on Dec. 28 against a Pac 12 opponent.
The Cheez-It Bowl in Orlando on Dec. 29 against a Big 12 opponent.

The Duke’s Mayo Bowl in Charlotte on Dec. 30 against a Big Ten opponent.
The Gator Bowl in Jacksonville on Dec. 30 against an SEC opponent.