A poll the eve of November does hardly a national champion crown.
It does, however, create a prism through which to view the rest of the season. Notre Dame’s No. 3 ranking in the initial College Football Playoff selection committee poll released Tuesday night puts the Irish in a good position. It is certainly preferable to Clemson’s slot at No. 4, and the peace of mind chasm between No. 3 and No. 5 is akin to the gap between Notre Dame and its last six opponents.
The sky-is-falling view — the one coming in just a few paragraphs — should not change that. Oklahoma fans are wracking their minds with fret today. If the Sooners win the Big 12, could that really not be enough to get into the Playoff? What if they shut out Oklahoma State twice? Would that mean more than the Irish beating up to three Power Five conference champions? That can’t be right. What if it is right? Oh!klahoma.
There is no need for Notre Dame fans to worry that much, but there may be reason for them to worry, nonetheless, even with an 11-1 finish. Call it the looming Sooner situation.
First, a best-case scenario for the Irish moving forward through the next five poll updates. This may seem a bit outlandish. That is the point of the exercise, to establish the extremes and acknowledge their results.
There is a universe, and it may be this one, where No. 14 Auburn beats No. 1 Georgia on Nov. 11 and No. 2 Alabama on Nov. 25. Both games are at Jordan-Hare Stadium. Don’t for a moment think beating the Bulldogs and the Tide in the span of three weeks is beyond the realm of possibility. From there, the Tigers proceed to the SEC Championship game and knock off Georgia once more.
Meanwhile, No. 17 USC and No. 21 Stanford sweep their remaining conference schedules out west to meet for the Pac 12 title. No. 24 Michigan State upsets No. 7 Penn State, No. 6 Ohio State and No. 9 Wisconsin to claim the Big 10 championship. No. 20 North Carolina State upsets No. 4 Clemson this weekend, as does No. 10 Miami to No. 13 Virginia Tech, and the Wolfpack and the Hurricanes meet for the ACC crown.
Suddenly, Notre Dame will have beaten the winners of three different Power Five conferences and seen the two teams ahead of it in the current poll fold at the next sign of genuine competition. The Irish would finish the season the top-ranked team in the country.
No one of those results would be terribly shocking. If all 10 came to be, that would be a version of chaos few would embrace, but Notre Dame surely would relish. The only remaining question would be, if the Irish can choose, do they prefer to head to the Rose Bowl or the Sugar Bowl for their semifinal. The committee attempts to send the No. 1 team to the location that would better resemble home-field advantage. Considering this lunacy would likely result in both Iron Bowl participants landing in the Playoff along with either the ACC’s victor or the Big 12’s, it may make the most sense to send Notre Dame to the Rose Bowl.
The Irish in the country’s most stunning football stadium on New Year’s Day as the top-ranked favorite? Yes, that would qualify as a best-case scenario for Brian Kelly and his charges.
Now, the worst-case scenario, the looming Sooner situation.
Oklahoma will have up to three more ripe chances to impress the committee, at No. 11 Oklahoma State on Saturday, vs. No. 8 TCU the following week and then a date with one of those two, or perhaps No. 15 Iowa State, in the Big 12 championship game.
If Oklahoma won all those games, it would be able to claim four of the more notable wins of the season, especially if Ohio State runs the Big 10 table, including a win over the Spartans.
If Michigan State lost to the Buckeyes and the Nittany Lions these next two weeks, a three-game losing streak might become four games against Maryland on Nov. 18.
USC very well might fall to Khalil Tate and Arizona this weekend, giving the Trojans a third loss on the season and the Pac 12 South division to the Wildcats. Stanford has to travel to No. 25 Washington State on Saturday before hosting No. 12 Washington next Friday. That combination could be a recipe to drop the Cardinal to 6-4.
North Carolina State follows this weekend’s date with Clemson by traveling to Boston College and then Wake Forest, two of the ACC’s upstarts. Losing two of those three would begin to diminish the luster of Notre Dame’s 35-14 victory over the Wolfpack just this past weekend. While discussing the ACC, Miami has barely scraped by to get to 7-0. Even just two blemishes to the Hokies and the Irish would render the Hurricanes’ first two months a sham in most eyes.
In this scenario, Notre Dame could finish the year 11-1 but be able to claim only one or two top-25 wins, likely a fallen USC and a stumbling Miami. Oklahoma would boast of the aforementioned four. Clemson would cite a win over Auburn, two wins over Virginia Tech and maybe finishing the regular season over South Carolina could have weight by then. The Gamecocks should finish 8-4 with neither great wins nor bad losses.
Would it be a sure thing both the Sooners and the Tigers would jump the Irish in the committee’s eyes? Absolutely not. It would certainly be reasonable, though. Those 13 dominos are unlikely to all fall, but they could. They most definitely could. The toughest to believe among them is Maryland beating Michigan State, and that is also the least vital to this sequence of events.
Claiming Notre Dame controls its own destiny both misunderstands the meaning of destiny and is inaccurate. The Irish do not exactly need help, but they do need November to follow a reasonable path. They would prefer the Big 12 to continue trading losses like the kitschy alarm clock at a white elephant gift exchange. They would like either Stanford or USC to at least reach the Pac 12 championship, and the same could probably be said of North Carolina State and Miami in the ACC. Of the latter duo, even just finishing the season respectably strong may be enough. If Michigan State can notch an upset along the way, all the better.
Oddly enough, this would likely still send Notre Dame to the Rose Bowl.
That may be the most-realistic scenario, which also means it has no chance of happening. This is college football, after all.
A schedule of CFP releases:
Tues., Nov. 7, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN
Tues., Nov. 14, 9 p.m. ET, ESPN
Tues., Nov. 21, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN
Tues., Nov. 28, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN
Sunday, Dec. 3, 12-4 p.m. ET, ESPN